Seen, Written by Klaus Kertess

Selected Essays

Klaus Kertess

Gregory R. Miller & Co.


On the Edge: The Paintings of Ralph Humphrey
Brice Marden: Drawing

Agnes Martin: Geometry of Joy

Barry Le Va's Sculpture: Ellipsis and Ellipse

Alan Saret: Engineer of the Ethereal

Keith Sonnier: Illuminations

John Chamberlain: Squeeze Play

Peter Hujar: Lens Love

John Marin: Marin in Oil

Willem de Kooning: Drawing No Conclusions

Alfonso Ossorio: Eyewitnesses

Joan Mitchell: Storms of Paint

Malcolm Morley: Seeing Is Imagining

Vija Celmins: Seeing Stars

Brushes with Gods, Devils, Demons, Monsters, the Milky Way, and Planck's Constant

Carroll Dunham: Drawn into Consciousness

Matthew Ritchie: Painting as Information Jazz

Chris Ofili: Just Desserts

A Velvet Glove Can Hold a Burning Issue


Copyright | Imprint

© 2011 Klaus Kertess

Published by Gregory R. Miller & Co., New York

All Rights reserved. No Part of the contents of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the publisher.

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eISBN: 978-0-9800242-7-2

Gregory R. Miller & Co.
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Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.
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Design: Lily Probst for Daydream Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Kertess, Klaus. 

Seen, written : selected essays / Klaus Kertess.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-09800242-9-6 (alk. paper)
1. Art, American—20th century. 2. Art, American—21st century. I. Title. 


2010 709.73'0904—dc22 



Adam D. Weinberg:

"Klaus Kertess’s essays have the passion and first-hand knowledge of an art-world insider, not to mention the sweep and rigor of an art historian. His vigorous, vivid prose takes us on journeys into the heads of key artists of our time. These texts help us to understand not only their hearts and minds but also the combination of physicality and sensuality that is the process of art making.
—Adam D. Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director, Whitney Museum of American Art

Jerry Saltz:

"Klaus Kertess has one of the liveliest, most astute, unusual, and independent eyes in all of contemporary art. A poet-seer-seeker, Kertess spots art early, says things others don’t, and says them in a voice so clear, unaffected, open, honest, and free of jargon that you rarely notice that he’s taken you to the deep end of the ocean of art."
—Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic, New York Magazine

The New York Observer:

"Klaus Kertess has had one of the more unusual careers in contemporary art. A co-founder, with Jeff Byers, of the Bykert Gallery in 1966 (where Mary Boone worked before opening her eponymous space), Mr. Kertess has gone on to a second career as a distinguished writer and curator, organizing the 1995 Whitney Biennial and publishing widely.

In these collected essays, most on individual artists, Mr. Kertess combines an eye for formal, technical details with a rare knowledge of personal history. We learn that John Chamberlain began making sponge sculptures, precursors to his foam works, as a guest at dealer Virginia Dwan’s Malibu beach house, and that Peter Hujar sometimes spent hours talking to animals he was planning to photograph.

Mr. Kertess is as astute writing about veterans he showed at Bykert—like Ralph Humphrey and Brice Marden—as he is discussing younger artists like Matthew Ritchie and Chris Ofili, whom he connects with William Blake, Francis Picabia, Philip Guston, Sigmar Polke, Dead Prez and Alice Coltrane. Also here is his essay for the show he curated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2006, which is as vital as any work being done by curators and writers that are half his age."
--Andrew Russeth
New York Observer



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Matthew Ritchie

Painting as Information Jazz

Matthew Ritchie
We Will Not Be the Last, 2006

Even before entering Universal Adversary, Matthew Ritchie’s exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York in 2006, I was confronted by a text on the building’s facade that forewarned me of the apocalyptic storming within.

