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Charles Seliger: Chaos to Complexity

March 13 – May 3, 2003


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Arts & Travel, May 25, 2003

by Ann Hicks

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The New York Sun, May 1, 2003

by Jennifer Fishbein

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Press Release

For almost sixty years, Charles Seliger (American, b.1926) has passionately pursued an inner-world of organic abstraction, celebrating the structural complexities of natural forms. Like many artists of his generation, Seliger was deeply influenced by the Surrealists’ use of automatism, and throughout his career he has cultivated a deeply poetic style of abstraction that explores the relationship of order and chaos found in nature. Attracted to the inner structures of plants, insects and other natural objects, and inspired by a wide range of reading in natural history, biology and physics, Seliger’s abstractions pay homage to nature’s infinite variety. His paintings have been described as ‘microscopic views of the natural world,’ and although the references to nature and science are appropriate, his abstractions do not directly imitate nature so much as suggest its intrinsic structures.

Chaos to Complexity is Michael Rosenfeld Gallery's seventh solo exhibition of Seliger's work and features thirty paintings completed from 1999 to the present. This exhibition coincides with the release of the monograph Charles Seliger: Redefining Abstract Expressionism, by Francis V. O'Connor, published by Hudson Hills Press. (Hudson Hills Press).

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC is the exclusive representative of Charles Seliger.

The following is John Yau's essay from the Chaos to Complexity exhibition catalogue:

Charles Seliger and His Syncretic Abstraction, by John Yau

Among the most widely held views of Abstract Expressionism is the notion that it can be divided into two tendencies, the gestural and the geometric. A number of conclusions have been drawn with this viewpoint in mind, a key one being that in his poured paintings, Jackson Pollock was able to go beyond gesture, thus bringing about its demise. One effect of this notion is that the kind of expressionist brushwork we associate with someone like Willem de Kooning has never again been held in high regard. Another conclusion is that, in the decade following Pollock’s death in 1956, the geometric ascended while the gestural devolved. Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt paved the way for Frank Stella and Minimalism, while, at best, de Kooning led to “second generation Abstract Expressionists” such as Norman Bluhm and Joan Mitchell. Among the numerous subtexts lurking within this narrow narrative is the assumption that Stella was able to create wholly American (and therefore truly new) art, while Bluhm and Mitchell were unable to sever their ties to European-inspired gestural painting, particularly as exemplified by de Kooning. Like a fairy tale with a predictable, happy ending, this view makes history and its subsequent unfolding neat and orderly, but it hardly addresses the real and far more complex story. A crucial component of that other history is the work of Charles Seliger, a truly unique American phenomenon.

In order to begin to recognize the importance of Seliger’s achievements and their relevance to current modes of abstraction, it is necessary to mention a few salient details of his life. He was born in New York in 1926, and thus chronologically belongs to the same generation as Michael Goldberg (born 1926) and Helen Frankenthaler (born 1928). However, what isolates him from his own generation and connects him instead to the Abstract Expressionists (who are at least a decade older) is that Seliger exhibited his work in 1943 at the Norlyst Gallery; since then, he has continued to exhibit regularly in the United States and Europe. In 1943, he began experimenting with automatism, and it has remained an integral part of his process. In 1945, he had his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. In 1947, when Guggenheim closed her gallery and moved to Venice, Italy, she donated three paintings - two by Seliger and one by Jackson Pollock - to the permanent collection of the University of Iowa.

During these years, the precocious, self-taught teenager met many prominent and emerging figures, including André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max and Jimmy Ernst, Adolph Gottlieb, Gerome Kamrowski, Robert Motherwell, and Pollock. Seliger’s friends and acquaintances constitute a who’s who of the international art world. In hindsight, it seems remarkable that Seliger was never overwhelmed by the circle of brilliant older artists to which he belonged. Despite the heady artistic and literary milieu in which he moved, he was able to establish and pursue his own direction, which he continued to do for over six decades.

