I was always struck by Dan's "eye," one of the best in the business. It was great to look at art with him, or to compare notes about exhibitions. He had such unprejudiced taste: art world opinions or the opinions of friends never got in its way. But unlike the taste of many of his contemporaries, he made no show of it. His judgments were so unassuming, so seemingly modest that they often passed unnoticed. Something of this modesty affected the reception his art as well. Dan's originality was real and substantial, but of an undeclarative kind. He received too little credit for his accomplishments as an artist. He'll be missed by his many friends and by those rare people who see art as what it is.
DAN CHRISTENSEN CAME to prominence in the mid 60s, the era of "color field" painting, with paintings composed of looping ribbons of sprayed color. These appropriated something of the allover webs of Pollock's later paintings into a manner in keeping with the flatter, simpler art of the time, what Clement Greenberg called "post-painterly abstraction." Since then Christensen's painting has frequently metamorphosed, sometimes abruptly, painterly manners tending to alternate with more or less linear ones.
The "ribbon" paintings of the 60s were followed in 1970 by ones comprised of geometric color panels, reminiscent of color stain painting, but with opaque enamel paint applied onto the canvas with sqeegees rather than soaked or stained with acrylic. In 1972-74 even thicker paint application produced "allover" paintings in off-white and off-black. These were among the first "post-postpainterly" abstract paintings. By 1975 this alloverness had begun to subside into large, amorphous shapes, often interrupted by lozenges of color. From 1978 to the mid '80s the amorphous shapes and color lozenges had begun to separate; linear drawing soon returned, often asserting itself as a kind of equivalent to, or constituent of, the shapes. In these pictures, the contrast of applications "drawing" over and against "painting" -- recalled the paintings of Adolph Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann. In the late 80s, colored drawing took over in a series of shield-like images. Then, in the early 90s, circular and centering images appeared, often painted with the sprayed lace-like drawing that had marked his art in the mid 60's, early methods reclaimed and refashioned. Floating colored disks in the 80s recalled, again, the paintings of Adolph Gottlieb, but recently-developed pigments (pearlessence, metallic, interference) now played off against matte and shiny surfaces, adding ambiguity to simple oppositions. By the late 90s, emphatic drawing began to emerge once again and the opposition of picture elements took on a new personality: one can see it in paintings like Shinto Element and Ark. In the new millennium these were followed by some of Christensen's most original paintings yet, paintings like Co-Pilot, Tristan, Tzara, and Lola, in which drawing appears to rise from a scribbled paint patch, like aromatic sculpture, sculpture suggested only to be denied. These paintings crystallize the polarities that have come to characterize Christensen's unique vision: matte, shiny; light, dark; line, shape.
CHRISTENSEN CAME INTO his own in the 70s a little too late for an artist of his generation. The decline of taste that began back then proved to be unremitting. In its wake, the serious abstract painters in America of what might be called a "third generation" were left high and dry. The Postmodernists and Pop Artists remained afloat, awash in their sea of ironies and "issues." In that context, sensibilities like Christensen's seemed out of step, at once too advanced and too old-fashioned.
How Christensen doesn't paint offers a clue as to why and how his sensibility is both advanced and old-fashioned: he isn't an "allover" painter, nor (obviously) is he a minimal artist, and neither (like so many pop artists) is he a latter-day cubist. He came into his own with what on the surface seemed to be a traditional way of painting, but one that was traditional only in seeming. His paintings were not painted like easel pictures. Like many painters since Pollock, Christensen has frequently painted with acrylic paint on unstretched canvas laid out on the floor; the paintings subsequently "cropped" and stretched and framed. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, his paintings don't exploit radical cropping and many paintings have been painted "upright" on stretched canvases. Unlike Lawrence Poons and Jules Olitski he does not "find" and "finish" pictures out of pre-painted "phenomena." In fact, from the beginning his paintings have avoided sheer painterly phenomena. Christensen has always been a painter who paints and adjusts within a picture rectangle. Cropping, when it occurs, is generally a final adjustment rather than a radical reshaping or discovery.
Drawing has always been a feature of Christensen's painting, its primary means of "adjustment." It was obvious in the 60s "ribbon" paintings and present, subtly, in the white and black paintings of the early 70s, where it feathered the paint, left ghostly figures, or surrounded lozenges of color (Gainsborough, 1975). Later on, shapes often seemed built of scribbles or strokes. By the 80s, drawing had begun to assert itself in a new and impressive way. The "shield" paintings, with accumulations of horizontal lines set off by verticals were stiff and hieratic and resolutely abstract (Swing Low, 1988). Other works were drawn with energy or lassitude, but always insistently drawn.
Christensen's "images" tend to be hard to isolate as motifs as motifs, that is, apart from their contribution to the picture as a whole. Unlike Noland's circles and chevrons or Gottlieb's disks and bursts, they seldom finish in and of themselves; they tend to remain tantalizingly incomplete as motifs, surrendering their completeness to become component parts of pictures. One aspect of his drawing remains discordant or intrusive: it pushes towards illusion, towards a graspable sense of the third dimension, threatening flatness without finally undermining it. This gives his paintings a nagging insistence: hard to fault, but elusive and difficult at first to grasp.
Christensen has never been given to making declarations or demonstrations. He has always painted pictures, not lessons; however he has painted them with remarkable versatility. I suspect that he can make pictures in more different ways than any of his contemporaries. This mustn't be interpreted as absence of "personality," for in this respect he recalls Hofmann and Matisse. Yet for all his versatility, he has never been a flashy painter; his paintings are devoid of gimmicks and bravura. This isn't a matter of lack of gifts: in his own way, Christensen is a consummate painter his versatility is proof of that -- but one senses in him an unwillingness to paint within them lest they rule. His art seems guided and cautioned expressly by his eye and that eye may well be the best of his generation. In this insistence on the eye over the hand he is closer to Monet than to Sargent, to Sisley than Monet. There's something self-effacing in the affect of his art its means may seem pedestrian, but the job gets beautifully done.
-- Terry Fenton, Oct. 2001
For more on Dan Christensen, go to the artist's web site: http://www.danchristensen.com/