This is not a story
To commemorate an exhibition of the late Bonnie Bronson's work on view in the Swigert Commons at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Randal Davis writes about the influences, context and history that shaped Bronson's development as an artist.
Bonnie Bronson: Works 1960–1990 is the first major showing of her work in nearly two decades, since the Portland Art Museum’s posthumous survey in 1993. A comprehensive exploration of her entire body of work, including nearly 60 pieces, the exhibition includes many drawings and paintings on paper, the majority of which have never been exhibited. In archiving the contents of the Estate, a cache of some six dozen unexhibited works was discovered, packed for nearly thirty years, spanning her student years to the early 1980s. The depth of material in Bonnie Bronson: Works 1960–1990 offers a view of her oeuvre more complex than any previous exhibition.
—Randal Davis, The Bonnie Bronson Estate
This essay by Randal Davis of The Bonnie Bronson Estate has been republished with permission in six parts. The fully illustrated catalog in which this essay was originally published is available for purchase. Proceeds benefit the estate and the mounting of the exhibition.
“When one tells a story, there has to be someone to listen; and if the story runs to any length, it is rare for the storyteller not sometimes to be interrupted by his listener. That is why (if you were wondering) in the story which you are about to read (which, is not a story, or if it is, then a bad one) I have introduced a personage who plays as it were the role of listener. I will begin.”
—Denis Diderot, “This is not a story” 
Well, of course, Diderot was right. And wrong. This is how I begin, and it is also how “all of this” began, which is to say a process of investigation and reflection led to this moment. When I first began thinking seriously about Bonnie Bronson’s work and developing this project, I had the unshakeable conviction that there was “a story to be told.” I thought so then, and I think so now. What has changed though is that the “story” has multiplied, fractured, bifurcated—and so I, too, have become several, both teller and interrupter.
Jacques Derrida, in a note to one of the envois of The Post Card, describes a similar interruption, the receipt of a “collect call”—the disembodied presence of “voices that I thought I recognized on the other end of the…line, listening to me and watching my reaction.”  For Derrida, it was the ghost of Heidegger, and he chose not to accept the charges, at least for that call. But that is not to say the obligation was thereby nullified: “On the contrary, the network of my hookups… is on the burdensome side, and more than one switchboard is necessary in order to digest the overload” (21).
My fascination with Bonnie Bronson’s work is precisely that it does indeed require more than a single switchboard; a complex “network of hookups” in her work figure key questions about what constitutes modernisms and postmodernisms. A contemporary of Postminimalist artists such as Jennifer Bartlett, Robert Smithson and Richard Tuttle, she brought to her work, like them, an abiding love for the sheer beauty of materials and a fascination with unusual structures and systems—what critic and curator Lucy Lippard famously called “eccentric abstraction.” That is, art that “refuse[d] to eschew imagination and the extension of sensuous experience while [also refusing] to sacrifice the solid formal basis demanded of the best in current non-objective art.”  In so doing, Lippard saw the emergence of an aesthetic proposing the reconciliation of the conflict between “the rigors of structural art” and any “aberrations toward the exotic” (99).
I would say almost exactly that for Bronson, at least of the work from the mid-1970s on. Beneath the superficial eclecticism of a body of work that includes cardboard reliefs, watercolors and drawings as well as her signature enameled steel pieces, a relatively tiny handful of structural devices recur throughout Bronson’s work, connecting seemingly unrelated pieces and series.
Foremost in the particular connectivity, and one could almost say continuity, of her work is the grid, a structuration common to both Modernism and Postmodernism. This device first appears in her Abstract Expressionist paintings of the early 1960s and remains visible in the flamboyant coloristic effects of the works made in the last few years of her life. This aspect of Bronson’s work recalls Hanna B. Higgins’ recent observation that “the persistence of grids demonstrates that once a grid is invented, it never disappears.”  The history of the grid, Higgins goes on to argue, “is nothing less than “a living history of crafted things—from the handmade object to the World Wide Web… endowed with a most human contradiction: a vigorous free spirit and a propensity to control” (11). And again, it seems to me that Higgins could as well have been writing specifically of Bronson’s work.
Recently, in remarking on the development of Brice Marden’s work from austere monochromes to its present vivid calligraphy, Ken Johnson asked, “who, back then, would have thought such a lyrical sensualist would eventually emerge from that Minimalist cocoon?”  To consider the work of Bonnie Bronson, also a contemporary of Marden, poses an important reinterpretation of that question. Johnson refers, of course, to the changes in Marden’s work over several decades, and similar changes can be observed in Bronson’s case. But I want here to take Johnson’s question, pace Lippard on “rigors” and “aberrations,” in the sense that John Ashbery remarked on Marden’s monochromes, that “rather than reducing the complexities of art to zero, he is performing the infinitely more valuable and interesting operation of showing the complexities hidden in what was thought to be elemental.” 
Part Two >
1. Denis Diderot, “This Is Not a Story” and Other Stories, edited & translated by P.N. Furbank (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991): 17.
2. Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 21.
3. Lucy Lippard, “Eccentric Abstraction,” Changing: essays in art criticism (NY: EP Dutton, 1971): 99. Originally written for an exhibition curated by Lippard at Fischbach Gallery, New York City, in October, 1966, and reprinted in Art International X:9 (November 1966).
4. Hanna B. Higgins, The Grid Book (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009): 4.
5. Ken Johnson, “Brice Marden: ‘Letters,’ and ‘Paintings 1961-1964’” The New York Times (12 November 2010): n. pag.
6. John Ashbery, “Brice Marden,” Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989): 213. Originally published in Art News (March 1972).