Seliger was able to maintain his own vision in the midst of those around him because he is a classic autodidact. Like two other notable autodidacts, Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman, Seliger did what most artists find impossible - he invented his own occasion. Johns has said he wanted to discover “what was helpless in my behavior.” Ryman’s education, which took place in the Museum of Modern Art (New York), where he worked for seven years, was propelled by his desire to “find out how things worked.” In 1940, at the age of fourteen, Seliger began frequenting New York galleries and museums; it is during this time that he began to visit Julien Levy Gallery, Pierre Matisse Gallery and other galleries that showed work by the Surrealists. In 1945, when he was nineteen, he stated: “I want to apostrophize micro-reality. I want to tear the skin from life, and, peering closely, paint what I see. I want my brain to become a magnifying glass for the infinite minutiae forming reality. Growth is the poetry of all art.” As their statements make clear, each of these artists found his own way into art, as well as developed his own permissions.

Consistently a devoted student, Seliger possesses a singular inquisitiveness, a bottomless patience, and a need to be absolutely precise, character traits that observers have long recognized as being central to both Johns and Ryman. The connection between them goes deeper than their autodidacticism. For one thing, like Johns and Ryman, Seliger is neither an eccentric figure nor someone who has managed to carve a unique, but somewhat isolated niche for himself. In fact, the opposite is true. He is an important part of the mix, and his work embodies a centrality that has yet to be fully acknowledged.

In recent years, Seliger’s centrality has become more obvious; he has presaged a number of routes currently being explored by both younger and established artists. His syncretic painting expands our understanding of modernism’s capabilities. By drawing on a wide array of disparate sources, ranging from botany and physics to Mughal miniatures and Islamic calligraphy, he offers a useful alternative to modernism’s reductive tendencies. Instead of regarding his work as an anomaly, an incredibly beautiful cul-de-sac in the history of painting, we should recognize to what extent Seliger has contributed to a vibrantly fertile current of artistic possibility running from recent history (modernism) to the unfolding present (postmodernism) and, we may imagine, well beyond.

There are many reasons for Seliger’s marginalization within the standard history of Abstract Expressionism, the most obvious being scale. When we think of Abstract Expressionism, we think of large-scaled paintings, or what Clement Greenberg termed the “polyphonic” picture, which he believed provoked “the crisis of the easel picture.” From the beginning of his career, Seliger has preferred to work on a small scale. His paintings from the 1940s are small, even by Surrealist standards, and often measure less than twenty-four inches by eighteen inches. His paintings since the early 1950s, when he came into his own, are neither easel pictures nor miniatures. Rather, they are something altogether unique: a highly detailed vision of both the infinite and the subatomic. However, because we so often understand gesture as writ large, we fail to recognize that within the small format he has chosen, Seliger also explores gesture. After all, isn’t gesture a combination of matter and energy? Seliger is not interested in gestural action, but in the unseen phenomenon that constitute nature’s gestures, from the Big Bang to the botanical. He comes to gesture from a different perspective, as a visionary observer rather than as a heroic practitioner.

In the current exhibition, Chaos to Complexity, the largest painting measures ten by eighteen inches, and the smallest one seven by five inches. While it is understandable to see Seliger’s scale as proof of his modesty, it is a mistake to do so. It is also a mistake to believe that his preference for working on a small scale makes him derivative of Paul Klee, an acknowledged master of the diminutive. For one thing, Klee was not interested in either spatiality or the unity of the picture plane, which is to say he had only a passing interest in pure abstraction. Because Seliger’s lines and dots are essentially abstract, and never function in a didactic way, his linearity differs significantly from Klee’s. In Seliger’s best paintings, the delicate tracery and meandering dots hover between description and pure color, which Klee’s work simply does not do. In many of the paintings, the dots and tracery seem poised and ready to detach themselves from the material world.

