Paint by Numbers

Clark Richert comes by his scientific bent honestly. His two older brothers grew up to be physicists, and his younger sister is a physician. Richert followed a different trajectory, studying painting at the University of Kansas, from which he received his BFA in 1963. But the bug was in his blood: For more than three decades now, the esteemed Denver painter has made science the principal subject of his art.

Richert, who teaches at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, is currently the subject of the magnificent solo show Clark Richert: Unfolding the Vacuum: A Series of Painted Diagrams, which is halfway through a three-month run in the Lower Galleries of the Arvada Center. Organized by Arvada Center curator Kathy Andrews, the show brings together more than a dozen large Richert paintings, some dating back to the 1970s and '80s, and supplements them with several of his recent computer-generated prints. Both the paintings and the prints rest on a simple foundation: the idea that there is art to be found in Richert's scientific approach to aesthetics.

It was a happy accident that led Richert to come to Colorado after graduating from KU. He attended a show at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum that featured the work of art-faculty members from various state universities. There Richert saw the work of George Woodman, a fine-art professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was so impressed with Woodman's abstract paintings that he decided then and there to go to graduate school at CU. Interestingly, Woodman had not yet begun the geometric pattern paintings that would later bring him national fame--and neither had Richert.

Boulder in the mid-1960s was not so much an art center as it was a locus for the great social changes then being carried out by the youth movement. Richert found himself swept up in these changes, leaving Boulder in 1965 with a group of fellow students to establish the "Drop City" commune outside Trinidad, in southern Colorado. Drop City exists today only in ruins. But in the 1960s it became justly famous for the geodesic and other domed structures that Richert designed and built using steel salvaged from wrecked cars. These domes are early examples of Richert's attempt to reconcile art and science in the tradition of the geodesic dome's originator, Buckminster Fuller, who was part engineer and part designer and who wound up figuring in the histories of both art and science.

Drop City was abandoned in 1968--about the same time that most people first heard about it. Richert went on to build domes for other communes, including New Buffalo and the Llama Foundation--both New Mexico spinoffs of Drop City--but eventually returned to Boulder, where he received his MFA in 1972.

For Richert, the 1970s represented a tremendous period of creativity and advancement. Still interested in working on communal projects--though now from the comfort of his own studio--Richert joined with other like-minded artists in the Criss-Cross group, which was organized in 1974 to promote exhibitions and produce an art magazine. Core group members such as Richard Kallweit and Charles Di Julio were fellow Drop City alumni--in fact, the money to launch Criss-Cross came from the sale of the Drop City property. Membership in the group, though, extended beyond the former communards to include mentor Woodman, among other nationally known artists.

Richert says the name "Criss-Cross" was meant to suggest "vectors temporarily in close proximity." All of the artists in the group were working in the pattern-and-decoration movement, a derivative of minimalism in which paintings were reduced to geometric patterns. The Unfolding the Vacuum show in Arvada begins with one of the paintings from the Criss-Cross period, the spectacular "Isometric Space Coded," an acrylic on canvas from 1977. Like most of the paintings in the show, it comes courtesy of the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, which represents Richert.

"Isometric Space Coded" features an all-over pattern that appears to be totally flat but is in fact, says Richert, "a diagram of three-dimensional space." The pale-blue work has been covered with hundreds of tightly conceived tiny squares organized by an overall linear grid that incorporates vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. Even the color scheme of the squares--vivid pinks, oranges, purples and greens--has been arranged according to a preordained mathematical formula.

Richert posited "Isometric Space Coded" as an alternative to minimalism, a style that was then working overtime painting itself into a corner. Implicit in minimalism was relentless reductivism--removing all the "non-essentials" from art. The logical result of this approach was to pare down the work to nothing at all, leading some artists to actually exhibit blank canvases--and later leave the realm of objects completely in order to embrace conceptual art. Richert instead took the flat color fields and hard edges of minimalism and used them to create extremely dense pattern paintings that were anything but minimal.

For a time in the 1970s, Richert continued to create geometric patterns of the type seen in "Isometric Space Coded." But soon he began to insert related forms into the patterns. The Arvada show includes an early example of this style, the 1986 acrylic on canvas "Quark Theory." Here the basis of the painting is a dense, three-dimensional pattern whose color scheme has been predetermined through mathematical formulas. A black square has been placed hard on the picture plane, and a rectangular binary tree also appears. Richert added these formal elements to create a hidden conceptual symmetry that looks downright asymmetrical.

"Based on the fact that the universe is symmetrical, physicist Paul Dirac postulated that implicit in matter is anti-matter," says Richert. "So I began to think of symmetry in art in the same way. The three-dimensional pattern is balanced by the flat forms."

Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Richert continued to use opposing pairs in his paintings, setting depth against flatness and patterns against singular shapes. He even contrasted abstraction against representational illusion, an unlikely combination shown off in the gigantic "Number Lore," which is represented by only one of its four components in the Arvada Center show. The panel in the show is nine feet tall and more than twelve feet across--the entire four-part painting is 45 feet long!

The panel from "Number Lore" reveals a view of a lobby, beyond which are a series of large glass windows with a building in the background. "Number Lore" was commissioned in 1989 by the Fulenwider Corporation to embellish the lobby of its sleek Skidmore, Owings and Merrill-designed high-rise office building at 1125 17th Street. A couple of years ago Fulenwider decided to sell the building and, not coincidentally, the painting. They contacted Richert and asked if he'd like to buy it back. "What could I do with it?" he asks. "It's so large; where could I put it?" Eventually, art consultant Catherine Smith Warren came up with an innovative solution. Fulenwider donated "Number Lore" to Red Rocks Community College, where it currently hangs--minus the panel temporarily on display in the Arvada Center exhibit. "I think it looks better at Red Rocks," Richert says of the move. "In the original lobby, there were red glass panels on the wall that I frankly felt were oppressive."

In addition to older paintings such as "Number Lore," the Arvada exhibit features seven recently completed paintings from Richert's elegant "Unfolding the Vacuum" series. In these paintings, Richert is still illustrating three-dimensional space, but he has dispensed with representational subjects. First in the series is "The Complex Cube," a 1996 acrylic on canvas. "This painting is about nothing," says Richert of the essentially monochromatic dark-blue piece. But with its fascinating grids and subtle gradations of color, it's still something to see.

The same blue color scheme is seen throughout the "Unfolding the Vacuum" series. However, each painting marks an intellectual advancement in the series, adding additional hues and elements. In 1997's "First Plane," a planar form is introduced into the grid. And as the "Unfolding the Vacuum" series unfolds, Richert crams in more and more variations. In "The Elements," another acrylic on canvas from 1997, he has added four separate forms, recalling the density of his work of the '70s and '80s.

More than most artists, Richert has given a lot of thought to the underlying logic of his work. His explorations of physics and mathematics are often honed to such a fine point that few viewers can hope to grasp all the ideas. But it doesn't matter. The paintings in the Unfolding the Vacuum show don't need to be supported by any rationale. Explainable or not, they pack a powerful visual punch.

Clark Richert: Unfolding the Vacuum: A Series of Painted Diagrams, through November 16 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia