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  • Tom McGlynn

Dean Fleming: Fourth Dimension

Dean Fleming, 65 Black Blue Red White, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 65 1/2 x 99 inches. Copyright © Dean Fleming. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.

Dean Fleming: Fourth Dimension

Tom McGlynn

November 1, 2022

Dean Fleming has had quite a long, strange trip. It began at The San Francisco Art Institute and then continued in the City University in Mexico City in the 1950’s and then further on to New York City (on and off) from the 1960s through the ’80s. His journey concurrently included a stint in the US Army during the Korean War, a trip via a Yugoslavian freighter to North Africa, a residency in Japan and, ultimately, the establishment of and residency in an artist’s commune in southern Colorado. The upshot of these wanderings is what has constituted his broader knowledge of art and its often similarly vagrant purposes.

This exhibition focuses on the hard-edged paintings he made in New York in the sixties when he helped to establish The Park Place Gallery along with Mark di Suvero, Leo Valledor, Tamara Melcher, and Robert Grosvenor, among other artists whose combined enthusiasm for alternative art spaces and a variety of aesthetic interests sustained the nascent downtown art community of that period. Boldly reductive in design and color yet expansively associative of what the artist has described as “fourth dimensional thinking,” a reconsideration of these historic works may be timely in our current moment of graphic consciousness relayed as symbolic logic. That is, the forest of signs and visual prompts that make up a kind of quasi-infinity of realizable space in contemporary mediated and virtual worlds might be frankly arrested by these, their ancestral vectors in paint and canvas. For instance, consider 65 Black Blue Red White (1965). Its quadratic color sectioning of a rectangular canvas is counterpoised by a central blank white rhombus. One could look at the painting in its tautological dimensions (echoed by Frank Stella’s contemporary statement “What you see is what you see.”) or as a design emptied of logos for any fixed rational meaning at all. The painting’s multivalency hinges, paradoxically, upon the free association of its logical determinations, and so its formal concerns do tend to give way to a kind of fourth dimensional thinking. If there is any persistent meaning to hard-edged abstraction this has to be one of the most enduring, and one that can gain new relevancy in light of the machinic dystopia of contemporary space-time.

Two related works from 1965 include 65 Green Mauve Black and, simply, 65, both of which retain the logic of addressing the rectangular limits of the canvas via geometric and color variations of that limit. They recall the very direct color and edge conditions of Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held, the latter of whom was an important early influence and subsequent colleague of Fleming’s. A bold and simple yellow square is “cornered” by bracketing primary blue and red in 65 while a more subdued contrast is maintained in 65 Green Mauve and Black. Both paintings suffer from a mere description of their formal terms. In person their physical and optical presence keeps one’s perceptions shifting in scale and compositional movement. Ultimately any painting’s differentiation from quotidian objectivity places alternate expectations of spatialization upon the viewer. The closeness with which hard-edged painting skirts the limits of the “thingness” in the world is its most productively disruptive value and with these paintings.

Along with some of the larger canvases including the dynamically canted central diamond of 65 Yellow White and Black (353) and 65 Black White Red’s bold, white stylus shape, are some smaller studies in gouache in which Fleming describes an exponential expansion of spatial limits. These are much more geometrically complex than the paintings formerly described. Their repetitious patterns map out diagonal vectors similar to the textile designs of Anni Albers (Fleming has stated that Josef Albers’s Structural Constellation were an important influence) and the contemporary paintings of Odili Donald Odita. Interestingly, these small studies, all from 1964, precede the artist’s drastically reduced geometry from a year later, so that they form a useful datum of visual and conceptual meaning for the later works. The one titled Broome Street contains rectangular slices of primary red, blue, and yellow with black and white intermingled. Its harlequin patterning recalls Picasso’s borrowing of the street entertainer’s motif to slyly elaborate on his own fourth dimensional, cubist thinking. Another in this series, West Broadway, compounds Fleming’s cubistic roots via the superimposition of an irregular grid upon a red and blue triangular structure. As a group these gouaches playfully express the sinewy plasticity of space-time interpenetration.

From a selection of Fleming’s statements usefully culled by gallery director David Eichholtz, this excerpt seems particularly relevant to a reconsideration of the historic context in which the works in the show were conceived, “The vibrant nature of existence demands to be created though it is not called for … this new (1965–66) work is utilitarian in that it serves to extend the consciousness of space and time, a necessity for the survival of every new form of society.” This progressive sense of utilitarianism by the artist might strike one as rather naïvely hopeful by today’s future standards, in which, to quote Paul Virilio,“ globalization will have caused the planet to close in on itself like a ripe fruit.” The very consciousness of contemporary space and time has contracted rather than expanded according to Virilio’s description. One of the most salutary effects of taking in Fleming’s work (and his intentions for it) from the mid-1960s is to make present room for a visionary continuum that promotes a newly expansive sympathy for space- and the time it takes to experience it.

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