A Cleaner Slate
By: Julia Friedman
For gallery-goers, as for everyone else, 2020 was a strange year. Brick-and-mortar spaces were forced into hibernation and physical interactions with artworks were replaced by virtual “viewing rooms.” Exhibition openings and artist talks gave way to a plethora of Zoom events of varying quality. Scandals and controversies (most having to do with the ideological shifts of the last six months) dominated the conversation to an unusual extent, making issues du jour a requisite filter through which all art was now to be seen. No matter how myopic the outcome, the conjectured sociopolitical proclivities of a given artist became the fulcrum of curatorial decisions. The postponement/re-postponement of the “Philip Guston Now” retrospective was just one example. Others were enumerated in James Panero’s comprehensive analysis in The New Criterion of last December. It is hardly a surprise that in such a climate only a handful of critics and writers continued to concentrate on art proper. Luckily, in Los Angeles the task has finally been made easier with the recent limited return to in-person viewing.
I chose the four gallery shows on my itinerary on the principle that each represented a different facet of abstraction. The first stop was the Paul Mogensen exhibition at Blum & Poe. Until a few years ago, Mogensen, who was born in Los Angeles in 1941, was best known for his early arrangements of square and rectangular canvases whose size and shape were pre-determined by arithmetical formulas. Prior to his move to New York in 1966 he studied the hard sciences, arriving at a method of painting that excluded any personal or narrative references. Most of Mogensen’s early works were untitled and undated, sparing the viewer of any contextual distractions. Their shapes were based on number progressions and classical ratios, and their colors—phthalo blue, cadmium red, ivory black, pyrrole orange—came straight from the tube, unmixed. In these multi-panel works, everything, including the use of negative space, was a given, eradicating any danger that the artist, or the viewer, would lose themselves in aesthetic arbitrariness.
Yet Mogensen has had little interest in the label of Minimalism. Nor did he see his old canvases and drawings as abstractions of reality. Mogensen was inspired by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko—the two utopian visionaries of Russian Constructivism who substituted production and scientific determinism for individuality and chance in the 1920s. That early ambition of absolute neutrality held steady in Mogensen’s seemingly touchless works from the 1960s, but the ones made after 2017 tell a different story. To me, new works like no title (cobalt blue and dilute carmine, eight square progression around the edges) (2019) look more akin to Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist canvases that originated with the famous Black Square (1915), which Malevich poetically and lovingly christened a “living regal infant.” In these later works, made over the last five years, Mogensen moves away from his early obfuscation of painterly touch, revealing chunky, animated brushstrokes within the fields of unmodulated color.