“Their appearance and their work was as if a wheel within a wheel; as for their rings, they were so high they were dreadful and their rings were full of eyes, round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went with them for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.” — Ezekiel I: XVI–XX

Ezekiel’s words still ringing in my ears, I walk into the main room of the gallery to be engulfed by Ritchie’s light-suffused paintings and a black, folded latticework sky suspended above me. A painting on the end wall seethes with the gushing surge of a crackling brown network of sharp lines and shapes interspersed with whiplash spirals of white and pointy shards of rust raining down on a hapless, possibly sinking ship. Paint as rage, rage precisely calculated, engulfs the plane. We Leave Today, this expanse of almost twelve feet is titled. “Too late,” I think, as I’m drawn evermore into this cruel beauty. Three more sagas of liquid violence roil the long side wall of the gallery. God of Catastrophe pulses with circular detonations, the largest of which has sucked a boat out of the waters below; one can see a ring of eyelike shapes that recall Ezekiel’s prophecy as well as the rings of eyes found in William Blake’s similarly themed The Whirlwind: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Cherubim and Eyed Wheels (1803–05). The other two paintings in the exhibition, We Will Not Be the Last and Personal Virtue, are no less enflamed with apocalyptic skies wreaking havoc on the waters below.

A steep ladder, like one that might be found in a large ocean-going vessel, led me up to a platform in the latticework sky, where I could look into an oculus which featured a projection titled Ezekiel I; a not-quite film of a not-quite possible future, quite dire, flickered, while an ominous voice uttered cryptic warnings. Connecting the two levels was an illuminated, double-story lightbox with images of slender figures drifting and floating in a landscape awash in soothing luminosity. The scene called either to the possibility of a future healed earth or to the myth of the Edenic garden wiped out by the Deluge. If a promise, it is as slender and fragile as the figures it contained, perhaps just a taunting mirage.

Ritchie named this remarkable installation Universal Adversary after the collective title given by the United States government in 2005 to the fifteen scenarios classified as major threats to the U.S. population (none of which included income disparity, pandemic disease, resource depletion, or radical climate change). The opening quote from the book of Ezekiel was probably written about 500 B.C. during the exile of the southern Israelite kingdom in Babylon. Ezekiel was a giver of oracles and warned of the destruction of Jerusalem because of the Israelites’ misdeeds. Ezekiel’s dreadful rings full of eyes are the Ophanim, angelic forces integrated into the throne of Yahweh, which is the physical manifestation of the universe. Some commentators believe the text, which includes the famous “valley of dry bones,” describes the end of Israel as a political force and its rebirth as a spiritual nation. Others have seen in Ezekiel’s texts the symptoms of schizophrenic hallucinations. Not by coincidence, Babylon’s ancient ruins exist today some fifty-five miles south of Baghdad and suffered further damages by U.S. forces invading Iraq in 2003. The explanation of the title’s meaning, like the contextual information for most of Ritchie’s exhibitions, was readily available to all viewers and serves, like the others, as cues to the visual. The title of the installation and the quote from Ezekiel I that Ritchie chose to appear at the entry of his show framed the works between the sixth century B.C. and 2005–06, and layer Ezekiel’s prophecies with the violent reckoning being enacted by global warming and terrorism in our present time.

Long before Ritchie’s invocation of Ezekiel’s prophesies in his work, William Blake had looked to Ezekiel as his own spiritual ancestor. Ezekiel became the inspiration for Blake’s unfinished major work begun in 1797, The Four Zoas, which traced the fall of Albion (the oldest name for Great Britain). While Ritchie has not localized his apocalyptic visions, he has long admired his British predecessor’s visionary art and verse.

Ezekiel, Blake, and Ritchie may seem a rather mismatched trio, but on further reflection I realized what they shared; they are all visionaries and givers of oracles, and does not many an artist, including my present subject, aspire to giving oracles? Further, Ritchie, following contemporary scholarship, understands the bearers of Ezekiel’s “wheels”—a lion, a bull, an eagle, and a man—to be not only the first representations of the four evangelists but also the four cardinal signs Leo, Taurus, Scorpio (frequently seen in early esoteric texts as an eagle), and Aquarius. Ritchie interprets Ezekiel’s wheels as depicting the solar system, beloved predictive tool of the Babylonians, and so finds in Ezekiel’s visionary science a parallel to contemporary visionary cosmology, such as string theory, which purports to be a final unification of the four forces that constitute the universe.

All three—Ezekiel, Blake, and Ritchie—favor seeing with the imaginative eye. And, as much science continues to move ever further from the physically observable into the speculative and the imagined, scientists have increasingly become visionary prophets.

