UNTITLED #0-476, Acrylic on Canvas, 66" x 114"










Victory #2-781 , 1982, 84" x 83"
oil on canvas



The Boardroom, 1983
oil on canvas, 72" x 96"


The Operation, 1983
oil on canvas, 72" x 96"





Some 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 kind.

He 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.

Sorenson 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.

His 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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 with trouble.

Sorenson 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.

Things got worse in 1983, in two big, messy painting called "The Board Room" and "The Operation."

The 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.

There 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Three papier-mache "masks" are similarly swirling compositions that only vaguely resemble faces.

Seeing them next to the late canvases points up the paintings' affinity to sculpture.

Had 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.

Suzanne Muchnic
Times Art Writer
—Los Angeles Times,
May 13, 1986




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