"Central Core of the Densely Packed," by Clark Richert, acrylic on canvas.
"Central Core of the Densely Packed," by Clark Richert, acrylic on canvas.

Calculated Risks

Clark Richert is surely on everyone's list of the most significant Colorado artists of the last quarter-century, and his work has been included in museums and corporate and private collections around the country.

What made him famous around here is the work that he began to produce in the 1960s: geometric abstractions based on grids. These paintings were at the international forefront of contemporary painting at the time and had a corollary in the pattern-and-decoration movement in New York. But although Richert's paintings might have looked like examples of that style, they were different in one basic way: While the pattern-and-decoration crowd back East were interested, as the name implies, in being decorative, Richert was not, and the forms and colors he employed were predetermined by mathematical formulas rather than subjective aesthetic judgments.

Art fads and fashions have come and gone over the years, but Richert, laudably, has remained unmoved by them, essentially working on the same issues all along. This doesn't mean he's done the same work over and over. Rather, he has continued to explore -- and relentlessly reinterpret -- a specific set of related spatial concepts. The resulting paintings constitute a widely varied lot that are connected on a conceptual level, but not necessarily on a visual one.


Clark Richert: Recent Paintings

Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway

Through January 11, 303-777-9473

But this "I-did-it-my-way" approach has come with a price. Richert's paintings have looked badly out of step at times. This isn't a problem now, however, as no one could deny how incredibly right his latest paintings look as showcased in his riveting solo, Clark Richert: Recent Paintings, on display through the holidays at the Rule Gallery.

"I know all artists think their latest pieces are the best thing they've ever done," says Richert, "but I really feel that way about these paintings."

I don't know if I entirely agree with Richert, but I would say that they are among the best things he's ever done. Clearly different from previous phases, this current batch of work is nonetheless inextricably linked to its predecessors.

Richert was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1941, and early on, he combined an interest in art with an interest in math -- a rare hybrid. But since his father was a mathematician -- and because his siblings have followed in their father's scientific footsteps -- Richert established himself as the black sheep of the family when he chose to study art at the University of Kansas, where he earned his BFA in 1963, and later at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Richert chose Boulder because he'd seen the work of CU painting professor George Woodman on display at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Gallery. Soon thereafter, the 22-year-old Richert got involved with the Boulder counterculture and became an early hippie, a situation that hasn't really changed. In 1965, he dropped out of graduate school (he eventually went back and earned his MFA) and helped to establish the hippie commune Drop City, a cooperative-living experiment outside of Trinidad that later became famous.

Just before he left CU, though, Richert attended a lecture by Buckminster Fuller and became completely enraptured by the great engineer's theories about the geodesic dome. Like Fuller, Richert was obsessed with inventing new geometric patterns and in using existing ones in new ways. With Fuller's geodesic dome as a prototype, Richert designed nine of the eleven structures at Drop City. His choice of material -- body parts from junked cars with their paint jobs still intact -- gave the surfaces of the domes the character of highly graphic and abstract mosaics.

Drop City has been very much on Richert's mind lately. The catalyst for all of the pieces in the Rule show was a computer-generated print of a virtual Drop City that Richert created earlier this year for an enormous reference compendium called the House Book, published by Phaidon Press. "The House Book includes all the most important architects of our time, like Frank Gehry...and me," he says with a laugh. It was important to Richert to be included in the House Book, because he wanted to set the record straight about who had created Drop City.

"If you research Drop City," says Richert, "most often it's credited to Peter Rabbit, and that's very distressing. Peter lived there, but he had nothing to do with the buildings." (Peter Rabbit was the pseudonym of another Drop City drop-in.)

The reason Richert had to create a virtual version of Drop City instead of using historic photos was because those hippie communards never had the place properly photographed. Drop City itself was abandoned by Richert and his cohorts in 1968 and no longer exists. Thus Richert needed to scan various old snapshots into a Photoshop computer program, touch them up and combine them to come up with one imaginary and all-inclusive picture of the entire complex. In addition, in the sport where it would have stood, Richert inserted a never-realized pyramid that was part of the original plan for Drop City.

