Dan Christensen

Spray Paint and More

Dan Christensen: The Early Sprays, 1967-1969

Christensen in the early 1960s

On moving in the summer of 1965 from Kansas City, Missouri, to New York City, Dan Christensen [1942–2007] found himself amid a dynamic environment in which many stylistic crosscurrents were prevalent. Joining in the spirit of the time, he abandoned the figural work in the classical style that he had been creating and became part of a group of young artists who sought to experiment and engage in the dramatic changes taking place in the art scene. His friends included Walter Darby Bannard, Jack Bush, Robert Goodnough, Brice Marden, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Peter Reginato,Michael Steiner, Peter Young, Larry Zox, and many others. Gathering in each other’s studios, congregating at Max’s Kansas City—the newly opened bar on Park Avenue South that was the nucleus of the New York avant-garde—and visiting galleries, the artists built on and encouraged each other’s discoveries. It was within this context that Christensen began to use a spray gun in his art. This was an era before the airbrush became a popular artist’s tool, and he purchased his spray gun from an auto-body retouch shop. He was among the first artists to explore this medium, setting precedents for others who subsequently would use it, including the graffiti painters of the 1980s.

      Christensen’s sprays of the late 1960s struck a nerve in the New York art world of the time, as the critics saw them as representing a much needed revitalization of painting, reversing the trend brought on by minimalism in which painting had often been reduced to a measured and staid mental exercise. The significance of these works in the era is demonstrated by the remarkable amount of attention they received. Between 1967 and 1969, they were not only featured in several solo exhibitions in New York galleries, but they were also included in annuals at the Whitney, Guggenheim, and Corcoran museums. In 1968, Christensen’s sprays were on view in a group show held at Galerie Ricke, Kassel, Germany, along with works by Noland and Morris Louis. In the following year, he was given a solo exhibition at Galerie Ricke, received a Theodoran Award from the Guggenheim Museum, and was represented in important exhibitions at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis. In addition to coverage in many art journals, Christensen’s sprays were featured in articles in Newsweek, in 1968 and 1970, and Time, in 1969.

      Christensen had only a few precedents to rely on in his use of the spray gun. Among them were the spray paintings Olitski had begun to create in 1965 in which he covered his canvases with broad areas of color, seeking to produce works that looked like “nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there.”1 However, Christensen delved more fully into the medium, seeking to discover the full range of its capacities for painting. His process involved first mixing his paints—he often explored the new colors of acrylic that were coming on the market at the time. On creating the color he desired, he strained the paint into a small-sized jar that he attached to his gun. Then, he could set the width of the spray gun’s end to anywhere from a tight opening that produced a pencil-thin line to a broader one, emitting a soft mist. He would pull the trigger to operate the gun, while its power was run from a compressor. To master a medium that was difficult to control, Christensen used a method of trial and error that paid off in the noted precision and vibrancy of his art.  

Christensen in 1967

      In the period before he adopted the spray gun, Christensen created a series of paintings in a minimal mode in which he transferred designs featuring vertical and horizontal bars from graph paper onto canvas [image of Untitled Grid]. In a day when many artists held strictly to clearly defined modular, “one-image” designs—especially at the time of Systemic Painting, the large exhibition of minimalist art held at the Guggenheim Museum in the fall of 1966—Christensen did not feel an obligation to an exacting repetition-and-extension method.2 Instead, as seen in these works, he varied the intervals of the bars within them (and from one work to the next), so that these shapes create changing rhythms as in a musical composition, while they produce reflections and shadows mostly avoided in the hard-edge art of the time. In his initial use of the spray gun, Christensen continued to diverge from the limitations of an empirical approach. In Times Square of 1967, among his earliest sprays, he used a standard minimalist structure of a grid of squares on a square canvas. Yet, over this armature, he applied interweaving coils of spray in close-valued colors, producing an image that is carefully controlled, yet seems to shimmer due to a surface movement that keeps our eyes from being able to focus on the grid.