The visual and narrative clarity and drama so apparent in Ritchie’s Universal Adversary installation were not yet apparent when I viewed his first one-person exhibition in 1995. The show was titled Working Model and a sheaf of explanatory notes, in the form of a press release, as well as charts and graphs painted directly on the wall or presented as painting, conspired to make me spend more time reading than viewing. The simple geometric forms and bright clear colors seemed to have turned the space into a kind of 1960s Minimalist playroom. And where would I begin? I was annoyed and a bit disoriented; I wasn’t sure I wanted to play in this room. I remember a pedestal from which emerged seven rods each holding three or more round or nipple-like shapes in varying colors. They looked vaguely like the dreidls Jewish children play games of chance with at Chanukah.

On the wall behind them was a chart with a vertical row of seven colors, each followed by seven sets of attributes, symbols, and signs; they included “Lucifer,” “free will,” and “p,” for example. Across the top of the chart ran a horizontal row of shapes—the same shapes seen in various colors and combinations rising from the pedestal. Ritchie titled the table The God Game.

What Ritchie had created in 1995 was a kind of game board, the eponymous working model that encouraged the free association and combinative play so crucial to the creative process—whether in the creation of a painting, a sonata, or a scientific theory. For Working Model, Ritchie had made a grid of forty-nine elements that interested him, ranging from DNA to solitude. Each of the forty-nine elements was represented on the grid in seven ways, through scientific symbols, laws, colors, shapes, emotions, characters from esoteric traditions, and narrative functions. The grid could be used as a map, the map turned into a story, the story turned into a game—a kind of universal game of multi-dimensional Scrabble played with a set of colored shapes with multiple potential meanings. Ritchie had inverted the systemic graphs and grids endemic to the visual and mathematical certainties of so much painting and sculpture of the 1960s and early 70s into a grid warped by unseen, often unknowable complexity and freely associated. Some time was necessary for me to understand that this working model was for the formation of a wholly new, personal, and hopefully universal mythology. More like an index of artistic possibilities than a painting exhibition, this undertaking announced the arrival of an artist not unwilling to admit to playing the God game—and in his game, the stakes would be very high. In an interview from that same year, Ritchie stated he was seeking a symbolic language “as pure form in itself and as a bridge between various pre-existing symbolic vocabularies.”1

A look back to Ritchie’s beginnings will help fill in the aesthetic distance between the eleven years that separate these two installations. At the beginning of his artistic maturity, Ritchie wanted to build a universally dechiperable visual language comprised of configurations, symbols, and equations potentially accessible to a vast and varied audience. In order to achieve that, he first had to build a universe. With cavalier disregard for historical cohesion, he commenced to mix, match, and fuse myth, religion, science, pop culture, and art. The as yet empirically unknowable theories of visionary science, such as string theory, and the empirically unknowable visual hallucinations found in visionary art such as that created by Blake, and the visionary theology of the Bible’s book of Ezekiel are but a few of the resources Ritchie has mined. And as he married disparate traditions and bodies of knowledge, the artist’s sense of humor and play remained ever-present.

Ritchie was not alone in his construction of new mythologies. While in London’s Camberwell School of Art (from 1983 to 1986), he had been duly impressed by Joseph Beuys’s self-mythologizing metaphors of survival based on his World War II experiences, as well as his interest in art as a political and didactic tool. Sigmar Polke’s often gleefully mysterious forays into metaphors of alchemical transformation also impacted Ritchie’s art ponderings. When he moved from London to New York in 1987, Ritchie continued his education, though in decidedly less formal circumstances. These first ten years in New York—when he took a job as a building superintendent in SoHo, a time he often refers to as his “rebuilding” years—began a remarkable period of self-education abetted by the many textbooks he found discarded by students in the environs of New York University. He may not have been making art, but he did become the custodian of a remarkable body of knowledge that included science, religion, mythology, and history.

It was also during the 1980s that Ritchie witnessed the free-for-all of new liberties being taken in the wake of the erosion of modernism’s hegemony that had started in the late 1970s—ranging from Julian Schnabel’s jubilant portraits created with smashed crockery as surrogate brushstrokes to Susan Rothenberg’s figuration brimming with a reinvigoration of drawing as painting to Carroll Dunham’s retrieval of Surrealist psychosexuality found in the paintings of Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí, so long suppressed by late modernism’s disdain for subjective imaginings. And, in the realm of photography, Sherrie Levine’s appropriations questioned the value of uniqueness so endemic to modernism. Historical artworks re-entered contemporary dialogue, and imagination reclaimed lost territory.

