Dan Christensen: Early Spray Paintings (1967 – 1969)
1. A pioneer of new media and creative tools, renowned Color Field artist Dan Christensen was a fundamental figure in the artistic introduction of spray guns and paintings
2. Featuring twenty paintings from the artist’s definitive ‘early spray’ period from 1967-1969
Berry Campbell is pleased to announce an exhibition of early spray paintings by renowned Color Field artist, Dan Christensen (1942-2007). This notable exhibition features twenty paintings from Christensen’s definitive “early spray” period from 1967 to 1969 including several monumental examples. A pioneer of new media and creative tools, Dan Christensen was a fundamental figure in the artistic introduction of spray guns into painting, producing coloristic surface effects with newly developed acrylics. The critic and poet, John Ashbery, wrote that they were, “smoldering and sensuous, forcing the eye to recognize distinctions among areas of color, which at first have strong family resemblances and only somewhat later turn out to be mavericks who could just as easily be at odds with each other.”(1)
When Dan Christensen moved to New York from Kansas City, Missouri, in the summer of 1965, he entered a dynamic art scene and quickly embraced its spirit of experimentation. He abandoned the academic figural work he had been rendering, and joined a coterie of young artists who gathered in each other’s studios to share ideas, visited galleries, and congregated at Max’s Kansas City—the newly opened bar on Park Avenue South. It was in this context that Christensen began to create work with the use a spray gun, which he purchased from an autobody retouch shop at a time when airbrush painting did not yet exist. Although Jules Olitski was using a spray gun by 1965, Christensen delved further into its possibilities, setting precedents for others, including the graffiti painters of the 1980s.
Christensen’s sprays of the late 1960s matched the era’s zeitgeist. Reversing the trend brought on by minimalism’s reduction of art to a measured mental exercise, his work heralded the revitalization of painting as a visceral experience. The critics recognized his achievement in glowing reviews, and from 1967 to 1969, he was represented in many solo exhibitions in New York galleries, several annuals at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and included in a group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 1968, his sprays were included in a group show at Galerie Ricke, Kassel Germany, along with works by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. In 1969, he was given a solo exhibition at Galerie Ricke, received a Theodoran Award from the Guggenheim, and his work was included in important shows at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and the Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis (renamed in 2004 to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum).
The spray gun freed Christensen from art precedents, and he delved into its capacities. Using the new acrylic paint colors that were just coming onto the market, he mixed his pigments to achieve new chromatic effects. He then strained his paints in a small-sized jar attached to his gun, which he operated with a generator. By adjusting the needle-like point on its end, he determined the amount of paint to be emitted by its jets. In mastering a medium that was difficult to control, he used trial and error to bring precision and vibrancy to his art.
At first, Christensen created works with structured grids that owed to Minimalism, coinciding with Systemic Painting, an exhibition held at the Guggenheim Museum in the fall of 1966. However, with the use of the spray gun in works such as KS of 1967, he departed from a preplanned approach, covering his works with continuous coiling lines in related hues that emphasized the surface effect. This breakthrough was acknowledged in an article in Newsweek in 1968, which noted that Christensen’s paintings of “stacked modules of close-valued colors [achieved] a carefully controlled shimmering image.”(2) Other works of the same year demonstrate Christensen’s increasing control over the directional movement of the spray. In Conjugate, of 1967, which belongs to the artist’s “loop sprays,” he abandoned the grid, but retained a sense of proportionality in flowing lines that form repeating and elongated figure eights across the canvas. He sustained their calligraphic rhythms while reinforcing them repeatedly with different colors and varied lines that entailed adjusting and readjusting the width of the gun opening. In Untitled, also created in 1967, he divided the canvas vertically in a tripartite arrangement, into which he contained the lithe energy of the looping spray lines to create a prismatic and opalescent effect. Max Kozloff described such works as “pulsating ‘molecular’” fields” in his review of Christensen’s 1968 exhibition at André Emmerich Gallery.(3)
Eventually Christensen found the canvas edge to be too restrictive, and began to work on unstretched canvases that allowed him to keep the spray moving without imposed barriers. In O and West Wind of 1968, he worked on a larger scale with a new cursive flourish, invoking the primal energy of action painting. This direction in his art was a natural progression, but it also was in response to the Jackson Pollock Retrospective, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. Nonetheless, his art has more joy and pure aesthetic ingenuity than the primal angst in the work of Pollock. In O, twisting scrawls fly off and rebound across the surface, revealing a method based in improvisation and a sense of play. At a time when minimalism was viewed as lacking zest and creativity, Christensen’s apriori approach was fresh and vital.