      In the period that followed, Christensen widened his inquiry into the spray gun’s potential for various optical effects. In a few small-scale works, he used muted colors that challenge our perception in a way that invokes op art. As we try to bring these images into focus, we are unsure if the patterns we see are actually present or a result of our mental effort. Other works of 1968 reveal Christensen’s use of his medium in a way that was both fluid and controlled. In Pale Rumor, a lithe vertical spiral appears to be in motion, and it is only on studying this work that we realize the many colors of spray that Christensen used to create it, going over the spiral’s movement each time with the same lightness and speed in his handling. In Bosco, the latticed horizontals that fill the composition are not stripes, but individual shapes, almost cloudlike, that seem to rest lightly against the surface. In PR (1967, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Philip Johnson), Christensen used the spray gun with great athleticism, the multi-colored ribbons of spray seeming to spew at a great speed from the edge to an invisible barrier at the center of the canvas.

     In this painting, as well as others including Pale Rumor and Bosco, the edge was a significant issue for Christensen, as the line of spray would react against it like a ball in a pinball game. The impact of the spray would determine its trajectory, giving shape to a composition. However, eventually the way that the edge dictated a compositional structure began to feel restricting to Christensen, and at some point in 1968, he began to work on unstretched canvases, cropping them in a final stage that he called “editing.” He related this phase of his work to that of a writer on a manuscript, in which editing is not merely fixing errors, but making the decisions that are integral and critical to a work. His approach may be seen in Pavo and O and in which he used the spray gun to create long lines that sweep off the edge of the canvas. Like blown-up giant doodles, the lines maintain the feeling and fluency with which they were created, a quality accentuated by the white background. In Chevade, Christensen combined various spray methods, creating some lines that trail into mist, and others that dance across the surface. His new approach was acknowledged in an article in Newsweek in 1968. The authors of the article noted that while Christensen had at first created “stacked modules of close-valued colors,” he had now “opened up,” producing “swirling, glittering arcs across huge canvases.” Relating Christensen’s method to that of action painting, the authors observed: “he sprays vast, helter-skelter daubs of vibrant color, like fighter shadow-boxing.” Quoted in the article, Christensen stated: “I’m trying to work without imposing compositional devices. . . . Theoretically, each time I’d like to do something I don’t know about in advance.”3

Christensen in Springs, New York, 1989

      In a number of works of 1968 and 1969, Christensen followed this objective, blending a variety of the spray gun methods he had explored previously into individual works, resulting in some of his most vibrant and exuberant paintings. Often laying large canvases on the floor, he now created colored backgrounds using staining or spraying. In this aspect of his art, he evoked Morris Louis’s Florals, as he allowed the paint to soak into the surface. He then hung his canvases on his studio walls, and setting up a series of ladders, he arranged a kind of obstacle course that he swung amongst to create looping linear patterns. In these, he explored the rhythmic and counterpoint relationships of the moving spray. He felt a connection between painting and music, and it is not surprising that he often listened to jazz while working. He would later describe his work overall as expressing “the harmonious turbulence of the universe,” a mantra that fits the feeling in his freeform sprays of a metaphysical experience of the movements of celestial forces.4 John Gruen wrote of these looped sprays in 1969 in an article in New York Magazine entitled “The Whoosh Is the Work.” He stated: “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.”5 In an article in Art in America in 1969, Grace Glueck noted that Christensen had cited Matisse as one possibility for his derivation, a source that can be readily seen in the joy of line and color in these paintings.6

    In canvases such as Serpens, among Christensen’s largest, the lines play against the surface while zones of color convey a sense of translucency. This illusion of depth was not necessarily intended by Christensen; at the same time, he did not feel a commitment to eradicate or exploit it just to make a point, as what he sought primarily in his art was a midpoint between his own vision and the spontaneity that occurred as he worked. As Marjorie Welish wrote in a review of his solo show of May 1969 at André Emmerich Gallery: “The appeal of Christensen’s work is in the delicacy of perception which hovers between the sensuous and the formal in the control of lighted color, slightly offbeat in harmony.”7 Chino may be one of Christensen’s most recombinatory works, as he doubled back to the vertical bars of the previous year but made them float like hallucinations against emulsions of hazy spray that have an optical ambiguity.