The return of self-contained historical narratives—now wildly and willfully fabricated—would mark the beginning of the 1990s and inspire Ritchie to begin writing art criticism, and he was invited by Francesco Bonami to write regularly for Flash Art. He was strongly impressed by Kara Walker’s intensely acerbic and uproariously ribald re-viewing of the antebellum South’s racism, surprisingly rendered in her retrieval of the genteel art of the cutout silhouette. And he was similarly impressed by Matthew Barney’s brilliant mythology—a hybrid of football lore, Harry Houdini, reproductive biology, classical mythology, tabloid serial killers, and more, much more—realized in film and sculptural installations most often featuring Barney as one or another of his protagonists.

By 1995, Ritchie was prepared to step into this arena as an artist—his concerns cosmological, his context and material the information age; his aim was to make paintings that are “pictures of thinking.”2 Of course, all paintings that lay claim to success are pictures of thinking, but the self-enclosed narratives of Barney’s, Walker’s, and Ritchie’s art look back to and reinvent the grand historical narratives that preoccupied so many artists from antiquity well into the nineteenth century. While the meaning of Barney’s fabulist narratives are not always immediately evident, both his and Walker’s works unfold in clear narrative sequence, whereas Ritchie’s tales are derailed, layered, and frequently rife with nonsequiturs resulting from spontaneous interruptions, games of chance, and combinative play.

As his project continued to develop, Ritchie favored a kind of multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk evolving around several paintings. He regarded painting not so much as a construction of space but as a continuous flow of slowed-down information—multiple strands of overlapping information that might readily interrupt and/or threaten to cancel each other out. These overlapping, intertwining strands of flow mimic the flow and upheavals of the universe and as readily mimic the countless trails of neurons racing through the human brain—not to mention the stops, starts, and false starts twisting through the process of a painting.

The Big Bang is a continuous subject of Ritchie’s art; indeed, in his imagination, he sees one continuous painting bringing the Big Bang, or moment of genesis, into the present moment. The paintings of this writhing knot of currents and countercurrents of energy, painted in the seven colors presented in the chart seen in Working Model, have frequently been the centers of Ritchie’s installations. He has, on occasion, also created paintings of luminous and vaporous invented landscapes more conventionally configured with ground and horizon, as well as paintings that combine both this mode and the swirling knots. Some works are painted directly on the wall; in addition, he has created mosaic-like wall- and/or floor-bound accumulations of shapes cut from the soft plastic material Sintra.

Until now, most of the writing charting Ritchie’s quest for a universal language of painting has focused on the vast body of knowledge that informs his work, rather than the actual work itself. Ritchie himself has added—and one might say interpolated—this writing with his own occasional printing of pamphlets to accompany exhibitions that present neo-noir tales shuffling time, plot, and characters with both humor and literate dexterity.

For this essay I have chosen instead to focus on the visual embodiment of Ritchie’s ideas. His visual repertoire is large and varied. I will examine the affinities of Ritchie’s work with the history paintings created by J. M. W. Turner as well as with Jackson Pollock’s flung and dripped painting and the illuminated manuscript pages of the Book of Kells. This inquiry is undertaken as much to make clear the similarities as to highlight the quite radical differences. The concept of affinities more than that of direct influences is stressed here. And the journey will zigzag through Ritchie’s recent installations—a landscape tour, landscape as information.

