Walking into a roomful of Mary Henry paintings is like stumbling into a Technicolor world of dead-end streets. Acrylic black and white lines, solid and imposing, weave like trusty roads through a vibrant, misshapen checkerboard, only to leave you stranded at the last minute by an impenetrable block of color. This is the recurring experience when viewing each canvas and prismacolor drawing that makes up “Paintings, Prints, Drawings and Ephemera,” a retrospective of the late Constructivist painter, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 96. The eye, wandering like a lost traveler along a randomly selected route of black or white, gets stuck by a wall of orange, a rectangular pond of cobalt or plum, and is forced to relocate to another vertical or horizontal line.
The exhibition contrasts several of Henry’s larger canvases against their lesser viewed preparatory drawings and prints. Henry’s vibrant geometry builds upon itself to create imposing and provocative canvases, which are illuminated here by their proximity to Henry’s prismacolor drawings. The contrast is arresting: to view these completed canvases alongside their preliminary sketches invites a more intimate engagement with what are otherwise immodest works of art. It is easy to feel implicated by the exhibit as a whole, the viewer becoming privy to Henry’s work in its early stages of development, post-conception, each sketch acting as infant to the large-scale, mature work that hangs beside it.
“Lost In Vermillion” (1996), a diptych composed almost entirely of its titular color, is perhaps this exhibit’s best expression of Henry’s particular brand of Geometric Abstraction. It gives the impression of a giant, stilled game of Tetris — one in which the blocks of color do not disappear once they’ve aligned. While the canvas seems to bask in its two-dimensionality — this color is unapologetically flat, the shapes do not layer, but bookend — it is by no means unemotional, and the color, far from being arbitrary, creates purpose. Vermillion, like all of Henry’s bold and inspiring color choices, is confrontational but not offensive. Where Henry’s “Geometric Invention” series (1990) requires the interaction of partitioned shades of blue, yellow and orange, a painting like “Vermillion” relies upon its singularity of color to convey spiritual meaning.
Because Henry’s paintings are inherently spiritual, the way music is spiritual, they call to a higher order, one that is less chaotic, more meditative. They are accessible in their rejection of the cerebral in favor of the sensory. What a reordered octave might be to a musical score, Henry’s geometric use of color is to her completed canvases. In both cases, the result is something soothing and contemplative, ordered yet expressive, eliciting powerful internal movement in the wake of otherwise passive viewing. In “Music I Heard” (2003), a work of beautifully ordered yet fractured forms, it is not a far reach to imagine the artist’s acoustic inspiration.
This retrospective reinforces Henry’s place of permanence in the world of Geometric Abstraction. Here, there is space to reflect upon Henry\'s great body of work, an oeuvre that always has and will continue to provide the sort of personal meaning that certain combinations of color, line and form can evoke when arranged in just the right way.