Whitehot Magazine

Everything the Light Touches: Sixty Years Of Karen Gunderson

 Karen Gunderson, Beaver Moon, 2024, oil on linen, 20x20 inches


By KATIE CERCONE March 29, 2024

On View March 30 – May 4, 2024

Opening Reception: Friday, April 5, 2024, 6 – 9pm

Erin Cluley Gallery, Dallas, TX

Coinciding with the artist’s 80th year on this earth, Erin Cluley Gallery of Dallas, Texas presents a retrospective of New York based painter Karen Gunderson. Celebrating sixty years of her career arc - from prescient skyscapes to monochromatic black - the show spotlights Gunderson’s unparalleled contributions to contemporary painting and post-minimalism.

Born 1943 in Racine, Wisconsin, Karen Gunderson began her formal study of Art in the 1960s. She earned her bachelors in Art Education from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater before completing an MFA at University of Iowa. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Gunderson studied with Tom Parker, who would become a dear friend and lifelong mentor. In addition to having a significant influence on her painting style, Parker encouraged young Gunderson to major in Art and Be fearless!” As a graduate student at The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, Gunderson turned her attention to natural subjects. She would become the first student to receive a degree in Intermedia, a progressive and interdisciplinary program founded by Hans Breder. A steady advocate of Gunderson’s genius, Breder’s seeds of influence flourished later on with the birth of Gunderson’s notorious black period. Picking up where the 19th-century French Impressionists left off, Gunderson revisited old world classics like the Sunflowers of Vincent Van Gogh during this time. Her intermedia spin on the impressionist canon incorporated unconventional materials such as plexiglass, polyresin and super-8 film. 

Included on display in her 80th year retrospective are rare works from her art school days, among them Brain Box - a petite, anatomical diagram rendered in grayscale and rainbow. Brain Box contours neurological shapes to emphasize the movement of light. In early works like Brain Box and others, one can trace visually evidence of the artist’s emerging signature style, particularly, treatment of contour and light which has evolved to the point of mastery in Gunderson’s sea and cloudscapes. 

 Karen Gunderson, Brain Box, circa 1968, acrylic and oil on paper, 18x24 inches

 By 1973, Gunderson had made a full move to New York City, bringing everything she owned in a big truck and dedicated her practice to large-scale skyscapes. Over time, her brushstrokes and breathtaking portrayal of the dynamic movement of light across clouds, surf and other natural surfaces would secure the artist a significant place adjacent art world notables like Ad Reinhardt, Pierre Soulages and Sol LeWitt. Speaking of the latter, Gunderson was not so secretly influenced by Lewitt, whom many today hail as a father of both minimalism and conceptualism. Counting Lewitt amongst her circle of close friends, whilst Gunderson commenced painting her signature cloudscapes, Lewitt was doing photographic works of clouds. Their sky clad, parallel trajectory is evidenced by a 1978 work Lewitt signed affectionately before gifting the work to Gunderson. 

Another gust of prominent support under Karens sails was Elaine de Kooning, who helped her get her first New York City Gallery show at Fischbach Gallery. She  along with Gundersons husband convinced Gunderson to quit her job and start painting full time. Hallmark paintings on canvas emerging from this period include Sky Journey (1985). This work appears to have formalized officially Gundersons ethereal vision in one magnified section of cloud formations. It was around this time that New York Times critic Michael Brenson would begin to speak of the artists paintings as monumental works.” Later on, critic Donald Kuspit would dub Karen one of the New Old Masters.”   

Fast forward a couple of years, another iconic cloudscape titled Memory (1987), affords the somber, penultimate measure of the artist’s cloud period spanning over twenty-five years of studio time. Completing her final cloud paintings in somber grays and blacks, by the late 1980s, Gunderson was busy renouncing color all together - plunging into monochromatic black. Painting at the time from her rented Tribeca loft, black was a quiet homage to her dealer of the day at Fischbach Gallery Aladar Marberger - who was then dying of AIDS. Interesting to note that the black period schema was in many ways foreshadowed by Gunderson’s clouds. The subtle radiance achieved in Gunderson’s cloud renderings relies on a technique involving monochromatic black underpainting, what is then covered with color to intensify saturation and accentuate form. Gunderson partially credits her friend, American sculptor Jonathon Silver, for building a bridge from the clouds to black paintings. Upon observing her underpainting style, Silver suggested they’d be great as finished works. It wasn’t long before Karen would wholeheartedly embrace this advice, committing the remainder of her career thus far to a single-hued palette.