I will begin with Turner. The nineteenth century, in both Europe and America, witnessed an astounding outburst of landscape painting growing out of and extending many of the conventions of Dutch landscape painting of the seventeenth century. While that tradition was marked by secularity and largely created for middle-class burghers, some nineteenth-century painters, such as the German Caspar David Friedrich, sought to imbue landscape with a pantheistic sublime. In the United States, some painters depicted the still vast stretches of virgin landscape as the new Eden. Among these painters, Thomas Cole was perhaps the most avidly in pursuit of suffusing landscape with religiosity, as can best be seen in his four paintings depicting the Voyage of Life (1839–40), in which tiny figures are dwarfed by virgin landscape as they are guided through Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age by an angel. Friedrich, Cole, and his American peers were all heirs to and continued a traditional European realism. Turner’s work, however, marked a radical shift in landscape painting, and in his hands it metamorphosed into history painting. The drama of urging light into darkness and vice versa that took place in a stormy diaphanous vortex configured many of Turner’s paintings; he had a particular predilection for storms at sea, frequently incorporating “deluge” in the title. One such painting, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)–The Morning After the Deluge Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843) finds the spectral figure of the seated Moses emerging from a whirlpool of color and light. Beneath him hovers the coiled snake on a staff (a prefiguration of the Crucifixion) found by Moses in the wilderness in the book of Exodus. Still lower and still more fugitive churn bodies washed up in the Deluge.

Something akin to the Deluge was also found on the wall when I entered Ritchie’s installation Universal Adversary. Stormy, watery, indeterminate, and threatening, shattered imagery enveloped in shifting light and dark, Ritchie’s tonalities of cataclysm are not unrelated to Turner’s. Growing up in London, Ritchie was intimately familiar with Turner’s remarkable paintings, but when chroniclers of modernism counted Turner’s directness of execution and pursuit of light as color as a precursor of Impressionism, thereby assigning his achievement solely to the domain of formal issues, they suppressed his overarching intent of painting history into the landscape. Aesthetic similarities aside, Ritchie would be more in tune with Turner’s larger purpose. Further, Turner’s conflation of biblical events—both recorded (the Deluge) and imagined (Moses writing the book of Genesis)—with contemporary scientific theory (Goethe’s theory of color) set a precedent for Ritchie’s habitual, willful conflation of events. Though it must be noted that Turner was more likely to depict events in sequential time, whether historical or contemporary, his radical transformation of landscape into history painting, with its consequent downplaying of the figure, finds a contemporary parallel in Ritchie’s painting. And, like Turner, Ritchie views painting not so much as a personal expression but as part of a public discourse.

I will now discuss the development of what might most readily be referred to as Ritchie’s unraveling knots of information. The knot paintings comprise Ritchie’s most radical invention. Some strands of these knots seem to provoke the rage in the sky of the seascapes discussed above. They began toward the turn of the century, when he urged his paint to congeal into precisely rendered open knots—something like writhing orgies of octopods—that often spill out onto the floor and/or surrounding wall and ceiling, as could be seen in his installation The Fast Set for North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2000. Interspersed in the tangle of tentacles frequently are found scientific equations and symbols related to the subjects of thermodynamics, the science of change, as well as eyes, tiny figures, and written words and phrases that often invoke games of chance, such as betting odds. This tangle is like the visual embodiment of the outrageously layered and tangled, fragmented narrative that motivates the installation. In The Fast Set, a large amorphous blue-and-gray shape is identified as The Swimmer, which is the headless corpse of Lucifer now become Infinity and cloaked in yellow to become the visible universe in a story line that “encapsulates the history of thermodynamics as seen through Gnostic mythology.”3 And that’s a radical abbreviation of what ensues.

In his even more elaborate installation Proposition Player (2003) exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, eleven variants of these raveling and unraveling—even reveling—paintings of knots were included in the large exhibition space. Now denser, richer, and visually more complex than those in The Fast Set, these writhing serpentine members/feelers/forces/sensors hover in a kind of nowhere space, neither deep, nor flat, nor grounded with one exception: in The First Sea (2003) the knot seems to rise out of the sea at the bottom edge of the canvas. In Snake Eyes (2003), the churning knots seem to be self-propelled and self-sustaining phenomena: at once vast and flat, dense and transparent high-voltage tangles of energy often, as here, with eyes bobbing in the wild profusion of tendrils. Occasionally miniature simian figures and scientific equations emerge from the twisting snarl of linearity.

Also revealed in Proposition Player is the relooping of narrative progression found in comics, articulated in the work’s reversible narratives that unfold across several panels and in the interchangeable and mercurial natures of their protagonists. “Snake eyes” refers to the throw of dice resulting in one pip per die, the lowest possible roll in many a game of chance—seemingly unpredictable chance, bad luck, and loser. Snake Eyes is also the name of one of the ninja-powerful heroes fighting in Vietnam featured in the G.I. Joe comic book series. The graphic directness and clarity, as well as the propensity for explosiveness, regularly found in adventure comic books, whether Japanese anime or American Marvel, are also an integral part of Ritchie’s visual vocabulary—a visual vocabulary seeking a clarity and directness found in many a comic book.