In other works of 1968 and 1969, Christensen established sprayed or stained backgrounds in strong colors. Letting the paint soak into the canvas, he drew on the Color Field mode of Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler, treating paint and canvas as a single entity. Critics observed his new “soft-edge” approach, distinguishing its emotional vacillation from the aloofness of much Color Field art. In May of 1969, Time Magazine described Christensen’s departure from the “minimal” to a new “romantic” painting, which enabled the viewer “to see [and] to feel.” Larry Aldrich viewed Christensen, along with Larry Poons, Walter Darby Bannard, and David Diao as painters who “had moved away from the geometric, hard-edge, minimal, toward lyrical, sensuous, romantic abstractions in color which are softer and more vibrant.” He stated: “painters are creating in significant numbers, works that are visually ‘beautiful’—up to now, in the art world of the sixties, a dirty word.”(5) John Gruen wrote in New York Magazine: “Christensen’s bands of light seem to move in an aura of soft and diffuse atmospheric space. The sense of motion is abetted by the subtle modulation of color, while the over-all feeling of airiness and suspension gives the created patterns a sense of endlessness and continuity.”(6)
The large works of this period, such as Red-Red (1968) were physically challenging for Christensen. Hanging his unstretched canvases on the walls of his studio, he built an obstacle course of ladders that he swung between to get his spray to move as he desired. The result, as in Red-Red, is of glistening, winding threads suspended in translucent spaces. In a review of Christensen’s 1969 exhibition at André Emmerich Gallery, Marjorie Welish stated that appeal of his work was “in the delicacy of perception which hovers between the sensuous and the formal in the control of lighted color, slightly offbeat in harmony.” Throughout his career, Christensen often drew on his own earlier work to reexamine an idea in a new way. This pattern can be seen in Chino (1968), where he returned to the vertical bars of the previous year but treated them as floating, echoing shapes in a hazy emulsion.
Merging the vitality of action painting, a method of inquiry based in minimalism, a commitment to painting for its own sake, and a sense of art as an adventure, Christensen’s early sprays capture the essence of an era of innovation and change that brought painting back to life. He moved away from the spray gun in the years ahead, as he pursued other inquiries with equal passion. Returning to its use in the 1980s, he created another original body work, doubling back to his younger self while moving in new directions.
- Lisa N, Peters, Ph.D.
(1) John Ashbery, “Pleasures of Paperwork,” Newsweek, March 16, 1981, p. 94.
(2) Ann Ray Martin and Howard Junker, “The New Art: It’s Way, Way Out,” Newsweek 29 (July 1968), pp. 56–63.
(3) Max Kozloff, “Light as Surface: Ralph Humphrey and Dan Christensen,” Artforum (February 1968), pp. 26–30.
(4) “To See, To Feel, Painting—Dervish Loops,” Time Magazine (May 30, 1969), p. 64.
(5) Larry Aldrich, “Young Lyrical Painters,” Art in America (November-December 1969), pp. 104–13.
(6) John Gruen, “The Whoosh in the Work,” New York Magazine (June 9, 1969), p. 57.
(7)Marjorie Welish, “Art,” Manhattan East, May 23, 1969, p. 2.