In their myriad details, opulent opticality, translucency, layering, delicacy and compression, Seliger’s paintings are unrivaled, and the artist’s dazzling embrace of color only further elevates these paintings into a realm all their own. To begin to appreciate Seliger’s mastery of color, imagine trying to tally and name each color, tone and hue inhabiting even a handful of his paintings.

Seliger’s process consists of increasingly precise definitions and repeated articulation. Beginning with no specific idea in mind, the artist usually applies layers of acrylic paint to a Masonite surface. He may use a brush or a palette knife, and he will eventually sand or scrape through the many layers to “release images” that would have otherwise remained hidden in the paint. Seliger then begins to delineate the particular forms and coloristic shifts the paint yields. The initial delineations lead to further delineations. Through it all, Seliger is intimately aware of the presence of certain forms, and he lets them surface, sometimes following them, sometimes nudging them out to their imaginative conclusion. Looking at the results, we can imagine that Seliger moves from fine to finer brushes, until all he can use to apply the paint is a brush with a single hair. The result of this process is a surface that has been considered and reconsidered countless times. Everywhere one looks has been marked, gone over, examined.

One of the distinctive features of Seliger’s obsessiveness is the feeling of immense patience that is clearly a guiding principle. Nothing in his work feels hurried, forced or done out of habit. Seliger’s synthesis of obsessiveness, patience and calm with a sense of urgency is just one of the many visual paradoxes one encounters in these paintings. Moreover, Seliger’s process is tremendously flexible and reveals a mastery of variety. In Tranquility (2002), for example, many different layers of translucent color appear to have been compressed, while Thaw (2000), tonally registers both large and small seismic shifts.

Seliger has transformed an immense and seemingly incommensurable range of sources, loves, and knowledge into his unmistakable mode of expression. And if this is not enough to stop us in our tracks, then consider the fact that each painting stands completely unique in its relationship to the others. Seliger does not repeat himself. He starts each painting fresh, and through his complete attentiveness, he arrives at something totally distinct. Seliger’s paintings do nothing less than define their own necessity.

This distinctive singularity of Seliger’s work stems in part from his mesmerizing sure-handed synthesis of tiny marks and numerous colors. There is not a whiff of nostalgia or sentimentality in his work. He shares very little with Joseph Cornell, another self-taught American who schooled himself on Surrealism. If anything, Seliger endows his paintings with a clear-eyed, forward-looking vision that celebrates our inevitable return to pure matter. For example, Splendor (2001), evokes a sense of glimpsing the cross section of dozens of crushed stones and gems packed tightly together, the universe shortly after the Big Bang, a picture of dark matter moving across time and space, a light-sensitive view of a subatomic world, dozens of different pigments suspended in a translucent material, rivulets of calligraphically inflected color swirling slowly. Time has been slowed down. Splendor is about as far removed from monochrome and geometry as one can imagine. The world it embodies consists of particles coalescing into gestures, and gestures breaking up into particles. One is further struck by the fact that Splendor can be seen as developing out of either spiritual or scientific concerns. Despite their incommensurability, each perspective feels absolutely right.

Seliger’s paintings may evoke botany, astronomy, mineralogy and particle physics, but ultimately they exist beyond any confining term we might try to apply to them. Like Pollock’s poured paintings, they rigorously resist description and cannot be pinned down. In light of this observation, Seliger’s undeniable achievement becomes clear: through the medium of paint, he has both constructed and investigated his own subject.

Seliger’s hallucinatory work represent a largely neglected development in contemporary painting. By defining a process that integrates such disparate strands as his passionate interest in details, his deep commitment to automatism and chance, his unabashed love for the decorative and ornamental, his devotion to nature in all its manifestations and his belief that translucency and embellishment can fruitfully coexist, Seliger achieves a very different kind of painting than that of his early contemporaries, such as Pollock, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, or Mark Rothko. Rather than aligning himself with modernism’s reductivist tendency, Seliger transforms tropes that many modernist practitioners and theoreticians pronounced both extraneous and unnecessary. It is not just that he has stubbornly gone against the grain, but that he uses modernist means like automatism to arrive at what has been deemed impossible to accomplish, a syncretic vision. Thus, Seliger not only embraces a wide range of divergent traditions, but he also explores this fecund realm with characteristic thoroughness. Only a supremely confident autodidact could have pulled off such an unlikely and ultimately subversive synthesis.

