Anyone considering art’s role in the current crisis should remember the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan, two priceless, towering, 1500-year-old statues hewn from a cliff in the Afghani desert and destroyed by the Taliban last March, in a crime against culture almost as unspeakable as those we’ve witnessed against humanity. One wonders what the Taliban might have made of Alfred Jensen, a wildly eccentric painter of monumental canvases inspired by cosmologies as disparate as contemporary physics and ancient numerology. Organized by Dia curator Lynne Cooke (and running concurrently with a show at PaceWildenstein Gallery, 534 West 25th Street, through October 13), this dazzling exhibition of key works from the two decades before Jensen’s death in 1981 reveals an artist who coaxed mere paint into celestial harmonies.
Born in 1903 to Danish and German Polish parents living in Guatemala, Jensen grew up there and in Denmark. He spoke five languages, worked as a cabin boy and chicken farmer, delved deeply into esoterica, and bounced between Europe and America before settling in New York during the 1950s. Late in life and against the prevailing background of abstract expressionism, he developed his signature style, using electrifying hues and thick impasto to create diagrams of complex systems and geometries.
The Mayan calendar (which repeats once every 52 years), the I Ching with its 64 hexagrams, Pythagorean mathematics, and Goethe’s theory of color are among the regulating elements of an art at once conceptually remote and lusciously sensual. It’s as if Josef Albers had shed his roots in the German Enlightenment and shacked up with theosophist Madame Blavatsky. Jensen’s radiant checkerboards, crazy-quilt patchworks, and columns of numbers—annotated in his scrawling, childlike script—engage the eye while they nudge the mind to attention. They bear witness to a mystical faith in the meaning of signs and an ordered universe. The effect, especially as installed at Dia, is like walking through an artist’s mind at work, a calming place where chaos communicates with beauty.