Echoes of Jensen: Pratt’s ‘The Apex Is Nothing’ Asks Us to Engage Beyond Conditioned Responses

With key works by Mel Bochner, Ellen Lesperance, Charles Gaines and other critical contemporary creators, this exhibition reconciles pioneer Alfred Jensen’s “extra-aesthetic” with tangible visual components that ground abstract ideas in reality.

A painting of many colors featuring a motif of two Stars of David
Mike Cloud, Removed Individual, 2013; Oil on canvas, 120 x 240 inches. Courtesy of Thomas Erben Gallery

In the first half of his life, abstract fine art forefather, world-traveler, multi-linguist and near-polymath Alfred Jensen investigated and practiced just about every aesthetic genre and movement to date—from his fanciful Fauvist figurative paintings to the boogie-woogie gridwork he adapted from modern masters like Mondrian. By the 1950s, Jensen had developed and held firmly to an evolving visionary take on numeric, philosophic and scientific systems until the end of his life three decades later. The massive impasto-covered paintings he created during that period acted like arcane yet ordered truth charts ready for rigorous review. At the same time, they revealed his ingenuous, imperfect, very human touch. While his largely inscrutable work could be read, it was often equally experienced for its visceral entry into any viewer’s sphere, wielding a power to ground abstract ideas into concrete reality. This effect was especially germane to the uncertainties of the postwar outlook, pointing to a deep-seated need for advancement and rule—like new systems and ordering mechanisms, exemplified in everything from the tech-driven international space race to the development of the United Nations and NATO. Of course, today, we are faced with a similar sense of disorder and disarray from gross abundance—of goods, information, power and populations—leaving us to ask what the truth really is in our sometimes artificial, deeply fractured and routinely equivocal world.

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Jensen’s output indirectly influenced multiple generations of vital American artists, including his near-peers, like color field-working Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, as well as the later likes of Minimalist icon Donald Judd, happening progenitor Allan Kaprow and Neo-Dadaist master Jasper Johns. Arguably, the effect of Jensen’s work and the growing desire to reconcile the abounding programmatic, post-industrial languages of his time with that of the artful and the existential, shaped many of the participants in the extraordinary new group exhibition “The Apex Is Nothing.” Echoes of Jensen’s desire for sense-making, as well as its denial, are palpably felt in each of their thinking, vulnerability, expression and artistic production.

A quilt-like painting with four main squares in varying colors and smaller squares with black and white patterns
Alfred Jensen, The Apex Is Nothing, 1960; Oil on canvas, 27 x 20 inches. © 2024 Estate of Alfred Jensen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Virtually all the artists featured in “The Apex Is Nothing,” from feminist knit-patterned painter Ellen Lesperance to multidisciplinary Black conceptual artist Charles Gaines, address deeply systemic and personal issues—including racism, corporate greed, degenerative disease and sexual discrimination. Yet the work is less demonstrative than you might think. Instead, the artists interrogate our organization of truth—ways that manage and sustain the established and ingrained inequalities and loss looked at now more than ever—and quantify the elements that make up the words and worlds they are a part of. Collectively, they ask: Does today’s inherent discontinuity between supposedly assured systems and their real-world effect deny us truth altogether? Are we left blindly to feel our way through an ever-expanding, deeply entangling, often-illegible mess of a world? Amidst the cacophony, they demand: See me, hear me, believe me. Or do they? I leave that to the art-going audience.

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Upon entry into the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, I find myself smiling at a fantastic and funny piece that sets the exhibition’s tone. It’s Becky Brown’s adorable My Poem from 2014. Created with paint on plywood, the work poses an earnest, childlike, hand-rendered, triple-quote-marked question for the audience: DO YOU LIKE MY ‘‘‘POEM’’’?! A dense, centered, horizontal clump of indecipherable, linked lettering and symbols over abstract swaths of colorful paint and golden sound-level graphic bars creates a play—not just between actual seeing and reading, but also between-the-lines listening and understanding. It’s clear that this piece offers a nontraditional poem, asking us to engage beyond our conditioned responses to lettered, metered rhyme and reason and appreciate another dimension that textual and visual poetry tenders. Perhaps it is a reminder to surrender our judgment and let our senses experience art beyond the formal realm of viewing—not just in the gallery but also in the outside world where Brown often collects her primary imagery from contemporary artifacts like news headlines and discarded appliances in her chosen archive of reality itself.

