Alfred Jensen was a painter who through most of his working life pursued a fascination with scientific concepts and philosophies relating to theories of color and light, the nature of electricity, the Mayan calendar, mathematical concepts, divination tools such as the I Ching, and other abstract systems that no doubt seem arcane if not baffling to most people. He could be considered a Conceptual artist in the sense that he used visual art forms as a way to illustrate the theories that he explored, although his intention might have been more metaphorical than seeking to literally illustrate proven theories. “Artist rather than scholar, his references are just raw material for new inventions. His approach to his sources is reverent enough–he clearly loves them–but there’s no humility in the handling; he combines them and builds onto them in ways we can only call regal.” (P. Perrin, “All The Beautiful Systems: Alfred Jensen,” ArtsCanada, May/June 1979).
Jensen created brightly colored, complexly patterned and thickly impastoed paintings, often employing a grid pattern with the intention of producing unique “diagrams” for his theories rather than just conventional paintings, noted critic Peter Schjeldahl. (Alfred Jensen: Paintings and Works on Paper, New York, 1985, p. 23). Critics and viewers have been intrigued by the difficult content of Jensen’s work for many years, and much critical commentary has been written about it. Some critics have said his paintings are like puzzles or games intended to manage complex problems. But as seen with the current lot, drab illustrations of difficult ideas they are not. In fact, they are vibrant, intensely visually and striking.
Great Indeed is the Art of Numbering is a brilliant, variegated colored set of grids within grids offering rich tonalities, from white, through yellow, to deep reds and blues. Jensen, through his study of color theory, was interested in particular color associations and the complex placement of them; patterns in his works reflect this interest. It isn’t necessary to understand the artist’s theories to enjoy his paintings. Sustained viewing rewards with a sensual pleasure derived from vibrant hues, diverse patterns, and intriguing symbols, shapes, and motifs.
Jensen led a life that was as colorful as his paintings, and his experiences are a crucial part of his entire persona, as intriguing as the art itself. Born in Europe, he was raised in Guatemala and developed a lifelong fascination with Pre-Columbian civilizations. As a young man, he began art school in California, had a number of colorful occupations (ship’s cabin boy, cowboy, chicken farmer, lumber salesman) and went on to study art in Munich with the great painter and teacher Hans Hoffmann. He later met a wealthy art collector who became his lifelong patron, befriended numerous artists of great stature, and traveled widely, broadening his interests, discovering and studying the subjects that would form the content for his paintings. After a foray into Abstract Expressionism, by 1960, he had arrived at his mature style, which he continued for the rest of his life. He might be considered an outsider or naïve artist (as in self-taught), but was too sophisticated and well-schooled an art student, and had too many artist and art world friends, to formerly qualify as one. Still, in spirit that is very much what he was in the same way that other highly talented, individual and eccentric artists such as Joseph Cornell or Ray Johnson were—artists who invented their own languages, their own systems, and offered them up for us.