The paintings and drawings of Alfred Jensen are more than what meets the eye; the orderly arrangement of primary colors rendered with thick impasto belies Jensen’s lifelong dedication to scientific theory and philosophy. Ever the inquisitive scholar, Jensen married his artistic training with a deep exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s color theory, Michael Faraday’s writings on electromagnetism, the Pythagorean Theorum, the Mayan calendar and the classic Chinese text, I Ching. Jensen uniquely folded these disparate ideas into his schematic paintings and drawings, which served as profound explorations into science, mathematics, philosophy and religion.
After leaving his native country of Guatemala at the age of 7, Jensen moved to Europe in 1910 and immediately took an interest in art. Years later in 1926, Jensen relocated to Munich and began art lessons under the tutelage of Hans Hofmann. It was there that Jensen met Sadie Adler May, a wealthy art collector who would soon become Jensen’s lover, patron and access to the work of Modern and Contemporary masters. Until May’s death in 1951, the pair journeyed around the world to see and collect art, informing Jensen’s future research and aesthetic.
Though Jensen defied stylistic categorization throughout his career, he was constantly studying the artists around him. Caught between his slightly older and more established predecessors, the Abstract Expressionists, and his younger, proto-Pop successors, Jensen did not have any direct contemporaries. Rather, he drew inspiration from a myriad of artistic sources and relished in his singular, if isolated position. Jensen viewed himself as a “sort of messenger between the older and the younger generations” (Regina Bogat Jensen, “Interview with Alfred Jensen,” August 1977, p. 8). Jensen’s independence did not, however, hinder his friendship with already famed Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Under Rothko’s encouragement, Jensen discovered his true artistic vocation in 1957 and began to make fully realized paintings out of his schematic diagrams, elaborating on his earlier studies. In a 1957 interview, Jensen stated, “I got rid of my expressionistic paintings entirely and became a diagram painter – that’s the way it happened. I developed my study into a style. I considered these researches as studies. I had unconsciously done my style for 10 years without using it” (Ibid., pp. 23-24).
Jensen’s scientific research informed his compositions, which he represented in flat, segmented planes of color and often with numbers and symbols. Paramount among Jensen’s influences was the research of Goethe, whose Theory of Colours was the earliest known exploration into color refraction, chromatic aberration and colored shadows. Jensen first read Goethe’s theory in 1938, and reread it obsessively thereafter, remarking “Goethe is very complex. It took so many years.” Indeed, Jensen’s methodological division of shapes and colors mirrors Goethe’s schematic diagrams of the color wheel and study of light prisms.
After the seminal year 1957, Jensen’s paintings and drawings became true diagrams, a word derived from Greek, meaning “that which is marked out by lines.” Indeed, Jensen segmented his visual field by lines, demarcating areas for different colors, numbers or symbols. In this way, Jensen completely eradicated any sense of pictorial space or depth, giving way to utter flatness. Fellow artist Donald Judd said of Jensen’s work, “…many of Jensen’s paintings are thoroughly flat, are completely patterns. Jensen’s paintings are not radical inventions, but this aspect is. There are no other paintings completely without space.”
Several years later, Jensen delved into a deep exploration of the Mayan culture, and in particular the unique Mayan calendar. Still used in many modern communities in Central America including Jensen’s native Guatemala, the Mayan calendar originated in the 5th Century BCE and combines different cycles of days, a 260 day count, a 365 day count and a 13 day count. It is believed that the calendar was conceived from complex mathematical calculations, mixed with the influence of astronomy and agriculture.
The two works by Alfred Jensen coming from the Dia Art Foundation, Octimal Precession Series: 4/13 of a 260 Day Cycle = 52 and Octimal Precession Series: 3/13 of a 260 Day Cycle = 39, both rendered in 1975, nimbly marry two of Jensen’s lifelong preoccupations, Goethe’s Theory of Colours and the Mayan calendar. The central shapes in both works neatly section off the colors, applied in thick oil paint, closely resembling Goethe’s color wheel diagrams. The numbers at the bottom of both works, which correspond to the titles, make reference to the 260 and 13 day cycles of the Mayan calendar. In this way, Jensen has superimposed two seemingly independent concepts onto each work, subsequently uniting scientific theory and ancient cultural practice. As curator and Art Historian Marcia Tucker states:
“What is unique in Jensen’s work is the amalgamation and unification of heterogeneous systems, values, ideas, symbols, and modes of thought. In science, the physics which Jensen has studied for a lifetime has increasingly sought, and found, more universal symbols for the physical world. The great cultures which Jensen has researched are those to which we still turn for literary, philosophical, and artistic inspiration…Jensen has combined sensuous expression, intuitive knowledge, mythic vision, and scientific reality in a ceaseless attempt to order the universe as he perceives it” (Marcia Tucker, “Mythic Vision: The Work of Alfred Jensen,” in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Alfred Jensen: Paintings and Diagrams from the Years 1957-1977, 1978, p. 25).