Further down the hall is the truly sizable but non-monolithic painting Removed Individual from 2013 by recent Guggenheim Fellow Mike Cloud. While it is stated that Cloud’s work is about the “conditions of painting” in the age of excessive reproduction, I feel it is equally about the primary elements of communication—whether visual, symbolic or textual. What is it about the language used here? Why is it aestheticized, compartmentalized and possibly politicized into primary geometric forms that add up to a couple of Star of Davids? Historian Benedict Anderson said that pervasive printed languages deemed superior, like English or Latin, unified citizens, built nations and ignited nationalism—imagined or otherwise. If you have a lot of questions in life and perhaps don’t believe in its maybe-spurious, often-officious, widely-distributed central messages—wrapped in “superior” languages—you break it down and build it up again, as Cloud has done here. Like many postwar artists and thinkers before him, Cloud needs symbols and language as an ordering principle. In the piece, the many discrete, basic, patterned, units feel like language: gradient blocks, color charts and even tire tread marks. Also, we see fingerprint-like labyrinth patterns on cartoonish feet, hands, penis and heart images, suggesting new discoveries through subjective pilgrimage in pictogram form. Hexagrams, like the evocative pink and yellow ones from World War II concentration camps seen in Removed Individual, are old. They date back about 4,000 years to later Buddhism, were employed in Hinduism to identify the origins of the phenomenon and in Islam as the Seal of Solomon. In both Christian and Jewish religions, hexagrams were also used, symbolizing a union of the heavens and earthly matters for the latter.

A colorful painting of multiple phrases on different lines
Mel Bochner, Thank You, 2023; Oil on velvet, in two parts, 91 x 82 7/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc. New York/Paris

In Cloud’s work, though, we see the breakdown and reduction of hexagrams: triangles and hexagons, separated by exposed wooden stretcher bars. Cloud then adds plenty of text—and while not exactly religiously charged, their Judaic and biblical origins are unmistakable. His words are saddled with meaning but are equally mundane. This is one of Cloud’s great offerings. In the piece, we read simple words of daily existence—almost like grocery lists—including ancient sacred foods, symbols of God’s abundance and fertility, like “bread,” “milk” and “honey” but also crummy (though delicious!) fast-food condiments like “ketchup.” Then, color creeps in. We read “Red Vs. Green Cabbage” and “Brown Vs. White Rice” painted in the indicated colors. Does Cloud question nutritional differences in these staple foods or our perception of their worth, their winning and losing status—the way humanity has classed and valued everything from race, religion and sexual orientation to professional sports team uniform designs and colors? It’s impossible to say but the symbols loom large. I find it interesting that such a behemoth of a painting sits on the ground as if taking a rest from its traditional eminence on a wall. Its stance suggests that Cloud’s aesthetic offering—not quite painting, not quite sculpture—is as humble and diplomatic as any other, which asks as many questions as it might answer (and perhaps even listens to its audience).

When I think and write about what I deem are inevitable works that speak and spell and trip the senses, it’s imperative to include the art of Mel Bochner, as the canny curators have done in this show. Bochner is known as a pioneering conceptual artist from the 1960s, but his pervasive plays on words touch back to the glory days of Surrealism and Dadaism of the early 20th century. In his never-before-seen 2023 painting Thank You, he presents a series of stenciled variations on the gracious work title that stack up in several contrasting colors: “THANKS A LOT!”, “THANKS A MILLION!” and “I CAN’T BEGIN TO THANK YOU!” The frank phrases bleed a little and vibrate just enough to tell you they rest on shaky, cloudy, scumbled ground—perhaps loosening their grip and losing their value over time and repeated use. It makes me question my own use of common adages and my willful want to bend and break them to help my readers pay attention. I must assume that Bochner has sought the same type of audience shakeup over the past six decades—and, in Thank You, he achieves that.