Karen Gunderson, Memory, 1987, oil on linen, 134x56 inches

In a 2020 interview with Noah Becker, Gunderson equates the black-on-black motif with a kind of synesthesia, saying “People look at it and they follow the brush strokes with their eyes and can mentally feel how it felt to make them.” In this dynamic conversation Gunderson also spoke to being influenced by Eastern (primarily Chinese) painting concepts with their emphasis on essence. As if in tune with the wondrous flow of organic matter the artist speaks to painting  “sweeping strokes for water, short jagged strokes for mountain rocks, gentle slow strokes for flowers and so on.” (1) 

By 2001, Gunderson’s signature all-black painting style was rocketing her to international stardom.  Claiming 2nd prize at the prestigious Florence Biennale and earning a place in celebrity collections such as that of actor Will Smith; several of Gunderson’s most famous works came to find homes in permanent museum collections. Today Karen’s paintings can be found around the world, including at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Milwaukee Art Museum, Racine Art Museum, The University of Wisconsin and The Center for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castilla-La Manch.

By 2002, Gunderson’s collected black paintings were at The Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain, coronating the first solo exhibition given to an American woman at one of Madrid’s leading sites of contemporary art. Within that same year Gunderson was appointed as an American Ambassador invited to Lome, Togo, where she participated in the Art in Embassies program. Engaging local artists in workshop and discussion, Gunderson shared some of her characteristic techniques with up-and-coming painters of the area and was featured in the Togolese media. Just three years later, the black paintings would become the documentary subject of award-winning filmmaker Lisa Ades’s film "The Black Paintings by Karen Gunderson" (2005). In 2016 Karen Gunderson: The Dark World of Light, a thorough monograph of the artist’s work was written by acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning author and art critic Elizabeth Frank and published by Art book publishing company Abbeville Press and the late Robert Abrams.  The Dark World of Light, as the title suggest, includes everything from Gunderson’s graduate school work to the artists lesser known series on moral courage, plus cloud paintings and the always enduring black series. 

On view at the comprehensive 2024 Texas retrospective at Erin Cluley Gallery and simultaneously at the Dallas Art Fair are four shades of black paintings. Since 1988 the artist has worked in this way. While the majority of black-on-black paintings capture the natural environment, a few portray historical figures or subjects of ‘moral courage.’ Gunderson’s paintings through the years - of seascapes and moons, of clouds and sky - highlight exquisitely not just the calming influence shape, tone, and texture has upon the nervous system, but the myriad restorative powers of nature and arguably, the great mystery itself. 

Karen Gunderson, Big Waves, 2024, oil on linen, 80x80 inches

For an artist that has consistently pushed the limits of paint, just as she has shattered all ceilings confining female painters to the periphery of men, above all else - perhaps the dynamic kernel at the center of Gunderson’s breathtaking body of work is less about the meaning of black and more about the dance of opposites. Call it the dance of wind on waves, the dance of light and shadow or the dance nearly invisible particles of water make shifting across the sky we colloquially call clouds. Gunderson’s subtle mastery of form matched with a lifelong commitment to her craft makes the works in this retrospective beyond comparison, if not, hypnotic in their own right.  WM

About Karen Gunderson

Since the late-1960s, Gundersons work has appeared in major publications such as The New York Times, Arts Magazine, ARTnews, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB Magazine and The Village Voice. She was the subject of a recent monograph, Karen Gunderson: The Dark World of Light, written by Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, Elizabeth Frank, published by Abbeville Press in 2016. Gunderson currently lives and works in Coxsackie, NY.

Learn more at https://www.karengunderson.com

Follow the artist on INSTAGRAM @karengundersonpaintings


1. “Karen Gunderson: A Sense of Touch” Noah Becker, Whitehot Magazine, June 2020


Katie Cercone

Katie Cercone was born 1984 in Santa Rosa, CA and is an interdisciplinary artist, yogi, writer, curator, and instructor of a course called Gender Trouble at the School of Visual Art. Cercone has published critical writing in ART PAPERS, Brooklyn Rail, Posture, Hysteria Magazine, Bitch Magazine, REVOLT, Utne Reader, N.Paradoxa and Public Art Dialogue, as well as curated shows for Momenta Art, Sensei Gallery, Cue Art Foundation and NurtureArt. Cercone was a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow for the JUSFC Exchange Program in Tokyo, Japan. Check her out on instagram as @MysticalRatchet

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