JOHN ADAMS GRIEFEN
At Bow Falls, Canadian Rockies, Summer 1996 (David Duffin photo)
PAINTINGS SINCE 1976
TERRY FENTON is an internationally-known art critic, curator, author,
and landscape painter. His books on Anthony Caro and Kenneth Noland are
available in bookstores and museum shops around the world. Formerly Director
of the Edmonton Art Gallery, Artistic Director of the Leighton Foundation,
and Director of the Mendel Art Gallery, he now spends his much of his time organizing
workshops and exhibitions.
ALTHOUGH THE PHRASE "ART FOR ART'S SAKE" isn't much used today
as a compliment, not so long ago it was used often in praise of modernist
painting. It's a catch phrase from the dying years of the last century and
like most catch phrases it both misleads and illuminates. It misleads insofar
as it misstates the case. After all, of necessity art must be for people,
it can't be for art. Nevertheless, modern art -- and modern painting in
particular -- has tended to be art as art, art for the sake of appreciation.
Modern painting seldom told a tale or pointed a moral. It tended to aspire,
in Walter Pater's words, to the condition of music.
Music of course achieves expression in its own medium through a highly developed
musical language. While painting may be poorer than music in established
theory and procedure, the possibilities within it may be more open, more
filled with potential. This openness in painting has led inexorably and
inevitably to abstraction. Modern painters have inclined to an art that
appeals directly to feeling apart from representation with its inevitable
overtones, distractions, and prejudice. Of course, representation couldn't
be abandoned overnight and much of value stood to be lost in the process.
It was abandoned in stages and often with reluctance and regret. Artists
didn't pursue abstraction for the sake of the abstruse. Far from it. They
were driven to it as a kind of last resort. It was a kind of necessary purging
for the sake of a deep and fundamental universality, one that was part and
parcel of painting itself.
This purging characterized what might be called the reductive side of modernism.
The development of modern painting wasn't all reduction by any means, but
in some artists' work the sense of paring away was conspicuous: Mondrian,
Rothko, and Newman come immediately to mind, but there were many others.
In Griefen's painting modernist reduction has been carried to a more recent
Since the early '80s, Griefen's art has embraced a minimum of both means
and effort. Its minimal means are obvious: the effect of his paintings seems
quickly gained and all but barely achieved. In this it subtly confounds
River Run, 1991 (R.Hammond Photo)
In the early '80s Griefen was criticized from time to time for using "too
little paint". Indeed, a painting like Tubba looks more like
a rubbing than what we normally think of as painting. In fact, many of Griefen's
earlier paintings were monochromatic, used little paint, and gained incident
through literally rubbing, scraping, or sweeping a thin layer of paint onto
canvas laid over the spatters and bumps of his studio floor. Yet I don't
think that criticism of those or more recent paintings stems from the absence
of paint, colour, or incident so much as from their intransigent character.
Other painters have used less paint and even more restricted colour without
provoking complaint. But a difference in purpose in Griefen's art has made
for a difference in character. Over the past three decades reductive abstraction
has often -- in my opinion all too often -- had an extra-artistic rationale.
Much of the reduction was designed to be explained away. All too often art
aspired to do more than please and pleased less. In comparison, Griefen's
paintings were and are intransigent. They don't posture. They don't demonstrate
theories or programs. Evidence of their conception and their making has
been withdrawn as much as possible. They look made in a matter of fact way
-- one might say "just made". Yet for all that they remain sensuously
immediate. Shorn of anything not to the aesthetic purpose, they challenge
taste and taste alone.
While intransigence such as this may be rare in painting, it's by no means
new to art. Over a hundred years ago, in an essay on vernacular architecture
the great John Ruskin praised the Westmoreland cottage in these words: "...one
is always surprised and delighted to find that what courts attention so
little is capable of sustaining it so well." He concluded that the
humble Westmoreland cottage was superior to the more picturesque Swiss by
virtue of the fact that it was more natural. Today the same can be said
of Griefen's art.
Balm of Gilead II, 1988 (R.Hammond Photo)
Of course, Griefen's naturalism has no more to do with depiction than does
the architecture of a cottage in Westmoreland. In both cases, naturalism
stems from the capacity of materials to do the main part of the work. In
Griefen's painting this isn't achieved through automatism or "indeterminacy"
a la John Cage. It's part of his art's "matter-of-factness".
Griefen doesn't force his materials. Instead, he trusts them to have their
own say, to make their own point. This laissez-faire approach was
learned over the development of his painting; if a certain casualness led
to a good painting there, repeating or augmenting it might lead to another
good painting here. It's a matter of trial and error reinforced by trust
of materials and by judgment.