      Christensen’s role in the forefront of a new direction in art was given widespread recognition in the press of the day. An article of May 1969 in Time Magazine entitled “Painting: To See, to Feel” featured Christensen and the artist Ralph Humphrey. It began by stating: “Abstract art is losing some of its edge—or edges. Dozens of abstract painters have traded in their rulers for spray guns, mops and brushes. Similarly, some of the most severe minimalists indulged in a spot of color.” The author of the article labeled the new group of painters, “romantic minimalists,” identifying Humphrey and Christensen as artists who had progressed to more radiant styles. Finding that the term “minimal” no longer applied, the author felt that the new work reflected back to the romantic tradition.8 In an article in Art in America in 1969, Larry Aldrich included Christensen along with Poons, 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.” Aldrich 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.”9

      Overall, Christensen’s sprays of the late 1960s can be been summed up as demonstrating a controlled gesturalism, fusing a conceptual approach with the spontaneity of action painting. As such they evoke the legacy of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, Pollock was an important inspiration for Christensen, especially after he visited the influential Pollock retrospective held in the spring of 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art. However, in keeping with a color Weld approach, Christensen’s sprays diverge from the personal dimension of Pollock’s art and the angst and hubris of abstract expressionism. Reflective of an artist’s endeavor to be fully engaged in his medium, they express Christensen’s respect for the spray gun’s capacities and demonstrate the challenge he felt in guiding the spray to achieve his desired aesthetic results without too forcefully imposing his own will on it, so that he could enjoy the surprise and adventure that occurred along the way.

      Christensen would move away from the spray gun in the years ahead as he pursued other inquiries with an equal passion. When he returned to it in the 1980s, he set new goals for himself, creating yet another original body of work that is characteristic of an artist’s artist, whose motivation came from within.
Catalogue text by Lisa N. Peters from the exhibition held at Spanierman Modern, New York, November 15, 2012–January 5, 2013     
The author would like to thank the artist’s widow, Elaine Grove, and his brother, Don Christensen, for providing recollections and consultation on this essay.

1. Cited in Benjamin Genocchio, “Jules Olitski, 84, American Abstract Painter, Dies,” New York Times, February 5, 2007.
2. The principles of systemic painting were discussed in the catalogue by the show’s curator Lawrence Alloway. See Alloway, “Systemic Painting,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 37–60.
3. Ann Ray Martin and Howard Junker, “The New Art: It’s Way, Way Out,” Newsweek 29 ( July 1968), 62.4.
4. Cited in Douglas Drake, “Remembrances of Dan,” in Dan Christensen: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. (Kansas City, Mo.: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009), 25.
5. John Gruen, “Art in New York: The Whoosh Is the Work,” New York Magazine ( June 9, 1969), 57.
6. Grace Glueck, “Like a Beginning,” Art in America (May–June 1969), 119.
7. Marjorie Welish, “Art,” Manhattan East, May 23, 1969, 2.
8. “To See, To Feel, Painting–Dervish Loops,” Time Magazine (May 30, 1969), 64.
9. Larry Aldrich, “Young Lyrical Painters,” Art in America (November–December 1969), 104.

© Spanierman Modern, New York

Dan Christensen at Spanierman Modern, 2007.

Essay by Stephen Westfall from the catalogue for the exhibition, Dan Christensen, held at Spanierman Modern, New York, January 9-February 17, 2007.

This essay was written a short time before the artist’s death on January 20, 2007.

