Artist: Alfred Jensen

Wright celebrates the work of Alfred Jensen, a polymath painter who created singular works inspired equally by Romanticism, ancient histories and theories of color, mathematics and philosophy.
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Ancient calendar systems, the edge of the sun reappearing, have been a source of my concrete and symbolic number structures. I follow Pythagoras, who said, "Let the true principle be known, the beginning is the half of the whole."

Alfred Jensen

5 Things to Know About Alfred Jensen

Jensen’s use of color is almost entirely based upon Goethe’s prism-based color theories

English was his fifth language, after Spanish, Danish, German and French

He had a series of jobs before studying art, including as a seaman and a chicken farmer

In a school story about his family, his six-year-old son wrote, "My father is strong and good because he paints solar energy."

He never used the color gray

The edges of invisible shapes at the threshold of my awareness—the monuments and objects left by the ancient people, for example, are all in my mind together with an education in modern art in Germany, France, and the United States. What to make of it, but an allegory, in a new pictorial structure.

Alfred Jensen

Alfred Jensen 1903–1981

Alfred Jensen was called “one of the best painters in the United States” by Donald Judd and his style, both intellectual and intuitive, belies simple categorization. Inspired by his endless and far-ranging travels, as well as his interest in ancient civilizations, arcane texts, numerical systems, religion and ritual, architecture and color theory (to name just a few), Jensen’s paintings are “color-drenched puzzles,” that explore how we see and, throughout history, collectively organize what we observe into systems and beliefs.

Jensen was born in 1903 to a Danish father and a German-Polish mother in Guatemala City. He traveled extensively in his youth as an intermittent seaman, from 1917 to 1926. In 1924, after a short time owning a farm in Mexico, he moved to California and began his art training at the San Diego Fine Arts School and would later study under Hans Hofmann in Munich from 1926 to 1927. Mostly studying old masters drawings, Jensen felt stifled by the training and left school to travel with and advise the collecting habits of Saidie Adler May, a wealthy student he had met while studying with Hofmann who would serve as his patron for the next several decades. During these travels, he visited the studios of many of the greatest 20th century artists, including Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti. Jensen became a resident of the United States in 1934 but spent most of the next two decades working while traveling throughout Europe, North Africa and the US with May.

In 1951, upon May’s death, he established a studio in New York City, aligning himself with contemporary painters such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning and developing a close friendship with Mark Rothko. The late 1950s brought about Jensen’s mature work he is most celebrated for—large paintings of diagrams and grids of unmixed paint, featuring theories and text pulled from and inspired by disparate sources such as the I-Ching, Mayan calendars, ancient textiles and Goethe’s color theories. More than art, Jensen considered his paintings to be serious studies in color, light and logic.

The 1960s and 1970s brought about heightened interest in his work, as he further developed his style and his endless exploration into history’s wide-ranging philosophies. He showed extensively throughout Europe and New York and had solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1961 and 1985. Jensen died in 1981 near his home in New Jersey, leaving behind a complex and singular body of work. Dia Center for the Arts, New York held a retrospective of Jensen’s work in 2001.

Jensen is particularly partial to correlative systems, ways of hanging things together in an attempt to keep meaninglessness out of the universe...Making things hang together by will and imagination, and sometimes by any way that can be made to work.

Peter Parrin, "All the Beautiful Systems"

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