Abstract Critical

The Viewer and The Grid

Written by Alan Fowler

Most of the discussion about the use of the grid in abstract art has been from the position of the artist. Is a grid primarily a somewhat mechanical structuring device or can it be an integral element in the total image?  Is it just a prop or can it be a form of self-imposed discipline that can generate imagery which the artist would never have created on a wholly intuitive basis?  David Saunders, a member of the 1970s Systems Group, claimed that if an artist accepts the constraints of pre-determined “rules” – such the use of a grid –  the results can be “richer in possibilities” than relying solely on imagination.On the other hand, as Robin Greenwood has suggested recently, grids and other geometric elements may place limits on artistic freedom.2

But what of the viewer?  Ultimately, the function of any work of art is surely for it to be looked at, and the aim is presumably to provide the viewer with a satisfying or stimulating visual experience. Do grids enhance or stifle this objective? It needs to be recognised that viewers’ and artists’ perceptions of a work inevitably differ. The artist is always aware of the process involved in the work’s evolution and has his or her own conception of its meaning. Neither may be obvious to the viewer, who sees the work as a finished whole and may interpret the imagery in a way the artist never envisaged. Painters of abstracts can be surprised or even irritated by a viewer seeing representational references in what the artist intended as a wholly non-representational image.

On first viewing a work a grid may serve to signify that the work is purely abstract. The essential characteristic of a grid – and the square as its basic form – is its orthogonality. This is not a feature of the natural world, and its non-representational nature is one reason, perhaps, why the square and its three-dimensional equivalent, the cube, have been used so extensively, in contrast to the rarer circle, by artists who want their work to be seen as entirely abstract. Incorporate a red circle and some viewers will immediately see a reference to the sun. It may, though, be argued that the verticality of a grid echoes the reality of gravity, while the horizontal line equates to its 90 degree counter or the horizon line. But these are not overt representational features, rather a more philosophic concept of all experience being located within universal constants. Or as the American structuralist, Charles Biederman, once put it, the abstract artist can construct work in which there is “a correspondence in structure to the structural process level of reality”. 3

For some viewers, a grid has the apparently contradictory (though effectively complementary) effect of clarifying the individual elements in the image by their separation, while at the same time holding them together as a unified whole. This is particularly evident in works which explore colours and colour relationships, and applies whether the lines of the grid are actually shown, as in Gerhard Richter’s series of colour chart paintings, or where the grid is implied, as in the checkerboard works of, among many others, Aurélie Nemours. There are clues here as to why, for at least some viewers, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings fail to provide significant visual impact. Although his spots are placed in a grid-like pattern of vertical and horizontal rows, they are neither held together by a delineated grid, nor is the relationship of colour to colour made evident, because the spots are circles – closed forms which, unlike the square cells of a grid, cannot be meshed together.

Two other features of the grid may contribute to the viewing experience, whether or not the viewer is fully conscious of them. First, it can give equal significance to all parts of the picture plane and encourages the viewer to scan the entire image, rather than focusing on any one part. Second, a grid is infinitely extensible, and in the imagination can be continued beyond the borders of the painted image.

Some artists modify the visually static nature of the grid and so alter the viewer’s response. One way to do this has been to structure the work with an underlying orthogonal grid, but instead of every square cell being shown, some squares may be widened or reduced to form other geometric elements. Richard Lohse’s Fifteen Systematic Colour Rows, 1950/67 is clearly based on a simple 4 x 4 cell grid. But the square cells are shown only in the four corners of the work. The remaining area of the work is constructed of root rectangles, their diminishing size emphasised by an increasing intensity of their colours. Another way of achieving a more dynamic effect than a simple grid is by the incorporation of  diagonals. In some of Natalie Dower’s paintings, this is used to full effect in works in which the structural grid also consists of rectangular rather than square cells. Her Square Root Trio No. 2,  2010, is based on a grid of  sixteen rectangular cells in a 4 x 4 configuration, but all the form edges which are neither vertical nor horizontal are diagonals of various rectangles formed by this grid.

Square Root 2 no 2 2010 oil on canvas on wood 17 x 24cm, image copyright Natalie Dower, courtesy Eagle Gallery, London.

The end result of Lohse’s grid– what is seen by the viewer – is a more complex visual impact than a basic grid, something which  invites close study and analysis of its logic. In a similar way, while the diagonals in Dower’s image give it a sense of movement, the image as a whole also rewards the viewer who carefully studies its underlying structure. This work is also an example in which, though essentially grid-based, the grid itself is not shown. Whether or not a viewer recognises that a work of this kind is constructed on a grid depends on how the work is looked at, though the grid is actually an essential aspect of the work’s composition.  So does a viewer see it simply as a visually interesting whole, or is this holistic approach enhanced by an analytical curiosity about the work’s rational underlying structure? The question implies that viewing can be significantly more than passive visual recipience, though it cannot be assumed that each viewer responds to the work in the fullest or even the same way.