Chance plays a significant role in Proposition Player. Ritchie wanted to collapse all stories, categories, and characters from his previous works into one moment—“a moment where the viewer can enter or begin to play the game him or herself.”4 And so each viewer was given a card from a deck including Ritchie’s forty-nine original characters; the cards are divided into four suits representing the four basic forces of the universe (more on this below). The card was given to a “dealer” at a gaming table who then “handed” the viewer digital dice cast from prehistoric elk bones in the Museum of Natural History (meant to simulate the first dice ever made and remind us of the origin of the “throwing of the bones”). As a game of craps was played by the viewer, sensors in the dice registered the cast and triggered an animation on the surface of the table; these images evolved through more throws to progressively recapitulate all the paintings in the exhibition.

Winding through the exhibition space was a raised, flat black powder-coated aluminum, perforated fretwork with rods topped by something cubistically headlike rising through some of the interstices called The Fine Constant. Each one of these heads was based on a sculpture made by young students in Houston who participated in a workshop with Ritchie. Each head was scanned in 3-D, decimated by 95 percent because “we can only see 5 percent of the universe. We’ve called another 25 percent ‘dark energy’ and the remaining 70 percent ‘dark matter’.”5 In spite of this reduction, they were still recognizable as heads. And so one learned how little we can actually see of the universe and how even that 5 percent is loaded with sufficient information to negotiate our lives. The painter Alex Ross, a mutual friend of both Ritchie and myself, refers to this kind of metaphorical play so typical of Ritchie’s work as “information jazz,” and I have appropriated it as an apt title for this text.

Ritchie is a fan of certain forms of jazz, especially the melding of the twin meteors of bebop and cool jazz in Miles Davis’s electric On the Corner (1972), which uses a form of polyphony that has both flatness (cool jazz) and superheated knots passing through, under and around each other—knots as jazz. It has both an underlying hard structure and a looping, sprawling circularity.

The Fine Constant became a physical embodiment of the The Hierarchy Problem, a vast black arabesquing linearity painted on the wall that seemed to grow out of and extend and interconnect the paintings of the swirling knots. On the floor under the fretwork was placed an undulating mat of rubber and Tyvek configured in a kind of psychedelically colored reprise to the aluminum fretwork called The God Impersonator. All resulted in a lyric opera of painterliness transforming wall and floor into profoundly complex and pleasurable visuality. A new form of landscape painting; a new form of history painting.

The pale backgrounds and yellows and blues that predominate in the knot paintings for Proposition Player, as well as their relatively open configurations, contribute to the lightness and playfulness of the installation’s festive casino mood. However, the four knot paintings that constitute The Measures (2005) from four years later, together with the central fretwork cupola-like structure The Universal Cell and the black mark making that extends from the paintings onto the wall each is centered upon, are endowed with a sterner bearing. Many of the serpentine linear contortions now have a metallic, somewhat foreboding appearance; other arabesquing swirls are a brackish brown, prickly and thorny. A large human skeleton head emerges from the lower right side of the twisted layering in The Measures I and a smaller skeleton rises to the top of the knotting/unknotting of The Measures IV. The bobbing eyes in all four of the paintings now seem likely to be involved with surveillance. A harsh beauty, vivid and dynamic, rules these tense paintings that, for me, count as some of Ritchie’s most compelling works.