Over the last forty years, Dan Christensen has explored the limits, range, and possibilities of paint and pictorial form, pursuing a unique path within the trajectory of American abstract painting.  Although his art belongs within the category defined by the critic Clement Greenberg as Color Field or Post-Painterly Abstraction, he has both carried on the legacy of this approach while stepping outside of it, through drawing from a wide variety of Modernist sources, using many idiosyncratic techniques, and employing methods more commonly associated with the action painting techniques of Abstract Expressionism.  The result is a distinctive body of work that is original, surprising, and filled with joy, exuberance, and pleasure in the act of painting.
      Created near the beginning of his career, Christensen’s spray paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s are emblematic of a period and scene characterized by exuberant experimentation with materials and processes, when painters were stretching the definition of painting in the direction of sculpture and performance.  Much of that work was somewhat short on memorable images, but not Christensen’s.  The earliest of his paintings in which winding vapor trails of color curl into circles and are arrayed in grid patterns, as in Times Square (1967), are a holdover from his prior work, in which he spread gridded dashes across rectangular fields of damped-down color.   He went on to loop the sprayed line into canvas-filling columns, as in Conjugate (1967)—these have been called “loop paintings”—and, later, he bent and overlapped them against more saturated fields of color in images that are like much faster premonitions of the curving lines of color that have become the principal syntactical element in Brice Marden’s paintings.  Christensen produced many of his best spray paintings on a white or off-white ground that was tinted by the overall build-up of the hazy edges of his color bands.  The visual organization of these works invoked Minimalism, and their color typified that of Color Field painting, but their gesturalism retained the valorization of the handmade and the artist’s fresh take on color in an industrial strength, material grain was something new.   
      Jules Olitski’s heavy veils of sprayed color preceded Christensen’s paintings by a couple of years, but Christensen focused the spray down to its characteristically sooty line.  It was Jackson Pollock, of course, who first contrived a methodology of letting paint fly from the hand through the end of the brush.  For Pollock this leap of material across space was a natural, if painful and halting, evolution of the Surrealist automatism he had practiced for several years.   Christensen’s air-compressed line, on the other hand, was a garage brainstorm: as if attaching a booster rocket to Pollock’s gesture, from which multicolored trails blazed, Christensen produced works that appeared as if created from the residue from a polychrome blowtorch wielded by a demonic handwriting teacher.  Christensen’s own indebtedness to, and affinity for, both Surrealist automatism and totemism would only be revealed later, but were present in these works. The only near contemporary equivalents in abstraction were the somewhat earlier Canto Indento paintings created by Billy Al Bengston in Los Angeles, consisting of spray painted chevrons on dented and bent metal.  It’s also worth remembering that Christensen was wielding his spray gun only a short time before Gordon Matta Clark started carving architecture with his chainsaw.   
    Some painters develop a practiced eye for the cultural field they are sending their work into and setting it against.  The conception of their work as a coherent body, or “set,” helps consolidate it as a figure against this cultural ground.  Thus, almost every abstract painter has worked modularly, with a group of elements that evolve gradually through repetition and reconfiguration.  Christensen works this way with an extremely important, and obvious, exception:  he makes huge iconographic leaps, or breaks, between sets.   About 1970 he began to desire the plane more than the line and let go of what he had established him only a few years before in his mid-twenties as a singular and significant abstract painter.  His resulting geometric paintings have been called “plaids,” a term that was also applied to Kenneth Noland’s series of 1971-74 that displayed a similar, though more complicated iconography (they really were plaids).  Christensen’s rectilinear planes of color in post and lintel configurations of perpendicular angles are more iconic, stripped down in such a way that what is readable as the field behind the figured segmented planes is more nearly equal to those planes in area and surface treatment.  Pictorial space is flattened a bit more even as the compositions themselves are more traditionally asymmetrical, closer to Piet Mondrian’s “dynamic equilibrium” than the near Minimalist regularity of Color Field compositions.  Christensen’s colors in these paintings feel both earthier and less predictable than the chromatic range in contemporaneous Color Field painting.   Their earthier light could find a home in early twentieth-century American abstraction and in that of European artists who were part of the Société Anonyme.  