A painting with a central line of many colors and the words 'Do you like my "poem"?'
Becky Brown, My Poem, 2014; Mixed media on wood, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Good Naked Gallery

Ellen Lesperance’s I Will Remember Your Face from 2020, made of gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, was produced during a wellspring of universal pain and outcry from the world’s many disenfranchised and denigrated people. Even those with greater privileges began to recognize the massive disparities in the treatment of others based on gender, wealth, education, health and status. For several years before and through the creation of the piece, the artist had been keenly interested in the power, strength and courage of mythologized feminine figures in war or leadership roles. In I Will Remember Your Face, Lesperance carefully paints an individual, gridded, flattened garment on paper reminiscent of ancient Greek pottery’s earthen colors and depictions of mythological women, usually goddesses. Here, she focuses more on the individual warrior as represented in her battle wares. The title, subdued but clear and capitalized, is “sewn” into the center of the piece on a ribbon of valor. It both commemorates the warrior and warns an opponent that “I mean business and I will squarely address—or perhaps even kill—you.”

One outstanding work that caught both of my eyes and occipital brain lobe was John O’Connor’s A Recurrence Plot, a drawing from 2019. Hand-hewn from an intense panoply of colored pencil, acrylic paint and graphite on paper, the work’s ringed chart—like molten strata seen in a bisected Earth illustration from a grade school science book—starts small and gets huge from perimeter to center. Along the outside, we see the title of the work, clockwise-turning red arrows and a trippy dayglow band of U.S. state name abbreviations along with respective silhouetted maps—our nationalized, go-to, instantly identifiable ordering systems. That circle is inner-ringed with everyday job titles, like “economists” and “crossing guards,” followed by—from what I can tell—annual employment earning amounts. The next circle inward shows us the big health insurance company names—such as Blue Cross and Humana—followed by the grotesque rotisserie of retail giant logos, like Costco and Dollar General. Large bulbous flare-ups of text indicate the names of famous folk—mostly dead, some living—that may have undergone surgery to alleviate a significant sickness. As we enter the work’s center, alas, we see head-scratching single and double-digit numbers around purple, orange and green spokes and, finally, a pink crucifix.

A colorful mandala-like painting
John O’Connor, A Recurrence Plot, 2019 ; Acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 68 x 56 inches. Paul Takeuchi / courtesy of the artist

What does it all mean, I wonder? It seems like there may be a causal chain of events that our residential locations, regional laws, job status, earning power, drugstore monopolies and private insurance providers directly connect to our final demise—or at least the disease state that drives us to the heavens above after our painful toil on Earth. Even with all those words and numbers, it’s hard to say what it adds up to, but that’s probably why O’Connor drew and painted it. Complex things like distress, death and dying can become overwhelming in our lives, and art like O’Connor’s helps to distill, or at least mythologize, the patterns we recognize in their events. The title tells us that the cycling wheel of our entrapment in the maddening modern health industry, which we see in the artwork, is happening over and over again. But what do we do about it? Is O’Connor’s art a way to centralize our fears or is it a call to action? Perhaps both. But when the panic of my imagined old-age, insurance-managed last breaths takes hold, my mind drifts to the reverberating black, white and too-hued rings. Those forms and colors start to supplant the words in O’Connor’s piece that work my last nerve. And that feels, well, good. If the grace of a god represented at the work’s center lowers the ante, even better.

O’Connor’s piece brings an unavoidable point home for me. While I enjoyed most of the works in the show, we can’t possibly understand and decipher all the high jinks of hieroglyphics, cobbled charts and wall-of-numbers latticework that he, like Alfred Jensen and the many artists featured, roll out for us. I believe that engaging with subjectively great art isn’t a matter of conquering queries because after we decode the enigma, we’re prone to set aside the work in favor of our ego’s “win.” Instead, we should embrace the lingering effects of such art that ask questions—philosophic, political, abstract or even ordinary and trivial—that pique our curiosity and sustain our commitment to new experiences and lifelong learning—and perhaps even to pass our deepenings along in the form of teaching others. Such has been my truth-seeking encounter with “The Apex Is Nothing.” Luckily, the aesthetic and extra-aesthetic make good friends here, often burying hatchets and playing well together in the sandbox, leaving their opposites-attract differences on the playground for us to see. And for me, even with all the heady, high-art master moves, mathematical folly and worthy hot-button issues featured in the works of this show, all that fine art adds up to an equally entertaining and redemptive good time.

The Apex Is Nothing” is at Pratt Manhattan Gallery through June 8.

Echoes of Jensen: Pratt’s ‘The Apex Is Nothing’ Asks Us to Engage Beyond Conditioned Responses