Beyond Modern: Optical Space in the Paintings of Irving Haynes

Created over a half century, Irving Haynes' paintings on paper are infinite variations on a very modern type of space. Over the course of his career, Haynes worked with numerous techniques to evoke the spatial richness of modernist abstract painting. Some early works from the 1960's and 70's allude broadly to abstract expressionist handling or landscape formats featuring loosely handled arcs or organic shaped areas of color. Others seem more purely gestural with a thin arabesque line or repetitive marks covering an entire surface. In every phase Haynes often employed modules of color, composed in a gridded matrix.

The paintings of his last five years show a fully developed sensibility emanating from a decades long artistic career spent working with this implied modernist grid. Ranging in size from small sheets barely a foot square (Split Image, 2004) to mid sized (Luminous Dark, 2004) and near wall-scaled (Oktoberfest, 2005), these acrylics on paper have less to do with the two dimensionality of their obvious gridded composition than with what Haynes himself once called the "optical space" of the sheet of paper. While their underlying, rectilinear structure might suggest to some a fundamental architectonic vision, Haynes' work is not architectural but instead addresses issues at the very heart of painting: the creation (or denial) of illusionistic space, the effects of color, form and surface textures and their interrelationship on a working surface.

In each of these works his starting points are the inherent dualities of his working arena, a sheet of paper. Both the boundaries of its height and width and its opaque planarity clearly inform his painting strategy. While the works firmly avoid the post-Renaissance idiom of representation, they are equally insistent on giving us the essence of that traditional painting practice in a flatness that holds a sense of potential depth. In Haynes' works we not only see through a "window" into an illusionistic, other world but we become simultaneously aware of the tension between that three dimensional world and the picture plane of the "window" itself. (In everyday experience, it would be as if when looking out through an actual glazed window, we became convinced that the elements of the landscape on the other side of the window, were somehow fused into the glass panes separating us from that third dimension of lawn, trees and sky.) This tension — or better yet, equilibrium — is fostered by Haynes through a variety of means: color relationships, textural variety and a concern for surface and framing devices which balance smaller elements with the whole of the working surface.

Important to this equilibrium is the way that his grid is often not literally inscribed but only inherently implied as his painted modules squeeze between or expand toward each other in rectilinear ways. In some of Haynes' work, the grid is wholly present as a series of intersecting boundary lines a la Mondrian. His optical space is more fully felt in those works that lack such a structured layer (which can be read as a separate, overlaid plane). What grid there is (in those that lack an explicit network of crossing lines) emerges out of the paint itself, peeking out between broader areas of color (Prima Verde and Signals, both 2005) This implicit grid only serves to enhance Haynes’ sense that the paper itself has a kind of dimensionality, not dictated by a linear overlay but embedded in the material itself. Haynes' paintings, despite their actual two dimensionality, have a visual and tactile depth, an almost palpable thickness. Compositionally, this optical space is sometimes framed and re-emphasized by edging elements, like bars of color along one side of the paper (Blue Roof, 2003 or Well Braced, 2004) or even within the composition (Le Rouge et Le Gris, 2001) which only serve to further separate foreground and background for the viewer.

This sense of a third dimension is enhanced by Haynes' various textured applications and surface work. Some color swatches are opaque but reveal underlayers of different colors at their edges; others are more translucent or scumbled, allowing deeper hues to emerge from within the shapes themselves. Sometimes these shifting coloristic effects are achieved with brushwork, as when a shape breaks up and gives way to a loose set of brush strokes, or when an otherwise opaque block of paint becomes more mottled like a translucent aqueous pool of color (as in Summer Sequence, 2005). Sometimes, very thin layers are laid on in repetitive arcs with a more hard edged tool (Green Grid, 2004). In numerous works, Haynes scratches through top surfaces to graphically reveal sediments of color beneath (China Lake,2003). Yet for all this surface variety, Haynes' third dimension doesn't comprise an illusionistic, pictorial window but instead can be read as a result of his ability to coherently manipulate the physicality of his paint and paper within a defined two-dimensional area.

Ultimately Irving Haynes' paintings should be seen as timeless considerations of the act of painting itself. He expressed himself within the ongoing dialogue that painters have been having since antiquity and that continues to be central to an understanding of painting in our own time — the challenges of three dimensional spatial illusion and the balances of color and form, line and surface. That Haynes' paintings express a presence that is at once a very real, physical object as well as a visually beautiful sensuous image means that he achieved something rare for any painter — reconciling these two incongruous aspects into one harmonious whole.

Ronald J. Onorato
Department of Art and Art History
University of Rhode Island