Part of the difference in color can be explained by his use of oil-based enamel paints, sometimes used in conjunction with acrylics, rather than acrylic studio paints.  The enamels have a slightly warmer cast.  These geometric paintings remain linked to Color Field painting chiefly through the means and scale of their production.  Christensen made them on the floor of his studio with rollers and jars and buckets of pre-mixed color.  Though some of these paintings are fairly modest in size, they could be much bigger than a standard easel painting, and the narrow formats in many of them bridge the figural rectangle of Barnet Newman’s skinnier paintings with the shaped canvases of the Post–minimalists, such as Ron Gorchov, David Novros, Elizabeth Murray, and Mary Heilmann.        

By this point, having left the spray paintings behind (temporarily, as it turns out), Christensen had indeed embarked on a restless series of procedural shifts involving changes of tools and consistencies of paint.  Each shift in procedure was to produce a distinct imagery and, again, the comparison with Color Field painting is instructive.  Christensen’s allover layering produced by knife and squeegee that succeeded his geometric paintings recalls similar techniques practiced by Olitski at the same time.  Both painters (and others, including Kenneth Noland and Walter Darby Bannard) were exploiting new acrylic gels to create opulent color-over-color effects and textural directionalities that flouted the prevailing monochromes and literalized the objecthood of Minimalism.  Christensen’s paint-scraping gestures seem more agitated than those of his somewhat older counterparts, as though he was reveling in the athleticism of what he was doing.  The fast drying of the acrylic provided its own urgency.   Hotter colors smolder underneath a film of what seems like ice in the off-white paintings such as Sandu (1972), and like a dirty windowpane in the paintings where the top layer is a translucent near-black, as in Sleepy Hollow (1974).  These scraped paintings are one signal of the end of “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” as Greenberg termed the break between Color Field painting and Abstract Expressionism. Obviously, Christensen’s and Olitski’s paintings are utterly painterly, to the point of recalling the chromatic and material weathers of J. M. W.  Turner’s late seascapes, along with the diagonals and crescents of Baroque painting.  Christensen’s paintings are also at the apogee of the achievements of this “late” style Post-Painterly Abstraction.  They have aged as well as Olitski’s paintings from the same period and prompt a reconsideration of the vitality of late Color Field painting as a whole. 
      In the mid- to late 1970s Christensen’s paintings took a curious and marvelous turn away from the unitary field altogether.  If he had already begun a spatial re-separation of color with the scraped paintings, those paintings were still unified in their allover tactile impact.  However, by the late seventies Christensen instigated a fresh break between field and mark, a break that is also a deep return, for it shoots past the unified structures of Color Field Painting to the “action” mark of Abstract Expressionism, which was concurrent with a formative period for the artist, but one in which he was then too young to participate.  Paintings from 1979 to 1981 depict squarish trapezoids of color nested inside ragged dark lines, which angle off a floating vertical axis in configurations that possess the post and lintel memory of the artist’s geometric paintings from the beginning of the seventies.  Other linear elements float within the gravitational field of the anchoring vertical on its flip side. The ground in these paintings is a deep flat color that shifts from canvas to canvas, and the drawing of shifting colors on top is in a fluid splatter that recalls Pollock’s attack combined with the floating geometries of Robert Motherwell’s Open series (mid-1960s) in a hybrid of spontaneity and premeditation.  The axis line proves to be important as it provides an initiating structure in much of the apparently spontaneous drawing with paint that Christensen has engaged in over the ensuing quarter century.                   

