artists never get off the ground, and some soar and fade away,
while others are cut down so abruptly that we never know what
they might have done. Don Sorenson was an artist of the third
died last year at 36, a victim of acquired immune deficiency syndrome
(AIDS) and in the throes of an aesthetic upheaval. He had won
the County Museum of Art's Young Talent Purchase Award
in 1984 (with Gifford Myers), certainly a prestigious vote of
confidence from the the Establishment, but his last exhibition
in Los Angeles, at the Roy Boyd Gallery in 1982, presented him
in a state of turmoil.
had abandoned his trademark abstractions— dynamic fields
of zigzags interwoven with diagonal grids— and joined the
fashionable parde of Neo-Expressionists and Post-Modern pastiche
artists. Change was probably overdue, but Sorenson seemed to have
run so far from home base that was in for extended period of transition.
public career might have ended there, with a big question mark,
if UC Irvine hadn't organized a mini-retrospective called "In
Memory of Don Sorenson (194801985)." The exhibition of a
dozen major paintings plus a few small studies and papier mache
wall pieces is in the University's art gallery through May 31.
exhibition performs an important service for Sorenson and early
admirers who had become alarmed over the turn his art had taken.
The show not only points out the continuity in his painting but
establishes, in works done last year, that he had taken a serious
step toward resolving his aesthetic conflict.
front room holds three big canvases— two from 1972, one
from 1976— that recall the young artist who gained recognition
not long after he graduated from Cal State Northridge. From an
elegant, silvery lightning field to a turbulent canvas meshing
peach zigzags and multi-colored grids with a teeming undertow
of green brush strokes, these paintings demonstrate that Sorenson's
logo style had considerable range built into it. They also set
forth a persistent interest in the tension between chaos and order.
the main gallery, the lightning streaks return in two guises:
packaged and framed like the interior of a Greek temple, or as
cartoonish zaps either setting off classical figures or radiating
nervous energy. By far, the splashiest work shown and the most
visually emphatic, these paintings from 1981 to 1983 are loaded
tried them on, like an exotic costume, and no matter how many
familiar devices he tacked on them, they look self-consciously
concocted. He was uncomfortable with the figue and it shows in
his appropriations of classical sculpture.
got worse in 1983, in two big, messy painting called "The
Board Room" and "The Operation."
first features rudimentary figures standing around a table; in
the second, a patch of baely drawn people gather around a contorted
patient with a heart-shaped heart. Just in case you don't get
it, OPERATION is prominently written across his body.
is some structure to these works— they fan out from the
center, rather like flowers— but they flop all over the
place. Social commentary was obvisously intended, but Sorenson
was even less comfortable with that than with classical pastiches.
The result is a disasterous muddle.
only reason for including these paintings is to show that they
led to a decided improvement. In a series of four monochromatic
brown canvases from 1985, Sorenson made a statling recovery. These
aren't paintings to love— they're probably too grim and
calculated— but they are definetely art to admire. Here
he drew on his talent for organization and even managed to work
in historiacl references and social criticism without letting
them get the best of him.
centered compositional device used in the 1983 failures now shape
up, wedded to the taut interweavings of the '70s abstractions.
But in place of primitive figures, classical icons or zigzags
are swirling masses of biomorphic and geometric volumes. Clearly
defined yet loosely modeled, they combine Sorenson's penchant
for simultaneous precision and expressive gesture.
a piece called "Power," an overall ring partially encloses
these forms, as if to control the disparate elements. "Fate,"
the tightest and most satisfying work, unfolds around a dinner
table, while "Seductions" and "Rape" leave
a bit more to the imagination. In each painting, the title appears
as a stenciled work, as if engraved on a tombstone or building.
papier-mache "masks" are similarly swirling compositions
that only vaguely resemble faces.
them next to the late canvases points up the paintings' affinity
Sorenson lived, it seems likely that he would have developed the
ideas in these monochromatic paintings in color, probably pushing
them to the limits of complexity as he did in his earlier abstractions.
The only thing we know for sure is that he was on to something.