Whitehot Magazine

Whitehot Recommends: Everything the Light Touches: Sixty Years of Karen Gunderson

By WM March 5, 2024

From the press release:

Erin Cluley Gallery is pleased to announce Everything the Light Touches: Sixty Years of Karen Gunderson, a retrospective of work by New York based painter Karen Gunderson. Bringing together six decades of paintings, Everything the Light Touches tracks Gunderson’s oeuvre from earlier work with skyscapes towards her now signature black monochromatic palette. Celebrating her 80th birthday, this exhibition touts Gunderson’s enigmatic aesthetic and conceptual innovations, confirming her unmistakable place in the trajectory of contemporary painting and post-minimalism.

Gunderson’s preoccupation with natural subjects began in the late 1960s, during her time as a student at The University of Iowa. Her work at that time magnifies subjects explored by 19th-century French Impressionists, notably Claude Monet and his Water Lilies series (c. 1897-1926), into a contemporary, intermedia framework: plexiglass, polyresin, and super-8 film are just some of the unconventional materials the artist used in the 1960s. Though not of clouds, Everything the Light Touches features one of Gunderson’s earliest works from this period: Brain Box Study, a small, colorfully rendered anatomical diagram utilizes techniques instrumental to her later work. Sections of the work rendered in grayscale and rainbow coloring contour the neurological shapes to emphasize the movement of light. Thus, Brain Box Study draws similarities to Gunderson’s later use of contour and light in her cloudscapes and water paintings. Moving to New York in 1973, Gunderson dedicated her practice to large-scale cloudscapes. 

Everything the Light Touches traces the development of Gunderson’s cloud paintings from the early 1970s through the late 1980s, when she began to create her monochromatic black paintings. Works like Sky Journey (1985), emblematize the artist’s work during this time: filling all but a small patch of blue sky, the magnified section of a Cumulus cloud structure speaks to the grandeur of Gunderson’s ostensibly simple natural subjects. As critic Michael Brenson writes in The New York Times, 

'Karen Gunderson’s paintings of clouds are as far as they can be from the dreamy reveries one might expect of the subject. These are rigorous, ambitions and, at best, […] monumental works.'

Memory (1987)—a later-cloud work—showcases the hinging point in the late 1980s just before Gunderson renounced color all together. Bookending a deep Sirius red with tones of grey and black, Memory trades the light, airy qualities of paintings like Sky Journey, for a dark and heavy mood.

During this period, Gunderson’s cloud paintings were devised with a monochromatic black underpainting which was then covered with color to intensify their saturation and the clouds’ voluminous forms. Upon seeing her black underpaintings, the artist’s friend, American sculptor Jonathon Silver, suggested she leave them in this state as finished works. Intrigued by this new direction for her work Gunderson committed to her new single hued palette – since 1988 she has worked in this way. Her black-on-black paintings have featured historical figures and the natural environment—the latter of which is explored in Everything the Light Touches.

In the tradition of post-minimalism and all-over painting, Gunderson’s black paintings position her work among that of Ad Reinhardt, Pierre Soulages, and Sol LeWitt. Her more recent works have been specifically related to Vija Celmins’ hyper-realist seascape drawings. Everything the Light Touches collects new and old black paintings of seascapes and moons: Gunderson, utilizing her characteristic dark and highly textured brushstrokes, showcases the movement of light across these natural subjects. As the viewer moves, the painter’s work changes shape, tone, and texture. In this way, Gunderson’s black paintings replicate the unending mystery of nature in real time.

Commemorating her 80th birthday, Everything the Light Touches surveys Karen Gunderson’s long and accomplished career in painting. At Erin Cluley Gallery, the New York based painter presents new moon and water paintings alongside earlier work. This new presentation of sixty years of work asserts the continuing influence and legacy of Gunderson in contemporary painting.

Everything the Light Touches will be Gunderson’s second solo exhibition with Erin Cluley Gallery. Her first solo exhibition with the gallery was in 2022. WM 



Whitehot writes about the best art in the world - founded by artist Noah Becker in 2005. 


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