In his use of lines, dots, optical density and translucent layers, Seliger complicates the paradigm that divides Abstract Expressionism into the geometric and the gestural. In terms of the gestural, both Pollock and Seliger work spontaneously. Each transformed automatism and gesture into his own idiom. Thus, with Pollock and Seliger in mind, one can divide the gestural into two opposing tendencies, the expansive and the compressed, the outward and the inward, the macrocosmic and microcosmic. In contrast to Pollock, who extended his gestures while defining paint as paint, Seliger expanded paint’s allusive powers, while compressing his gestures into tiny abstract and calligraphic marks.

Pollock’s paint is quick; it dances unimpeded across the picture plane. His fluid gestures evoke what lies beyond the painting’s frame. Seliger’s paint moves slowly, deliberately, like molten lava. His tiny calligraphic marks, dots and stuttering lines evoke the infinite complexity of all matter. It is as if matter itself is being examined for all of its components, each of which contains even more components. Infinity, we might remember, grows in two directions, towards the vast and towards the minute.

Both Seliger and Pollock embody a unique understanding of the changing relationship between the expansive and the compressed. Ultimately, this division would be meaningless were it not for the many significant artists from different generations that seem to have picked up on possibilities that Seliger has been exploring for much of his career. Thus, one is tempted to suggest that while modernism’s reductive tendency always seems on the verge of having played itself out, its inclusive tendency continues to surface in unexpected ways. And while we have paid attention to, as well as theorized, the former trope, it seems that we have repeatedly overlooked and downplayed the latter.

Anyone who stops to consider the current scene will soon see numerous connections between Seliger and younger artists. These connections make it evident that Seliger has been both defining and exploring a rich vein of possibilities. In his commitment to working in a small format, he is the forerunner of artists as disparate as Mark Greenwold, Bill Jensen, Eva Lundsager, Thomas Nozkowski, and Richard Tuttle. His multilayered, optically rich compositions and their highly precise, overlapping skeins of elusive traceries and dots anticipate the paintings of Steve Charles and the drawings of Gina Ferrari, Simon Frost, John Morrison and Daniel Zellner. Like Seliger, these artists compose through the accretion of small, distinct marks. In his innovative transformation of the traditions within the decorative arts, in particular the fin de siecle stylization of nature and the calligraphy and design of Islamic art, Seliger anticipates Philip Taaffe. Both Seliger and Taaffe are syncretic artists in their attention to detail and sources. In his interest in visionary states and perceiving what lies beyond surfaces, he shares something with Fred Tomaselli and Bruce Conner. All three have produced work of hallucinatory intensity. Finally, in transforming certain principles of Surrealism into his own idiom, Seliger reminds us that Surrealism remains alive and vital, not just as a kind of art, but as a way of thinking and doing, of being in this world.

By associating Seliger with artists as different as Steve Charles, Philip Taaffe, Bruce Conner, and Fred Tomaselli, I am suggesting that we should understand Charles Seliger not simply as a historical figure, but as a vital contemporary artist whose vibrant work has significance for us now. He brings us news that stays news. It is time we see his work for what it is -- a profoundly intense and beautiful, hallucinatory splendor.

John Yau is a writer, critic and publisher of Black Square Edition. His most recent books include Borrowed Love Poems (Penguin, 2002) and My Heart Is That Eternal Rose Tattoo (Black Sparrow, 2001). In 2002, he received grants from the Peter S. Reed Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Art, and was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. He is the Critic in Residence at the Mount Royal School of Art, Maryland Institute College of Art. He lives in New York.