The suggestion that the viewer’s experience is made richer by a process of analytical deconstruction applies more widely than simply to grid-based work. It is a factor relevant to almost all artworks  which have a geometric or mathematical rationality. Many constructive and systems artists have discussed the extent to which it is important for the viewer to ‘read’ a work in this way, though of course this is always ultimately out of their control.  Jeffrey Steele, co-founder of the Systems Group, once wrote: “a work of the kind I am advocating while inviting surrender to the sensations it creates, rewards analysis of its visual syntax and semantics”.Natalie Dower takes a similar, though less assertive line when she writes that  “if people do get pleasure from reading the system, that is a bonus, but my aim is to communicate and make a visual impact in visual terms”.5

The visual qualities resulting from the use of delineated or underlying grids tend towards precision, clarity, stability and balance, and whether or not they view such work analytically, not all viewers respond positively to abstraction which foregrounds these characteristics. It is also true that artists’ use of the grid has diminished markedly since the l970s. Brandon Taylor has written recently about this decline of the grid, and attributes it to artists’ growing awareness of “more complex models of the cosmos, and models dependant on discontinuity, complex curvature or paradox.” Some contemporary artists, too, while still incorporating grid-like elements in their work, contrast its geometric regularity with oppositional imagery. Andrew Bick’s paintings, for example, have been described as “contrasting hard geometric forms with uncertain or dashed-out strokes or patches of scrubbed brushwork.” But whether all viewers of abstract art have taken the same journey away from precision and geometric logic is an open question. And an irony remains for those artists who proclaim the death of the grid and the freedom of personal expression from all geometric constraints, such as the presence of a hidden grid in works such as Dower’s. Almost all painters continue to compose their works within a square or rectangular format, unaware, perhaps, that they are relying on the essence of the grid – the orthogonal cell – for the effective presentation of their work to the viewer.



1. David Saunders, quoted in ‘Notes on the Context of Systems’, Studio International, May 1972, p 200

2. Robin Greenwood, comment on ‘Some thoughts on Grids’, by Sam Cornish

3. Charles Biederman, ‘Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge’, Red Wing, 1948, p 361

4. Jeffrey Steele, in exhibition catalogue ‘Systeemi-System’ Helsinki, 1969

5. Natalie Dower, in ‘Line of Enquiry, EMH Arts, London, p. 11, 2012, p 11

6.Brandon Taylor, catalogue notes for exhibition, ‘Against Grids’, Milk & Sugar Gallery, Liverpool, 2010, p 3

7. Hales gallery website

  1. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe said…

    I should have thought that a grid could not be static by definition, does Jenny Meehan see Mondrian’s paintings as static?

    • Sam said…

      I’d be interested in you developing the first part of your comment. All course all pictorial elements are static in one sense, but if I had to pick a format which restricted our ability to move through a picture, to establish a totalizing structure over it, I’d pick the grid. Not all grids are the same – I think others would disagree – but their tendency seems to me to be more likely toward stasis rather than movement. Of course I might be looking at this in the wrong way..

    • jenny meehan said…

      You are right, it was an over generalisation for Jenny Meehan to say flat colour area+obvious grid based paintings are static, Mondrian did amazing things with his subtle vibrations of colour. I had a regular spaced grid in mind too, when making that statement. I do think as a pictorial element it doesn’t convey movement and acts to push us backwards rather than forwards. But show me something to make me think otherwise.

  2. natalie Dower said…

    Alan’s choice of Square Root No.2 as an example of a grid-related work took me completely by surprise, and endorses his theory that what the viewer sees cannot be anticipated by the artist.
    When is a grid, a grid ? In two dictionaries, one of 1936 does not feature the word at all, a contemporary one has it as ‘a framework of spaced bars’.

    For my part, the painting was an exploration of the satisfying and beautiful properties of a Root 2 Rectangle, making use, out of the infinite number of scales, those of 1, 1/4 and 1/16.
    It would be interesting to know what other unexpected reactions viewers have !

    • jenny meehan said…

      I like your painting…it’s the diagonals which make me want to look at it again. I’m fond of what is to me the “missing” part bottom right (face on)…the lightest section of the small dark triangle.

  3. Noela Bewry said…

    The underlying structure in music can serve as a support for unlimited variations of sound qualities, including the arbitrary and dramatic .
    It does not have to limit a piece of work.
    The grid does not need to be used as a visual constraint , some painters just enjoy using it like that.

  4. John Holland said…

    I think it’s interesting that the overt use of the grid in painting grew more or less concurrently with serialism in music. They both want to be rid of the insufferable arbitrariness of dramatic incident, of the artist/composer ‘making stuff up’ within a little delineated world. Both look to a pre-Baroque sense of order.

  5. jenny meehan said…

    Thank you for that read. For me the problem with obvious grid based paintings with flat colour areas is they lack a sense of fluidity, and are, as you pointed out, static. What is more static than a square!? When I see them I think of structure and architecture, not painting. However when it comes to colour they do offer some interesting investigations for the artist for sure. But they keep the viewer out I think, which might be desired I suppose. The cross of equal length sides is an emblem of mechanical resistance. Maybe I might change my view if I took some time to experiment myself in this area. Must try sometime.

    As for geometric construction it is always lurking there. I love the book “Abstraction in Art and Nature” by Nathan Cabot Hale. How much more exciting and interesting are the more complex combinations: the possibilities of the curve and line have got to make a more visually interesting experience. And nature must be our guide, in my opinion.

    I was thinking about this grid matter recently and spotted a lily. Not only was it geometric and strong in structure, but it also had a flow in the petals which together with it’s main form provided a perfect example of beauty. I have to admit, (though I am not ashamed to say it!) that I am very Eighteenth Century/Romantic in my own interests with painting and though I do like critical issues, (hence my interest in this site), I would not describe myself as an intellectual – It is not my gift. My main concern is working with the parts of the brain which respond to the experience of looking at a painting.

    However I found this article very interesting and with many angles of consideration. I also confess to have fallen in love with one or two overtly grid declaring works. So, as always, I say one thing and later discover another!

  6. Robert Linsley said…

    I think that Robin is right, especially about the grid as an extrinsic form. A picture should not only be new, but self-generating, in my view.

  7. Noela Bewry said…

    I think the point Robin Greenwood makes about , abstract content in painting being something discovered from new , is key to getting close to defining abstraction.
    Discovering something new on a personal level however might not be the same as something new on an historical level.
    There is a lot more art around now and even if one follows Matthew Collings’ checklist of what we can ask of painting today , ‘something new’ could almost seem impossible, without it being new for newness’ sake.
    A personal endeavour and search are the motivations for most painters I would imagine , rather than checking if what we are producing has been done before.
    Maybe we should do more of that though!

  8. Robin Greenwood said…

    I would, not too long ago, have agreed with you about grids being an “abstract” signifier, but I’m no longer so sure that grids, along with rectangles and geometry in general, any longer serve to demonstrate that “the work is purely abstract”. This doubt is probably more to do with my own redefinition of what is and is not properly “abstract”, but it seems to me increasingly that such geometric and orthogonal elements, especially the rectangle, might now be seen to be, by one definition, figurative. I suggest this because not only are they “known” and “named” elements, imported into painting from predetermined stereotypes (and I increasingly think that genuinely abstract content must be something discovered from new), but also because they are often acting as metaphors for things extrinsic to the painting.
    As you rightly point out, the rectangle of the canvas is an element of the orthogonal grid; and does this not allude to all sorts of figuration? Architecture, walls, windows especially, doors, paintings of paintings (think of Matisse’s “Red Studio”). All of these elements I would call representational (you might dispute that) and are hard to get away from in painting, even if “abstracted” to the point of being mathematical and pure.
    I think it is interesting to note that abstract sculpture, by contrast, has no absolute necessity for the confining rectangle.

    • Alan Fowler said…

      Robin, perhaps the logic of the approach you are suggesting is that everything relates to, or is drawn from, something else, so nothing can be described as ‘pure’ abstraction – which I wouldn’t dispute as a philosophic concept. But in talking to viewers – which is what my article is about – I find that while many will “see” references to things outside the image in a gestural painting, few, if any, see an image like Natalie Dower’s as other than self-referential.

      On the question of “newness”, I don’t see why the use of geometric elements is inhibitive of creative imagination. The geometry simply provides a vocabulary from which new imagery can be created. Aren’t there parallels with poetry and music ?
      In both, completely new and insightful works are being created using age-old vocabularies of words, notes and rhythms.

      • John Holland said…

        Surely this analogy doesn’t hold water – it’s like using only certain words or a strictly limited set of notes. A very different proposition.