Gestures and Symbols
Studies from 1977 to 1980
September 8 through October 1, 2021
David Richard Gallery is pleased to present Dean Fleming: Gestures and Symbols, Studies from 1977 to 1980. This selection of 18 small studies maps a pivotal period and transition in the aesthetics of Fleming’s artwork moving from the 1970s and into the 1980s. The artworks in this presentation fall roughly into four distinct aesthetic groupings from the noted period and correspond directly to four bodies of paintings from 1977 through 1981, a prolific and creative period in Fleming’s career.
Studies were an important part of Fleming’s studio practice as he created many of them prior to and while executing similar larger format compositions on canvas. His studies on paper, board or canvas were stand-alone works, mostly signed and dated, meaning they were not just studies or sketches purely for the execution of a canvas. Sometimes there is a study that pairs with a canvas, but not always. The studies were an independent body of work that supported the artist’s process and in particular for resolving his thoughts and approaches to a new series of paintings.
About The Exhibition:
Dean Fleming dedicated most of his career to abstraction with a particular interest in two areas: 1) geometry, to explore and capture in a flat picture plane the complexities of dimensional space and 2) cultural symbols, iconography and mark making that often reference spirituality, nature and the earth/ landscape.
In the 1960s, Fleming’s artworks were almost exclusively geometric and hard edge as a founding member of the Park Place Gallery and artist collective in lower Manhattan. The 1970s were marked by a more gestural approach with strong calligraphic influences following his travels to Japan earlier in that same decade. The paintings on paper reflect his art from that period and since Fleming also liked to create internal tensions within his compositions by leveraging dualities and contrasting dialogues, many of these works include a calligraphic symbol as well as a geometric form. The 70s works on paper as well as canvases were more painterly than the paintings from the 1960s, exploring color and various methods of applying paint to the supports in addition to novel materials and media such as Roplex.
The years of 1980 and 81 marked a return to organized and structured compositions that were more hard edge, reductive and referenced specific influences, most notable, those of Native American tribes and their customs. Fleming’s lengthy stays at his home at Libre in southern Colorado, the artist community off-the-grid, were a constant source of inspiration. There, he communed with Native Americans and actively participated in their rituals and mythologies. He also communed with nature and the land at Libre which became incorporated into his Medicine Wheel paintings as noted below.
The details of the groups of artworks in this presentation and the larger format paintings that correspond to them follow below.
There are three acrylic paintings on paper that measure 14 x 11 inches in a vertical format, all painted in 1977 with 2 separate clusters of horizontal bands: the upper bands are alternating black and white while the lower are wide swaths of color in a rather solid block created by layers of translucent pigment laid on top of one another. All of the paintings read as geometric, but they are painterly, not rigorously hard-edge. Fleming was inspired by calligraphy after his trip to Japan. However, his intellectual objective was to find a gesture that was purely abstract and not referring to any mark or character in any language. He found that challenging at best and mostly impossible. Still enthralled with the sweeping marks and lively compositions in two parts which allowed him to explore binaries, he went back to his geometric roots and explored a series of combinations of black and white bands as well as layers of color that melded in the centers. In the corresponding large paintings, he was able to explore large blocky fields of color and texture achieved with a Japanese wood garden rake. This maintained a direct link to his Japanese influences as well as references to the land (a life-long passion) while experimenting with an alternative approach to moving medium and pigment across his unprimed canvas supports.
Six of the paintings, dated 1978, also measure 14 x 11 inches in a vertical format. They are predominantly black and white with compositions comprised of sweeping gestures that read as calligraphic marks or characters with small blocks, bands or wavey gestural lines of color at the bottom. Still enthusiastic about exploring large gestural paintings and not discouraged by not finding a purely non-objective, non-referential mark, Fleming pursued these studies and several large canvases. For the canvases, he used a string mop cut nearly to the nubs to apply his concoction of black pigment and Roplex by moving and sweeping it on the unprimed and unstretched canvas on the ground. Another experimentation with alternative mediums and non-traditional methods of application.
A grouping of six square acrylic paintings on small unstretched, cut-edged canvas fills the supports from edge to edge with colorful grounds of red, orange, yellow or blue and each overpainted with black, white, or yellow rings or bands of color to create round open-centered circles or triangular shapes. These small works correspond to two series of larger paintings that were inspired by Native American symbols and mythologies. Specifically, the circles reference the Medicine Wheel of the Lakota people, Native Americans and one of three Sioux tribes living in the Plains of the US. The Medicine Wheel, comprised of a circle that represents the earth’s boundary and referred to as the Sun Dance Circle, is a sacred symbol of the Plains people for the never-ending cycle of life and death. Fleming frequently painted the interior of the large circles with paint that contained soil from Libre as well as limestone from an ancient cave on that same land. This continued the recurring themes of using non-traditional mediums and methods of moving and distributing the pigment on his supports as well as a dose of literalism using an earth element to represent the earth in imagery.
The last group of three small acrylic paintings are compositions of elliptical shapes, each with a center band of contrasting color (from paint or metallic collage), all horizontally oriented on paper measuring 11 x 14 inches. While these small studies are horizontal and painterly, they relate to a series of larger paintings measuring 66 x 66 inches square that are hard edge, even somewhat optical and illusory in terms of suggesting dimensional space—not surprising given Fleming’s background at Park Place Gallery. The larger paintings are inspired by Native American symbols that reference earthly, celestial and cultural elements. They are reductive, painted in vibrant warm hues and contrasting colors such as black and titled after a different tribe (Navajo, Ute, Sioux Two), cultural element (Pueblo), earthly or celestial body (Luna, sand) as an homage to Native Americans and their heritage.
About Dean Fleming:
Fleming (b. 1933) is a painter and a founding member of the Park Place Gallery, an important artist collective and exhibition space in lower Manhattan in the early 1960s. Fleming is also a founding member of Libre, an intentional community of artists in southern Colorado where he currently lives. His vibrant paintings use geometry as a means to symbolize his deep engagement with nature, his experiences of indigenous cultures in the United States, as well as a metaphorical record of his extensive travels through Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and Europe.
Fleming studied at the California School of Fine Arts with Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell. There, he developed life-long friendships with Peter Forakis, Leo Valledor and Mark di Suvero. He shared a studio with Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Bill Brown and Forakis and regularly exhibited at the Six Gallery and Batman Gallery in San Francisco.
In 1966, Fleming was included in the important exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, “Systemic Painting”, organized by Lawrence Alloway. Fleming’s artworks are included in the collections of the:
Oakland Museum, California
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania
Denver Museum of Art, Colorado
Larry Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut
San Francisco Art Institute, California
Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, among others
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