Ken Cro-Ken: The Conduct of Paint
April 1 through April 30, 2021
By Anthony Haden-Guest, April 2021
Artists working their way towards pure abstraction will be coming from different directions, channeling distinct energies and drawing on distinct sources of information. Such energies and sources may be spiritual, philosophical or borderline crackpot, as with Kandinsky, Malevitch and Piet Mondrian, who were hugely influenced by The Secret Doctrine, a once influential tract by Madam Blavatsky, the co-founder of Theosophy. Other artists have developed abstraction from figuration and their sources can be highly specific, as with the tree drawings of Mondrian - yes, him again – or Peter Lanyon, the Brit Ab Ex, who was enchanted by the landscapes he saw as a glider pilot. Or they can be general, as with De Kooning and Lee Krasner who would make work alluding both to landscape and the human form.
So to the practice of the late and under-known Ken Cro-Ken. Which was like that of no other artist with whose work I am familiar. The show’s title, The Conduct of Paint, tells the story. Cro-Ken would begin an artwork with the pigments and the work would go went whichever way the pigments took him. So they are accidents? Well, just about any painter uses accident as part of the work process to some degree or other. For some it can be a very great degree, such as the Russian-born Brit artist, Alexander Cozens, who published a pamphlet in 1785 about a method he had invented of developing landscape drawings from blots. A blot, he wrote, was “a production of chance with a small degree of design” and he noted that his invention had been much influenced by a passage in Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting, which recommends that artists should look for inspiration in stains or marks on old walls.
Cro-Ken‘s work was influenced by the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote in his Essay on Beauty: Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or scarlet stain affords the eye. The climbing scale which Emerson then shared with readers concluded with the ineffable mysteries of the intellect. So the thinky part was powered by an essay published in the 1840s. but Cro-Ken’s making of the work was enabled by late 20th Century science which allowed him to to move on from merely using accidents or pre-existing markings to the harnessing of processes within pigments by the use of chemical catalysts. The late John Torreano, an abstractionist, and friend of Cro-Ken, has written: These catalysts increase the speed of change that would ordinarily take thousands, or even millions of natural years. In this way, he sets into motion a miniature geological event equivalent to what happens on earth in the vast places of the universe. Through "extended" observation he sees relationships at microscopic and macroscopic levels. From his hyper-miniaturized reality, he asks the viewer to engage with a meta-space and take an imaginary ride with him, as he would say, to "bear witness" to the action of the ultimate creator.
Cro-Ken would conduct these durational paint experiments in a variety of climates and atmospheres - snow, heavy rain, summer heat – to capture a wide range of natural effects on the pigments he was putting to work. And it was also through this sequential process that the most ordinary found objects would morph into a multi-dimensional objecthood. My pursuit is constant: to remain connected to Nature with a sense of play and all that results from it, Cro-Ken wrote. I manipulate space, time, and matter, though the matter is never just paint.
In July 2013 Cro-Ken had a show at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, one of New York’s more art-aware science space, for which, as a self-described eco-artist, he was a perfect fit. I mix paints and catalysts to recreate the push-pull forces that shape all things: including paint, ran the artist’s statement on the info sheet. The use of the phrase “Push and pull” referenced the Ab Ex painter and teacher, Hans Hofmann, who famously used it to describe making planes of strong color rise or recede to create pictorial space. Ken Cro-Ken though was taking Hofmann’s phrase into a direction, which was less formal, less about the picture plane as an aesthetic arena, more that it was an area he could make a conduit for Nature, in concert with seasonal and elemental forces. Time was an art material in Ken Cro-Ken’s work. These interesting times seem a good time to take a close look at it. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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