Matthew Ritchie
Installation views of a work created forThe Shapes of Space,
a group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007

“What are The Measures?” I inquired of the artist, a question to which I received a lengthy reply. They are “the four universal constants of free space—the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the Planck limit, and the force constant which are carried by the four aces in Proposition Player... The Measures also refer to the punishments of the four half-divine traitors of Tartarus painted in the Titian cycle The Damned.”6

From this truncated version of Ritchie’s explanation, it is obvious that The Measures are not, cannot be literal representations of The Damned or those scientific phenomena known as the universal constants. They are leaps of Ritchie’s imagination, just as Blake’s rendering of Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel required a leap of his imagination. Ritchie created visual realizations of these scientific phenomena—The Measures might be seen as the Four Apostles of Modern Science. They are far more unlikely to be rendered “accurately” than, for example, the Four Apostles of the New Testament, whose immediately recognizable symbols and masculine gender identify their varying incarnations through the ages. When I saw these paintings in Ritchie’s studio, he was going through the final throes of revision—re-vision—that depended upon his visual intelligence fueled by his scientific knowledge but not beholden to it, or else how could Tartarus have entered the fray of the paintings?

In conversation, I mentioned to Ritchie that the meticulously detailed and rendered layered arabesquing linearity of the knot paintings looked not unlike a digitalized version of Jackson Pollock’s flung and dripped, layered whiplashes of paint, seen in his works between 1947 and 1951, that, while courting accident, never eluded Pollock’s magnificent control. However, Pollock’s (in)famous proclamation “I am nature” subsumes the universal into the personal, whereas Ritchie seeks to build the opposite. He proposed the Book of Kells as a parallel comparison.

The illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels in Latin was created some time around 800 A.D. by Celtic monks. Its illustrations pulse with staggering intricacy and precision of layered, often foliate spirals and curling arabesques intertwined with dragons, cats, birds, etc. The illustrations were probably drawn with a quill, and their making would likely have been aided by rulers, set squares, compasses, and possibly a French curve, but without benefit of magnifying glasses. The minute and elaborate process defies imagination.

Although rooted in Judeo-Christian myth, Ritchie identifies Celtic culture and its legacy in European culture as another significant element in his own history. He has said: “The Celts, the first transnational European culture, were shape-shifters, speakers of tongues…I grew up with their stories of endless change: the wounded king and his wasted land, the green man and the severed head…They called it ‘tuirgin,’ the transmigratory cycle of investigative experience.”7 Ritchie was deeply influenced by the Celtic “belief that the world is derived from experience, not rationalization,” as the competing Greco-Roman culture believed.8

Empiricism, of course, does not rule out imagination, even leaps of the imagination, in art or in science. Dark matter, for instance, is of unknown substance that does not emit or reflect sufficient electromagnetic radiation to be observed directly; however, its presence has been inferred, by knowing scientists, from the gravitational effects on visible matter. A leap of scientific imagination brought the unknowable within the realm of the understanding. The unthinkable can be thought. For Ritchie, dark matter becomes a metaphor for the unknowable, the visibly absent; his quest is to imagine the unknowable into painting thought. Ritchie’s Celtic-description continues: “Their sign was the unraveled knot that twists into a labyrinth, that grows into a serpent, that consumes itself. DNA, the coiled dimensional instruction book that can build a living world from dust and as easily dissolve it back again.”9

The references are clear: the severed head, a frequent symbol in Ritchie’s work, was used by the Celts as an oracle. The wasted land and the green man are symbiotic, as seen in The Measures and the landscapes. The serpent could be Jörmungandr, or Ourobouros, as the Romans called him, the circular archetypal image of eternity.

Pollock’s line, drawn from the same Jungian depths, is a lyrical layering in the terms of knot theory, the mathematical branch of topology that studies knots; but it is not a knot. Although Ritchie certainly wouldn’t contest Pollock’s astounding achievement and though he frequently cites Number 1, 1950 as the greatest picture of the twentieth century, Ritchie’s particular interest in lines and knots has more to do with what can be woven together, what knots can bind.

This is an issue with special relevance for Ritchie’s now frequent collaborations with architects, scientists, and institutions, where his approach must adapt to the information that comes with each new project. An example of this is his recent commission to create work for the Wayne Lyman Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, designed by Thom Mayne and Morphosis.

