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“Icon Culture: The Late

Paintings of Simon Gouverneur”

At the McLean Project for the Arts to Oct. 28

It’s been said that in the game of modern art, the only rule is to keep changing the rules. In his last paintings, Simon Gouverneur may have changed them faster than anybody. Not so much on a macro level—his oeuvre is fairly cohesive, given that a series might comprise only a handful of related canvases—but within the framework of each piece. It’s our job as viewers to follow his moves, but we’re continually thwarted. His paintings are maps we are compelled to read but find impossible to decipher.

When Gouverneur hanged himself in his Washington studio in December 1990, he left behind a small painted legacy, a devoted cult of students and fans, a widow and three ex-wives, and an estate that would be tied up in court for years. Nearly a decade later, McLean Project for the Arts Exhibitions Director Andrea Pollan is free to stage his memorial exhibition. There are only 22 paintings, all from the ’80s, after Gouverneur moved to D.C., and a dozen or so color copies of contemporaneous notebook pages. Don’t be surprised if you spend hours with them and come away feeling as if you’ve barely been introduced. (If you miss the show in McLean or want to pay a second visit, it also runs Nov. 16 to Dec. 17 in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where Gouverneur taught for most of the ’80s.)

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In this season of Bridget Riley’s reconsideration, it may be Peyote (1983) that offers a grabby, accessible way in. Optically active zigzags undulate in chartreuse, maroon, blue, orange, and hallucinatory ocher. Aside from one watercolor, Peyote is the earliest painting included, and although it doesn’t represent the complex symbolic schemes that would come to dominate Gouverneur’s canvases, it establishes a few constants. In purely visual terms, it introduces motifs of repetition and variation that would assume a conceptual role in subsequent, more complex work. As in all the late work, color fills in a hard-edge linear architecture, animating the underlying patterns. Taut acrylic underpainting glows around the edges of dusky, chalky, homemade egg tempera, creating two-tone zones of flux that delicately register the incarnation of thought by the hand.

In Snare (1985), the formal distortion is geometric, à la Robert Mangold. A diamond-shaped grid partitioned into triangles stretches as if the canvas were elastic. Euclid still reigns over this Flatland, but the pure mathematical plane his laws require is now subject to myriad subtle corruptions. The painting’s impact derives chiefly from the torsion of black lines against a gray background, but it is intensified by the colored dots (black, white, red, yellow, orange, brown, green, blue) that are apportioned one to a triangle. If Peyote’s colors were laid out to meet retinal stipulations, Snare’s guiding principles are less easily defined. Enough of what initially looks like chance turns out to be design that you come to mistrust your ability to perceive complex order. Gouverneur undermines the ego without overwhelming the mind. His elements are maddeningly numerable, but their arrangement rests just slightly beyond our grasp.

Similarly elusive color configurations characterize Isomorph (1985), in which Life Saver-like rings are hemmed in by black stripes against a Teaberry-gum-colored field, and Constellated (1985), whose 10-pointed stars play against a black ground. In the same year’s Ebb Tide Flight, Gouverneur reduced his palette to blue and white to create rippling patterns so hypnotically dynamic that it takes an embarrassingly long time (at least it did for me) to realize that he constructed the image by repeating and reorienting a single tilelike configuration of three arcs.

The permutational table of Jester (1986) presents Gouverneur at his most mathematical. In each of the 64 boxes of an eight-by-eight grid is a circle. Inside each circle are six droplike shapes that point either left or right, like digital bits. Two to the sixth power equals 64; there’s one box per permutation. If you assign each orientation a 1 or a 0 and total each group of six, a diagonally symmetric numerical pattern results. But that’s the easy part. A stalk attaches each circle to its box, pointing either up or down. And nine numerals, ranging between 1 and 8, wrap around the stalkless side of the circle. They are apparently related to pencil lines that cut across the circle through the droplet-bits. I keep trying to figure this stuff out, but Jester’s Soviet red, black, and white pack a distracting punch. The formal rigor of the design keeps luring my eye, causing the house of cards in my head to collapse. At times like this, Gouverneur seems to be working a dastardly twist on the programmatic image construction of Sol LeWitt. But with LeWitt, the point is that simple rules can produce peculiar, even funny, visual outcomes. Gouverneur uses the visuals to pull the rug of the rules out from under you.

In Gouverneur’s last few years, his canvases grew tangled with symbols taken from a smorgasbord of world cultures. In these pictures, Christian meets Buddhist, Tchokwe meets Maori, Greek myth joins with Vedic mysticism, Haitian Voudon jostles Huichol shamanism. Having been preceded by the self-contained, borderline-representational episodes of Vessel (1987) and The Fifth Day (1988), the looser arrangements of forms in Codex One and A Tale (both 1989) suggest the narrative sweep of epic poetry and tribal myths. Gouverneur hit his peak with the four mandalalike paintings that form the capstone of “Icon Culture”: In Mara (1989), Ecce Homo (1989), Two-Toe (1988), and Welkin (1987), pattern and symbol achieve a synthesis that places Gouverneur in the top rank of Washington abstractionists. These pictures are a persuasive evocation of the overarching, interwoven spiritual reality, superhuman if not supernatural, that he sought.

Gouverneur tended to wear his sources on his sleeve, from Mangold and LeWitt to Washington Color School dons Kenneth Noland and Tom Downing, both of whom are indispensable to the mandala paintings. Even Gouverneur’s blending of mathematical program and mystical intent is not unprecedented, owing as it does to Alfred Jensen (1903-1981), a Guatemalan-born painter who taught briefly at the Maryland Institute in the late ’50s and exhibited regularly in New York, and whose work was seen in “Different Drummers” at the Hirshhorn in 1988. But whereas Jensen’s work is strengthened by the breaking of its codes, Gouverneur’s depends on their remaining intact.

It’s inadvisable to romanticize the struggles of a suicide, but in Gouverneur’s case it’s tough to avoid. The least we can do is refuse to romanticize his death, so here goes: I don’t think Gouverneur killed himself because he was a soul-tripping Tantalus; I think he killed himself because he refused to take his meds. That said, he did view his own quest, as embodied in his art, in mythic terms, and if you’re going to bother to look, you owe it to yourself to heed the voice of your inner modernist. He wasn’t casual or cheap with the heavy cultural freight, or even direct. But his paintings did aspire to the scale of myth.

One of the epigraphs to a catalog of the work of Judith Rothschild, whose memorial foundation provided part of the funding for the present show, is a familiar quotation from Madame Bovary. In Francis Steegmuller’s translation it goes like this: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” By confounding all manner of human languages, written and symbolic and visual, Gouverneur strove to create celestial sounds from the clatter, songs whose melodies haunt us because they never reveal themselves in full. CP