John Mendelsohn’s Paintings of Radiating and Falling Light

John Mendelsohn, whose work should be better known, belongs to the small group of abstract artists for whom art and research are inseparable. The best-known proponent of this union was Josef Albers, who explored chromatic exchanges in his painting series Homage to the Square (started in 1949). Within the self-imposed limits of nesting squares, Albers found an immense amount of freedom to explore what he called the “interaction of color.” 

Mendelsohn, whose exploration of color has led him into a territory all his own, has worked with a range of materials, including acrylic paint, oil stick, colored sand, pumice, rubber combs, bubble wrap, and styrene. 

As an art student in the early 1970s, he belongs to the generation that encountered an academic disbelief in painting, which overshadowed nearly everything else until the so-called return of painting and the rise of Neo-Expressionism, starting in the late 1970s. 

Like other abstract painters of the generation born in the years surrounding World War II, and around five years before the artists associated with Neo-Expressionism, the first challenge — as it is for all generations — was how to develop something all their own. 

John Mendelsohn, “Color Wheel 6” (2020), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 21 inches (© John Mendelsohn, Courtesy David Richard Gallery)

One reason John Mendelsohn: Color Wheel + Tenebrae Paintings, his debut exhibition at David Richard Gallery (January 20 – February 12, 2021), is a good place to start considering his artistic accomplishments is because it brings together two very different series done more than five years apart. 

In each series, Mendelsohn pursues another synergy between color and light (or shade) while working within self-imposed limits. In the Color Wheel paintings (2020), he fills the rectangular canvas with overlapping circles, while in the Tenebrae paintings (2014) he defines slanting, wavering lines and thin bands made of different colors that stretch from the painting’s top edge to its bottom. 

As the title of each series conveys, Mendelsohn’s interest in the optical runs the gamut, from color relationships to the interaction of light and shadow. 

An amplitude of hues, including violet, blue, and green, dominates each of the 10 Color Wheel paintings. While the hue shifts from blue to green, light gray-pink and yellow-orange, in some of circles in the first four paintings of the series, dark blue hues begin to dominate in the fifth through the seventh before shifting to a color wheel made up of different hues of violet, celadon green, and a range of yellows.

John Mendelsohn, “Tenebrae 7” (2014), acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 40 x 28 inches (© John Mendelsohn, Courtesy David Richard Gallery)

Each circle has soft pink and blue lines radiating from the center. The wheels feel permeable, as if light is passing through them. The overlapping circles reminded me of an aerial view of Japanese paper umbrellas, their ribs extending from the center points. The radiating lines increase in density and get closer to each other as they approach the circle’s center point, making the area around it seem as if it is receding, like flower petals as they get closer to the pistil. 

While the paintings are resolutely abstract, they stir up associations with umbrellas and flower petals, among other things.

The change in hue and density from painting to painting struck me as simultaneously methodical and intuitive. In paintings five through seven, dominated by luminous blue hues, the mood felt transportive to me, perhaps because we associate blue with the infinity of the sky and spiritual transcendence. 

The radiating pink and blue lines passing through the shifting tonalities of blue, green, yellow-orange, and violet further suggest that Mendelsohn is interested in how a line of color changes as it moves across and through a different hue. This interest in subtle changes and movement sets him apart from the Op artists, who attained a rigid vibratory field with their juxtapositions of color, and the static interactions found in Albers’s squares.  

Another difference is that Mendelsohn’s soft and delicate touch contributes to the overall visual effect. Each of the radiating lines is the result of an evenly applied brushstroke tracing it from one point to another.  

John Mendelsohn, “Color Wheel 7” (2020), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 21 inches (© John Mendelsohn, Courtesy David Richard Gallery)

In the Tenebrae paintings, we see bundles of lines slanting down from left to right. The bundles evoke folded fabric and enhance the grooved skin of the painting, which is the result of Mendelsohn pulling a rubber comb down the surface.

Tenebrae is the name of a Western Christian service held three days before Easter, which signifies the death that precedes resurrection. The service is characterized by the extinguishing of candles one by one, followed by the loud closing of a book, representing the shutting of the tomb or coffin. 

As in the Color Wheel paintings, the mood shifts, especially when Mendelsohn applies a dark wash made of black oil sticks diluted in water. 

The first paintings in this group of nine contain white lines interspersed between the descending lines of red, blue, yellow, orange, and green — almost the complete spectrum. As Mendelsohn begins applying the dark wash, often with a focus on covering the white, the remaining colors become bolder and denser in intensity.

John Mendelsohn, “Tenebrae 9” (2014), acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 40 x 28 inches (© John Mendelsohn, Courtesy David Richard Gallery)

In “Tenebrae 8,” Mendelsohn covers nearly all the white descending lines, causing the blue lines to become luminous, the reds searing, and the yellows warmer. 

The more dark wash he applies the more the sections of lines appear to speed up as they descend. 

What connects the two series, made six years apart, is Mendelsohn’s interest in the movement of color and light across planes and through space. The intention may not be spiritual, but a number of paintings in both series propose that this interest might arise out of a sense of the sacred, manifested in the transportive power of light. The fact that the light is falling in the last Tenebrae painting is folded into the painting’s meaning, as it suggests an irreversible descent. The fact that Mendelsohn does not conextualize descent invites us to provide the narrative, be it our failure to fully address climate change in the natural world or our fall from grace. 

John Mendelsohn: Color Wheel + Tenebrae Paintings continues at David Richard Gallery (211 East 121st Street, Manhattan) through February 12.

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