The virtual image of Drop City, which is used in this show as one element in a computer-generated print, was made before anything else on display at Rule. But since Richert loves contradictions, he gleefully notes that "virtual Drop City was the first thing in this series I did, but I didn't make the print until I had done everything else. And in a way, that makes it both the first and the last piece in the series."

Richert calls the print, together with the six paintings here, the "Wo-Wa-Wo Series." Don't ask. Richert's liable to tell you, and only if you're lucky or you're a physicist will you understand half of it. Suffice it to say that the first "Wo" stands for Woodman, Richert's old painting mentor from CU; the "Wa" stands for Burt Wadman, a physicist with an early interest in fractals; and the second "Wo" is for an experimental filmmaker named Fred Worden. All of the paintings have references to Woodman, Wadman and Worden, but Woodman's influence predominates, as it always has.

Sometimes the order in which a series of works is made is irrelevant. Not so with this show, according to Richert, who says each painting is an outgrowth of the one done before it, leading all the way back to virtual Drop City. I would argue that all of the work goes back to Drop City itself. Nonetheless, the paintings don't so much represent a progression of ideas as they reveal a major aesthetic shift about midway through.

The first piece is "Central Core of the Densely Packed," an impressive acrylic-on-canvas painting that received a lot of attention at the show's opening and was sold that same night. In it, Richert has arranged elaborate volumetric forms into non-repeating patterns. The patterns are rendered from different perspectives, at once illustrating them from different sides. But Richert also bends the patterns so that they appear to be three-dimensional and receding into space. Richert has often created rectangular passages in his paintings that appear to be right at the surface of the picture plane, thus exaggerating the constructed illusion of three-dimensional space seen all around it. In this one, the flat section is black, with a pattern of dots connected by lines making a schematic model of the non-repetitive forms he uses in the rest of the painting.

"Central Core" is radically different from the rest of the paintings in the series. It's boldly colored and seems very warm, which is odd, since it consists of mostly cool blues. It must be the intensity of the yellow and orange that have been used as a counterpoint that overwhelms the recessive blue.

The next two paintings, "Triacon Shadowing" and "T - O Table," are both dark blue and recall the work that Richert did in the late 1990s. In both, Richert illustrates a three-dimensional space defined by grids, but only in "T - O Table," which concerns the Periodic Table of Elements, is the grid visible.

Believe it or not, Richert connects "T - O Table" to two of the remaining paintings, "H - AR Periods" and "LA - AC Periods," because all three feature a little colored-square grid that Richert calls a "logo." But aside from the logo, "H - AR Periods" and "LA - AC Periods" are obviously more connected to one another and more connected to the final tour de force, "Magic Tet." All three are gray color-field paintings in which Richert has placed a variety of different geometric constructions arrayed in an elaborate composition that is asymmetrical and only tenuously balanced.

The three gray paintings are the most minimal things Richert has ever done. Vast areas of the paintings are done in the same flat color, though drips and runs create visual variety.

Richert has done some unexpected things in the "Wo-Wa-Wo Series" -- unexpected coming from him, anyway. For instance, while he determined his color choices using his usual formulas, which he followed to the letter, he also chose some colors just because he thought they looked good. What a concept! "It's something I learned from my students, who use colors courageously," he says. (As head of the painting department at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Richert has a number of former students who have made their own reputations, notably Bruce Price, Jason Hoelscher and Mary Ehren. Also among his protegés are two of this year's hottest young talents, John Morrison and Karen McClanahan.)

Even weirder -- for Richert anyway -- was that he made arbitrary compositional choices. In each of the paintings, there's an element that doesn't follow the program as expressed in the rest of the work. Richert says these unusual passages are meant to remind him of his next planned series, in which both the arbitrary and automatic choices in color and shape will be more pronounced.

I had the opportunity to tour the show with Richert last week, and he elaborately described every part of each painting. He talked about "tessellations" and "fifth-dimensional cubes," about this theorem and that postulate. And I didn't understand a word of it. Luckily, that doesn't really matter, because the paintings have visual appeal independent of all of those mathematical underpinnings.

Richert has not been the subject of a solo show since 1997, when he presented his work at the Arvada Center. Thus the Rule show is a rare opportunity to see his mastery. It is clearly one of the best and most important art shows mounted thus far this fall -- and that's really saying something this season.


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