Unlike a gallery or museum installation, Ritchie was required to deal with the constraints inherent to a specifically themed government commission. He was initially presented with a laundry list of points to be dealt with, as well as with a presiding judge/patron considerably more conservative than himself. In the end, the tree of justice blossomed. “What does justice look like?” Ritchie asked a group of young local students in Eugene. A dog, a monkey, an eagle, and a crown (echoes of Ezekiel) were some of the figures the students responded with. Using techniques similar to the ones described earlier in The Fine Constant, the heads of the figures made by the students were rendered and placed on top of pylons that held up a black-powdered aluminum drawing that Ritchie created on the terrace of the third floor, where the building’s six courtrooms are located. This drawing, again like The Fine Constant, is a raised undulating fretwork that incorporates multiple strands of information. The sculpture is titled Stare Decisis, a Latin legal term meaning “to stand by that which is decided” and the foundational principal of constitutional jurisprudence. It loosely maps the Willamette River system that runs through Eugene and includes abstracted fragments of text citing the precedents for the United States Constitution and gyroscopically turning rings equal in number to the articles and amendments of the Constitution. The river becomes a metaphor for a legal system at once established in the past and fluid in its responses to the continuous changes wrought on its terrain. The idea of fluidity parallels the courthouse itself. Completed in December of 2006, the courthouse is composed of stately but embracing curves. The septet of curves configuring the aerial view of the building is meant to represent the seven articles of the federal Constitution. The configuration’s accuracy of profile notwithstanding, Ritchie’s map with its tangle of curves disrupts any single reading.

A small circular section of Ritchie’s map even flows through the glass windows onto a bench into the curving interior lobby, where Ritchie created three large lightbox murals called Life, Liberty, and Pursuit. The images were printed on film and mounted on lenticular prismatic acrylic panels creating two shifting views as the viewer passes: the landscape of Oregon facing the actual landscape of the state seen through the windows of the lobby, and a more abstract landscape inscribed with names and landmark cases from the evolution of law over the last four thousand years or so. The murals’ shifting views vibrate with a lyric lightness of touch; they become literal and figurative reflections on landscape. They also raise enticing questions about the relationship of climate and topography to the evolution of law.

The local response to a building, certainly unconventional as courthouses go, was overwhelmingly positive judging by the jubilant opening-day celebrations. Local officials were imagining the building as their Bilbao, expecting a revival of downtown Eugene and a new influx of tourists. The complex narrative—the story of law—told by the works had been seamlessly integrated into the project. The “site-specific” information Ritchie was asked to represent in collaboration with architect Thom Mayne translated into the visual vocabulary he had independently developed, absorbing the information and re-rendering it into his own language in an architectural context. The entire history of law was now included in Ritchie’s system and would immediately be put to use in Ezekiel I, the projection in Universal Adversary mentioned at the beginning of this essay.

This universally inclusive property distinguishes his narrative strategies from many of his peers and runs deep in his other collaborative projects such as Games of Chance and Skill at MIT (2001), We Want to See Some Light (2006) at Portikus, and The Morning Line, a new structure unveiled at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, which is a traveling performance space that contains countless layers of structure. It will intertwine Milton’s Paradise Lost with the most recent advances in physics and cosmology through scores played and sung by rock gods, modernist composers, and you and me, if we are fortunate enough to be in Venice, Seville, or London.

In all of these projects, and indeed his entire body of work, Ritchie has created a visual vocabulary that binds a variety of subjects with visual tropes that have proven to be remarkably versatile in his quest for the universal, or semasiographic, painting system he has been developing for the past decade, where the parts can not only be intertranslated between works but also adapted to absorb any form of content.

He has achieved this without sacrificing visual pleasure or visual variety. And his vaulting ambition is tempered by his deep intelligence, his humor, and his willingness to play. And it’s just the beginning.



Matthew Ritchie
from Seen, Wirtten by Klaus Kertess


Matthew Ritchie
We Will Not Be the Last, 2006

Matthew Ritchie
Installation view of a work created forThe Shapes of Space,
a group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007

Matthew Ritchie
Installation view of a work created forThe Shapes of Space,
a group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007

Matthew Ritchie
Installation view of a work created forThe Shapes of Space,
a group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007

1. Owen Drolet, “Matthew Ritchie Interview,” Urban Desires: A Magazine of Metropolitan Passions (March/April 1995).

2. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “Reflections on an Omnivorous Visualization System: An Interview with Matthew Ritchie,” in Matthew Ritchie: Proposition Player (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz; and Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2003).

3. Ibid., 98.

4. Ibid., 44.

5. Ibid., 46.

6. Email from the artist to the author, January 3, 2008.

7. Email from the artist to the author, December 19, 2007.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.