    There is a recombinant sense to Christensen’s painterly operations beginning in the 1980s.  He is painter confident in his tools and materials, with a deep library of experience as to what works and what does not.  So, his paintings from the mid-1980s narrow and combine the scraping techniques of Sandu with “automatic drawing” in an axial configuration that can be along a diagonal, as in New Harmony (1984); in a vertical, as in the deep red and blue Mayan Mist (1986); or in a horizontal, such as the one positioned at the top of the yolky yellow Love Attic (1986).  By this time Christensen had once again picked up the airbrush to add a truly graffiti-like jolt to the color field surface.  The wonderful complication of figure/ground in these paintings can be described as follows:  where the ground color was beneath the surface drawing in the previous paintings (and even in the first spray paintings), it now exists on top of the color revealed by most of the mark, making actions, which are scored down to a prior color optically revealed now as lines against the top color.  Although the spray lines are of an obviously shallower surface than the pudding thickness of the scored field, they are themselves; nevertheless, they are observably on top yet again.  A painting such as Love Attic sandwiches the pudding-thick field between two sets of lines (figures), those scored down below and those sprayed on top.  The scores are of one consistent color, while the color of each sprayed line is different.  There is a confetti, party-like atmosphere to these paintings that, along with their opulent physicality, might delay the reading of their Surrealist animism, wherein each mark has the character of a flying or coiling living thing.           

      Christensen was still picking up new tools in the late 1980s.  In the vertical canvas, Line Bind (1987), he combed through the blue surface down to the warm yellow underneath with a rake-like tool.  The more complicated Past Time (1988) captures a moment when he put all his wares on display in a painting that nevertheless asserts an iconic straightforwardness.  There is the rake, the scraping knife, and the spray nozzle, all functioning, but every distinguishing mark is also at the service of the compositional whole and every color shift is subtle and proportionate.  The triangular center form in Past Time, like the smaller floating rectangular blocks of Mayan Mist and Love Attic, speak of a yearning for a visual stopper, the emblematic image of the Abstract Expressionists that becomes an indelible marker of  “self.”  For Christensen, these first emblems became structural pivot points in larger compositions, but by the late 1980s he would fill an entire canvas with an emblematic circle, with the soft focus boundaries that result from the return of the spray gun as the overall vehicle for paint delivery.  

      The circle paintings are mesmerizing mandalas of color and line, where each band of color is wide enough to possess its own soft-edged interiority.  The overall effect is a dazzling visual throb, verging on the psychedelic, just one of the feelings invoked by the title Beyond the Summer of Love (1988).  

     By the early nineties, Christensen’s woozy orbs of color were separating into iconically aligned stacks, as in Conquistador (1993), and then proliferating and morphing into ovals, a shape which, combined with surrounding light halos of chromatic overtones, imbue the flat colors with an startling sense of volume.  In the late 1990s, Christensen relegated the spray gun to being one tool among many, but he was still using it to provide the centering visual “targets” in the center of a brushy “X,” as in Sleeper (1998) and Vanilla Blue (1998). 

   In the first few years of the new millennium Christensen returned to a drizzle mark against a flat field of color, in the manner of his mid-eighties paintings.  In a painting such as the gorgeous Blue Sage (2003), however, his line is more languorous and elastic, as it wanders and rises from its base like a spreading plant, while keeping the speed of a Zen calligraphic master.  There is definitely an eastward bent in much of Christensen’s work, since the circle paintings.  His work is also reminiscent of the characteristically American pragmatic optimism in David Smith’s automatic drawing in his sculpture and drawings.  Here is the larger point to be made about Christensen’s remarkable journey: his iconographic restlessness is at the service of ever-greater degrees of assimilation of his cultural reach.  He is not an artist pursuing a strain of logical elaboration, but one who moves with his enthusiasms among color (above all), Greenbergian aesthetics, paint materiality, Abstract Expressionism, Asian art, and the culture of painting itself.  When we are able to look back on a career of a painter whose work has gone through so many shifts in image and technique and find that it all makes an engaging sense, then we are in the presence of a distinct and important sensibility, and someone who makes painting look like the fun that is.        

© Spanierman Modern, New York