from the catalog
of the 20th Anniversary of the Fine Arts Gallery, University of
California, Irvine show catalog
In Memory of Don Sorenson, 1948-85:
A Selection of Painting, Drawings and Sculpture
shown May 8-31, 1986
who completed graduate school in 1973, taught painting as a visiting
artist at UCI in 1980 and 1981. Modernist rhetoric was losing favor
and with it abstract painting. In spite of art school pressures
toward narrative, conceptual and installation art forms, filtered
westward from the New York press, Sorensen remained firmly committed
to painting In
his very literate graduate thesis written in 1973 in defense of
painting, Sorenson stated
is needed now is a new structure— one that goes beyond the
ninety degree, vertical and horizontal grid. Our modernist epic
is drawing to a close, another structure is being formed, and it
appears we are on the threshold of the new.
referring here to ideas outlined in George Kubler's book, The
Shape of Time. The young artist's search for a contributively
viable vocabulary for painting has from the beginning incorporated
the structural format of Modernism— a grid structure and geometric
form— only to be subverted by gestural layering, splattering
and idiosyncratic coloration. With this painterly style Sorenson
deliberately creates spatial illusions that are antithetical to
the modernist dictum of truth to the flatness of the picture plane.
It is important
for understanding his work to know the two basic parameters—
form and content— which inform his pursuit of a new structure.
paintings are amalgams of the polar opposites with which large stylistic
swings in the history of art have been described: intellect and
emotion, order and randomness, control and accident, structure and
chaos, straight line and amorphous color, gloss and matte, literal
flatness and illusionistic depth, figure and ground and so forth.
It is through a synthesis of art history that Sorenson finds his
unique place in the world of contemporary art.
to content, Sorenson involves himself with painting because of its
potential for spiritual metaphor. In this regard he recalls Agnes
Martin's lecture at the Pasadena Museum in the early 1970's as a
pivotal influence, together with his art historical study of writings
by 20th century painters like Kandinsky, Mal evich and Mondrian.
Raised in a
strict Lutheran family, Sorenson had experienced ecstatic religious
visions when he was a student and more recently when practicing
Zen meditation. "If I weren't an artist I would probably be
a monk," he says. However, having opted to "stay in the
world," he found in painting an ecstatic and visionary activity
which which hinted at, but was different from, his other spiritual
By the 1980s,
shadowy, nearly subliminal figures began to hover behind Sorenson's
complexly interwoven zig-zag compositions. At first the new configurations
were geometric shapes— spirals, parallelograms and the like.
But soon the artist began making references to his favorite periods
in art history, beginning with a painting in homage to Matisse's
Moroccans. His next move was back in time to ancient Greek
gods and goddesses— Apollo, Jupiter, Nike and Venus, for example.
These figures quickly asserted themselves in the foreground, relegating
the abstract zig-zag patterns to symbolic background elements, enframed
by shaped canvas in the form of Greek temples, with a pediment and
two columns built in to their framing structures. Thus in this
series of paintings, the Greek iconography enabled the artist
to integrate both his interest in geometry and the human figure.
interest in figuration coincided with a similar mood in the art
world at large. In his work of this period, the surfaces became
more thickly impastoed than ever before, and the colors more intense.
1982 Sorenson's paintings contained more abstract and anxious
figures. Grouping such as that found in The Board Room
incorporated in their frenetic composition the emotional intensity
and fierce competition that not only characterizes corporate structure,
but also mirrors the larger cultural climate of late Capitalism.
The Operation, 1983, testified powerfully to the artist's
intense personal anxiety regarding his illness.
series of sepia paintings contained extremely abstracted figures
crowded into Bacchanalian scenes around heavily laden tables. With
titles like Fate, Seduction, Power and Rape, this
series evoked both Picasso's grotesquely bulbous female figure on
the beach from the late 1920s and Hogarth's moral allegories on
the themes of virtues and vices in the eighteenth century from The
Rake's Progress. These dense compositions of Sorenson's were
impressive in their mastery of a new vocabulary and powerful in
their commentaries on frightful and destructive actions that can
occur when a positive human emotion such as love, for example, is
exaggerated into the vice, lust. A series of painted
masks in the form of wall reliefs were three-dimensional counterparts
to the imagery in the sepia paintings.
The number of
stylistic changes Sorenson was willing to risk in the course of
his tragically short career contain the evidence of an extraordinarily
prolific and creative aesthetic life. And the work provides an eloquent
record of his profound aesthetic commitment.