The Clocktower Gallery, one of Manhattan’s oldest alternative art spaces, returned to its roots last fall for a retrospective of Dale Henry (1931-2011), the final exhibition to be held at its downtown address. The little-known American artist was a key player during the unfolding of Post-Minimalism in New York in the 1970s, showing at the John Weber Gallery, Fischbach Gallery and P.S. 1’s inaugural “Rooms” exhibition. Since his departure from the city in 1986 to live in rural Virginia, Henry has slipped into relative obscurity, eventually bequeathing his entire artistic output to independent curator Alanna Heiss, founder-director of the Clocktower (and formerly of P.S. 1).
Part two of “Dale Henry: The Artist Who Left New York,” featuring work that was exhibited at the Clocktower as well as previously unseen art, was recently on view at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Devotedly curated by Heiss, Beatrice Johnson, sculptor Richard Nonas and Dustin Yellin (artist and founder of the nonprofit Pioneer Works), the exhibition presented eight bodies of work that amounted to over 100 individual pieces, spanning the 1950s to the 2000s.
Henry worked within an expanded definition of painting that moved from investigations of support materials (such as stretcher bars, canvas and paper) to explorations of the installation of the art object and methods of theatrical display. Paintings from the 1950s and ’60s made in San Francisco reveal a variety of abstract forms that have the psychological timbre of Rorschach tests. Modestly framed in raw wood and painted mostly in neutral colors on canvas or linen, the small works are reminiscent of Forrest Bess’s visionary paintings as well as the gothic-beatnik abstractions of Jay DeFeo.
Themes that emerged in each group of work were a longing for the image and the creation of a radical viewing experience unmediated by commercial interests. In the installation Plan of the Uffizi (1973), fragmented images of Renaissance paintings taken from a guidebook to the eponymous museum are painted in clear acrylic on a series of 23 trapezoidal canvases, meant to evoke the dimensions of an airplane seat. A wooden lectern placed in front of the paintings displays the museum guidebook, allowing the viewer two methods of spectatorship, each a pale, if strangely personalized, substitute for the famous artworks.
Three furniture installations from the 1978 series “Interiors” each comprise a wooden table, a chair and a monochrome painting, along with a smaller wall painting protected behind glass. Each set is painted either a deep cobalt or cadmium red. There is a mystical, schoolboy intensity to the works, evoking a protagonist who has just abandoned the scene. The cathedral scale of Pioneer Works lent an operatic presence to the brightly painted triad of chair, desk and painting; the Pop modernity of the colors fit inexplicably with the Quaker simplicity of the furniture arrangement.
Henry’s work speaks to the act of painting as a state of mind, and there is a devotional aspect to his preference for either an extreme visibility to the paint or a watery non-presence. The “Continuous Lineage Drawings” (1973) are part of a larger group of works (titled the “Four Series”) that use stringy, clear lines of emulsion on the inside of Plexiglas box frames to describe a variety of representational and abstract images. The familiar outline of a prehistoric cave animal in one box is next to another containing the dips and dashes of metrical scansion, both pieces embodying a kind of Morse code poetry. From across the room, the emulsion is not legible, and all that can be seen is a row of empty plastic boxes. This slippage between visibility and invisibility comments unwittingly on Henry’s own remarkable presence in New York for a short time and his subsequent vanishing act. What remains is the material life of the work.