Grids feature in quite a number of exhibitions of abstract art currently on show. This is perhaps always the case. They can be seen in Winston Roeth’s exhibition at Bartha Contemporary, in the small survey of Garth Evans’ constructed sculpture at Poussin Gallery, in Mondrian and Nicholson: In Parallel at the Courtauld, in Reflections on Concrete Art at Laurent Delaye and in the Peter Kalkhof exhibit at Annely Juda. In the recent exhibition at Standpoint Gallery, Ha Ha What Does This Represent? grids, implicit or explicit, featured in the work of somewhere between five and seven artists (depending on how far the OED’s definition of a ‘framework of spaced parallel bars’ is stretched). Grids were even more prevalent in The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition, shown at Tate St Ives and the Mead Gallery at the end of last year and the beginning of this.
Running alongside the Mondrian and Nicholson exhibition is a small but interesting display of drawings from the Courtauld’s own collection, Lines Crossed: Grids + Rhythms on Paper. Its centrepiece is a large abstract drawing by Linda Karshan but the rest is more strictly historical, stretching back to the sixteenth century. Grids, it seems, have been with us for quite some time, a point reinforced by a recent publication by Hannah Higgins which traces the grid (at first in the form of the ‘staggered grid’ of the brick wall) back to the very beginnings of human civilization. In some works in Lines Crossed the grid is simply a tool for squaring up a drawing in preparation for its transfer to a larger surface. Elsewhere the grid is perspectival, playing an active role in allowing the objects pictured to exist in an organised and convincing space. In the Gothic Arch by Piranesi, my favourite work in the display, the perspectival grid is fractured, its order simultaneously confirmed and denied to bewildering effect. Piranesi’s subversion of the expectations perspective creates can be seen as a predecessor to Picasso and Braque’s Cubist experiments. Other grids in Lines Crossed order a number of different images on a single sheet, either creating a narrative (in a similar way to a modern cartoon), for purposes of display or simply to decorative effect.
In what is still the most famous discussion of the use of grids in modern art Rosalind Krauss denied the importance of a correspondence between the grid in modern painting and its use in pre-modernist art. For her, on the contrary, the grid declared the ‘modernity of modern art’, it stated modernism’s denial of the past, its ‘exclusive visuality’, its ‘will to silence, hostility to literature, to narrative to discourse’. For Krauss the grid functioned as modernism’s central ‘myth’, covering the ‘shame’ of a hidden religiosity with what Krauss saw as a spurious materialism. Tracing the origins of the ‘myth’ of the modernist grid Krauss stated that ‘I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that behind every twentieth-century grid there lies… a symbolist window parading in the guise of a treatise on optics’. Though Krauss’s account is an engaging read and arguably functions well as a description of an art such as Mondrian’s, its polemical edge means it cannot convincingly explain the sheer number of modern artists who have employed a ‘framework of spaced parallel bars’.
One abstract artist I recently visited, who sees the grid as central to his work, admitted that he has been accused of using it as a crutch. Leaving aside the theoretical concerns of Krauss, it is perhaps in this sense that the grid is most problematic. Is it used by many artists simply as a way of ordering a surface with the minimum of fuss? Where it may have once seemed to suggest a new and radical approach to art-making, in many cases it now functions as a readymade and default mode (John Elderfield felt the same in 1972 when he criticized the ‘exploitation of the grid to merely inaugurate paintings’). Two examples can illustrate the extent to which the grid functions as a default position. For Allison Wucher, who curated Lines Crossed, ‘Karshan’s grid is not an appropriated or intentional form but instead, a manifestation of her internal rhythm; the marks she makes on the page correspond to the reach of her arm’. Though Wucher is apparently following Karshan’s own thoughts on the matter, her comment seems to me to be very disingenuous. Surely what we are really seeing is not a liberation of the body into the form of the grid, but in fact the imposition of the grid to such an extent that the body is forced into following its order. Interestingly much the same piece of disingenuousness can be seen elsewhere on abstract critical in the recent film in which Alan Gouk talks about his paintings. Though he does suggest that the squares and oblongs which make up the bulk of his paintings ‘echo’ the shape of the canvas, Gouk also claims that these forms originate in the natural reach of his arm. The implication is that the blocks which form loose or submerged grids across his paintings are not present because of the legacy of their use in a hundred years of modern art, but occur as almost a natural phenomenon.
Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, 1979, reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths
Hannah B Higgins, The Grid Book, 2009
John Elderfield, ‘Grids’, Artforum, May 1972
More on Lines Crossed can be found on Allison Wucher’s personal blog, here