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.1 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.
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”.4 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.” 6 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.” 7 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