In Print

This is not a story (Part 5)


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.

“When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”

—Agnes Martin [52]

Marvelous—who but Martin would have been capable of a contemplation so agile as to map this equivalence? It speaks volumes of her remarkable painting and speaks to us here in its very counter-intuitiveness. I began this story with the suggestion that the grid structure occurred throughout Bronson’s work, even in the apparent “freedom” of her early involvement with the Abstract Expressionist idiom. And so, I will return to the grid now, by way of conclusion, though it should be no surprise that her use of it, like her relation to the forms and finishes of Minimalism, is complex.

What Hanna Higgins, as previously noted, finds in the “persistence of the grid” was earlier cast by Suzi Gablik in terms that, while at a glance seem overtly scientistic, modulate toward the ineffable:

The self-sufficient language of the grid—with its indifference to moral, social and philosophical values, its preoccupation with worlds comparable to those the mathematician calls forth when he plays with axioms…remains as nothing less than a kind of Rosetta stone for our age, the significance of whose code has not really been broken. [53]

Most interesting in Gablik’s idea is its overlaying and overlapping of metaphors, both message and code, self-referential and “axiomatic,” while remaining encrypted.

And so, it is possible, then, that the ubiquity of this structure remains in some way conflicted and contradictory. As Rosalind Krauss notes, the grid remains “emblematic of the [M]odernist ambition within the visual arts.” [54] If Krauss is correct, then it therefore becomes necessary to look more closely at the mechanism of those contradictions.

The “Modernist ambition” is drawn from the Cartesian wellspring, in Jack Williamson’s reading, where “the grid thus comes to represent not only the structural laws and principles
behind physical appearance, but the process of rational thinking itself. [55] Put differently, “the Cartesian program for metaphysics,” David Cottingham writes, “begins with a systematic exercise of doubt,” but soon ventures into radical denial in which “the torrent of doubt is checked by the rock of certainty… the mediator’s indubitable knowledge of his own existence 
as a thinking being.” [56]

In Clement Greenberg’s “On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,” the centerpiece of his theories uncannily restates this notion. Arguing Cubism’s “radical denial of all experience not literally accessible to the eye,” Greenberg comes to an almost hysterical epiphany: “The world was stripped of its surface, of its skin, and the skin was spread flat, flat on the flatness of the picture plane.” [57]

In this respect at least, Krauss remains close to Greenberg, postulating that the grid is “antinatural, antimimetic, antireal […] It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface” (9). Like Gablik, Krauss finds in this an inescapable self-referentiality since, “unlike perspective, the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself” (10).

There are, however, other readings of the device, most notably those proposed by Lucy Lippard, whose 1972 essay on the grid could well have been written with Bronson in mind. “The grid,” she writes, “is music paper for color, idea, state of mind…. It is a handy but potentially overemphasized instrument by which to control the void… a way to violate the ominously blank surface. For the artist proving him- or herself against order, its perfection is temptingly despoilable.” [58]

I’m hardly more convinced that Bronson was “proving herself against order,” whatever that means, than I am of some of Lippard’s other possibilities. But that is, perhaps, finally the point—that Lippard proposed the grid as a space of possibility, of potential. The space of the grid is clearly one where competing vectors flourish. For Bronson, the grid was a space in which to operate on and around what Hanna Higgins calls those “most human contradictions.”

In the most obvious way, it became a vehicle for the generation of large-scale forms through modular repetition, a strategy she first employed in the twin Nordstrom commissions, Men’s Wall and Women’s Wall (both 1974) and reached its most dramatic point in the immense cardboard relief Kassandra (1980), which seems to at least imply the possibility of virtually endless variation. Krauss recognized at least a qualified affinity with Lippard, terming this the “centrifugal” property of the grid, an “opening to the world beyond the frame” (18).

And similarly, for Bronson, the grid was most often a vehicle to amplify difference, something not unlike what Jasper Johns meant with his oft-quoted remark:

“It all began with my painting a picture of an American flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets—things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.” [59]

This strategy is seen throughout Bronson’s work, but is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Seto (1980), a series of monoprints on waxed paper reminiscent of Johns’ ink on Mylar drawings. In the Seto works, the ground resists absorbing the ink, and the composition is thus a stochastic field of infinitesimal variations on monochrome, held, though only just, to a grid.

But, more than a mechanism for repetition with variation, the grid in Bronson’s work is a means of mediating extremes of order and disorder, chance and causality; synthetic, to be sure, but also a vehicle for synthesis. In a late series of whimsical watercolor collages, the Chac Drawings [cut-out] (1988), the forms are equally suggestive of natural formations and architecture—the latter not only for their means of construction, in which the various elements are often separate pieces of paper. Another series of late “mosaic” watercolors shows a similar technique. Here, though, the grids and grid-like structures do not magnify tiny variations, but work instead to marshal a plenitude; colors and patterns run riot, with each element almost completely autonomous from neighboring regions. These late works certainly indicate that Bronson was moving toward a very different form of expression than what had characterized the preceding two decades, but it is no less striking that its underlying structural principles remained constant.

Part Six >

52. Agnes Martin, interviewed by Suzan Campbell, May 15, 1989. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., pp. 10-11. Quoted in Lynne Cooke, Agnes Martin: “…going forward into unknown territory…” Early Paintings 1957-1967 (Beacon, NY: Dia Art Center, 2004): n. pag. .

53. Suzi Gablik, “Minimalism,” in Nikos Stangos (editor), Concepts of Modern Art (New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1981): 253.

54. Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1986): 9. Originally published in October 9 (Summer 1979).

55. Jack Williamson, “The Grid: History, Use, and Meaning,” Design Issues 3:2 (Autumn 1986): 20.

56. John Cottingham, The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 7.

57. Clement Greenberg, “On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,” Art and Culture: Selected Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961): 172. Originally published in Partisan Review (January 1949).

58. Lucy Lippard, “Top to Bottom, Left to Right,” in Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids Grids (Phiadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1972): n.pag. Originally published as the catalog essay for the exhibition of the same title, exhibition dates January 27 through March 1, 1972.

59. Unsigned, “His Heart Belongs to Dada,” Time 73 (4 May 1959): 58.

by Randal Davis

— Posted on 08/31 at 05:31 PM

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