For Griefen, many casual procedures had to do with the mixing and application
of paint: at first thin and scraped or "rubbed", more recently
with mixtures of thick gels and exotic pigments. One senses always that
the material has been hardly more than applied -- "just applied"
one might say, as the parts of an Anthony Caro sculpture have been described
as "just attached". There's little sense of materials being manipulated
beyond a certain point. There's little image making in a traditional sense.
Yet the results tend to be pictures, pictures that appear "natural"
in Ruskin's sense, natural and disarmingly beautiful.
Ellsworth, 1986 (R.Hammond Photo)
In Ellsworth, a typical example, washed-out pale earth-coloured paint
is swept across a canvas. One sees sweep marks and the hint of a mauve complementary
colour. The result has been stretched and framed. Colour, gesture, all things
declarative have discretely withdrawn. The painting is a whisper rather
than a shout. Yet the whisper is persistent. In a mysterious way it awakens
and rewards attention.
Beautiful pictures are by definition unified. But how is unity achieved
in this immediate, all-over, and natural art? Unity of course implies a
unity of parts, a whole greater than their sum. But as art changes, the
parts themselves change, as does the character of their sum. This is where
some of Griefen's challenge appears. Since the early 20th century, the predominant
shapes in painting have been relatively small in relation to the whole.
(These shapes are often called "forms".) In Griefen's paintings
form-shapes have been subsumed within a continuous surface. His paintings
tend to present a single large shape imposed upon the picture rectangle.
In recent works the tactile surface of that shape is juxtaposed as well
with the canvas surface (sometimes the painted surface of a failed earlier
painting). To put it simply, in Griefen's pictures paint expands to occupy
surface: a paint surface on a ground, a painted area against a framed rectangle.
Griefen himself admires the art of Vincent van Gogh and speaks glowingly
of a favorite still life by that great artist. Depicting a pair of old worn
boots in browns, buffs, and greys, the painting is understated, unaffected,
and "natural". Griefen's own art embodies these same virtues.
They cling by their fingertips to a narrow aesthetic ledge, but that ledge
is high and secure.
WORKS IN EXHIBITION
Peter Quince, 1976, 203 x 142 cm. Edmonton Art Gallery collection.
Tubba, 1981. 189.9 x 88.8 cm. Edmonton Art Gallery collection.
Source of Joy, 1982. 208.3 x 110.5 cm. David Duffin collection.
Spanky, 1983. 134.6 x 96.52 cm. David Duffin collection.
Tattershall, 1983. 205.7 x 133.4 cm. David Duffin collection.
Ellsworth, 1986. 198.1 x 160 cm. David Duffin collection.
Lord of the Dance, 1987. 185.4 x 109.2 cm. David Duffin collection.
Balm of Gilead II, 1988. 158.8 x 214.6 cm. David Duffin collection.
Hallelujah, 1991. 139.7 x 139.7 cm. David Duffin collection.
River Run, 1991. 66.04 x 55.88 cm. David Duffin collection.
All That Glitters, 1991. 66.04 x 58.42 cm. David Duffin collection.
Faith, 1991. 180.3 x 106.7 cm. David Duffin collection.
War Bonnet, 1992. 90.17 x 213.4 cm. David Duffin collection.
Easter Morning, 1992. 129.5 x 100.3 cm. David Duffin collection.
JOHN ADAMS GRIEFEN was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1942.
He attended the Chicago Art Institute, 1965; Bennington College, 1965-66;
Williams College (BA) 1966; and Hunter College 1966-68. He taught in Bennington
College in 1968.
He has exhibited at commercial galleries in New York City and elsewhere
since 1969. He is currently represented internationally by Salander-O'Reilly
Galleries. In Calgary, he is represented by NewZones Gallery.
His work is represented in major public collections including the Brooklyn
Museum, Carnegie Institute, Fort Lauderdale Museum, Boston Museum, U.S.
National Gallery Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Museum of Modern
Art, Metropolitan Museum, National Gallery of Australia, and Vassar College
IN MOUNTING THIS EXHIBITION OF PAINTINGS by the American, John Griefen,
the Swift Current National Exhibition Centre is fulfilling its international
I would like to thank the lenders to the exhibition, the Edmonton Art Gallery
for two early pictures and David Duffin for so many fine ones from his unique
personal collection. I must also thank Terry Fenton for his enthusiasm as
guest curator which has carried the project through to its completion.
I also wish to acknowledge financial assistance provided to the centre's
operational activities which make programs such as this possible:
The Saskatchewan Arts Board
Museums Assistance Programs of Communications Canada