May 1987

Joop Sanders at Alfred Kren

When the Eight Street Artists’ Club began in 1949, Joop Sanders was the youngest charter member. He was in Europe by the mid-1950s, returning to New York in 1959. By then his work had become almost one color, a wall of light, a mysteriously glowing color field. In 1960 he had a one-man show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (his birthplace); his work was judged by critics and connoisseurs to be a paradigm of the new American art.
The present exhibition was in two parts that occupied two rooms. The first room contained work from the early 1960s, the second, painting from the 1980s. A handsome 1982 tondo, Dream of the Red Chamber, was the only fairly large work in the entire show. The works from the ‘60s consisted of paintings rather smaller than those I remember vividly from the period. In those shown, snakelike “lines” make paths through fields that are usually of one color but with almost invisible nuances of other colors present. The “line” is really the same as its path—a narrow vestibule separating two or more forces which would have otherwise been on a collision course. Sometimes Sanders painted over these linear passages with a few wispy touches of the brush. In one work, Red Abstraction #2, 1963, the surface seems to consist entirely of rainlike drops of red paint, most of them painted over yet still perceptible. These paintings are like spirit photographs in which the spirit reaches out and touches the viewer. Barnett Newman once said to Sanders on seeing paintings like these, “Of all the painters working in the context of color field, you seem to me to be the only one who, like, me, concerns himself with the humanist spirit in painting.”
The stylistic variety is greater in the recent work. The lines remain, but their role has changed. Having grown thicker, they no longer separate; hey are now like the bones of the painting. What is more, there is color behind them that produces a different king of overlapping space. In Pogrom, 1984, the colors range from red-yellow to dark blue, by way of a streaky white; the rhythms are erratic; and the linear elements have been cut in places. Despite the work’s portentous title, the overall color expresses a certain jubilation, like a painting from the Blue Rider group. A sister work to Pogrom is Agonized Spiral, 1983, whose solid-looking lines thrash about like the legs of an octopus in captivity.
There was also a somewhat different series, paintings in black, gray and white, in which Sanders emphasized the tactile qualities possible in oil paint, which no other medium can satisfactorily imitate. Although these are abstract, they evoke a certain naturalism of mood, the ultimate dim Thule of rain, snow, sleet, slush and ice. Of these, perhaps my favorite was High Priestess, 1986. But no matter how Sanders paints his spirit comes through like a breath on a windowpane or a mirror.

-Lawrence Campbell