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.