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  • John Yau

Dean Fleming Paints the Fourth Dimension

Dean Fleming, “65 Black White Red” (1965), acrylic on canvas, 65 1/2 x 99 inches (photos by Yao Zu Lu; all images © Dean Fleming, courtesy David Richard Gallery)

Dean Fleming Paints the Fourth Dimension

John Yau

October 21, 2022

Fleming’s geometric paintings are not the Minimalism of Greenberg and Judd, with their insistence on flatness and the elimination of space in painting. I first learned about Dean Fleming when I got the catalogue for the exhibition Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York, which was shown at the Blanton Museum in Austin (September 28, 2008–January 18, 2009) and curated by Linda Dalrymple Henderson. My interest in this group of painters and sculptors, and their preoccupation with space and the “fourth dimension” (which, according to the press release, means “a dimension beyond height, length and width”) has increased over the years, as I have learned and written about the work of Leo Valledor, Robert Grosvenor, David Novros, and Mark di Suvero — who were among the original 10 members (evenly split between painters and sculptors) of this cooperative gallery — and their collective concerns. Since then my interest in Fleming has grown. As Henderson points out in her catalogue essay, citing an early supporter of the group, the art critic David Bourdon: “this was not classical geometry — akin to Dutch de Stijl — but rather a dynamic, new geometry of complex spatial effects.” In other words, this was not Minimalism and its obeisance to the theories of Clement Greenberg and Donald Judd, their insistence on flatness and the elimination of space in painting. In the mid-1960s, as the art world began to draw boundaries and employ descriptors to define groups, the artists associated with the Park Place Gallery and their interest in what Henderson describes as “spatially complex, hard-edge painting,” never got branded. Partly for that reason, their contributions have been largely overlooked. This is what interested me in the exhibition Dean Fleming: Fourth Dimension at David Richard Gallery (September 16-November 4, 2022). Of the 16 works in the show, 10 are paintings from 1965 and the rest are paintings and works on paper from 1964. The immediate, seemingly effortless shift from geometric patterning and tessellations, which combine mosaic-like surfaces, to large, hard-edged, sharply angled planes and diamonds that convey an unstable, optically shifting space, signaled a change in conceptual thinking. Whatever the reason for the change, one thing is evident: Fleming (along with Valledor and Edwin Ruda, whom I have yet to write about) rejected Minimalism, but not geometry. One of the key features of Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings was his repudiation of the limits imposed by the rectangular surface with which he interacted. Donald Judd saw the painting’s nature, as a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall, as a problem. Fleming and his cohort saw the painting’s nature instead as a challenge, and Judd’s position as an orthodoxy that emerged out of a materialist way of thinking that ignored both the spiritual and science, the unseen and the fourth dimension. In “Orange Line” (1964), a small gouache (presumably a study for a painting), Fleming divides the square canvas into rows of rectangles, varying their width according to a formula. He then divides every rectangle into four triangles, each a different color (yet if we pick any two adjacent rectangles, we see that Fleming used seven colors rather than eight). Together, the colors and divisions infuse the patterning with a visual instability that stands apart from much of abstraction from the mid-1960s. At the same time, it’s clear that Fleming’s paintings were not contained by their physical parameters, and that the patterns convey an uninterrupted continuity that goes beyond the work’s edges. The optical fluctuations add to the experience. In the 1965 paintings, Fleming abandons patterning in favor of larger and fewer shapes. Because the shapes share or intersect with the painting’s edges, none of them seem contained within the picture plane and the compositions achieve a dynamism that contrasts the repetition and static compositions that are central to Minimalism. More importantly, his use of white as a color in paintings such as “Black White Red,” “Black Blue Red White,” and “White Yellow Black” (all 1965) suggests not a flat plane, but perhaps an opening we can’t see into. By composing the white area as a diamond or culminating it in a sharp triangle, as in the one that points downward in “Black White Red,” Fleming reflects the Cold War era’s preoccupation with spacecraft, and the race to the moon. Famous for his painting “Black Square” (1915), depicting a black square on a white ground, Kazimir Malevich, the innovative Russian painter and theorist, believed that white was the color of infinity and connoted a realm of higher feeling and a domain of pure form. Fleming’s work extends out of Malevich’s geometry and that of other Russian Suprematists. The sharp angles of Fleming’s planes, which are never repetitive or modular forms, suggest that he did not accept the commonplace, reductive narrative of painting’s trajectory, building up to the tautology that art had to be about art. This position seems important, particularly at a time when the art world celebrates the materiality of Damien Hirst’s use of industrial diamonds and Jeff Koons’s high-priced fabrications. According to some critics, a lot of art is forgotten for a reason. If we accept that, we might also want to consider that some art is remembered, by however few, for a reason. While the 1960s was dominated by Minimalism, Color Field painting, and Op Art — all of which were branded — Fleming and his cohort never achieved that status. Yet not having a branded style seems to me a sign of independence that prefigures the current moment, when signature styles and production-line dependability are called into question in some quarters of the art world. (Curated by Katy Siegel, with David Reed serving as curatorial advisor, the 2006 traveling exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975 served to remind us that the history of painting remains complicated, interesting, challenging, and energetic.) The fact that Fleming is not better known reiterates that there is still more to be done. Dean Fleming: Fourth Dimension continues at David Richard Gallery (526 West 26th Street, Suite 311, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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