Abstract Paintings by A.L. Woods, 2020-2023, Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory, Menlo Park CA, through March 25, 2024

Recent Abstract Paintings

In the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman stated, “It was decided just to paint,” declaring the new movement’s rejection of the outworn creeds of realism and representation. Some seventy-five years later, amid the dizzying variety of contemporary art, with performance art , video, installation, computer art, and conceptual art having replaced the traditional manual skills prized by Newman and his peers, the statement could be read quite differently: as a commitment to painting, that millennia-old medium as old as civilization itself  that is periodically declared dead so by upcoming generations.

A.L. Woods is a former engineer and scientist whose painting practice is a dialogue between her materials—water-based acrylic inks and paints on wooden panel—and the humanized geometric vision that she pursues with discipline and purpose. Woods jokes about her labor-intensive process while restating her commitment: “No one wants to copy my work. You’ve got to like you process.” Eighteen of her recent paintings, all but one in her favored square format, are on view at Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory’s Building 52 through March of 2024. Her systematic approach is evident in the numbered titles, suggesting scientific experimentation; but ancillary titles like Undersea, Granite, Lichen, and the quartet of rose-bush paintings —Honor, Freedom, Mr. Lincoln, and Cecile Brunner —demonstrate that the grid format is flexible enough to accommodate real life, like being trapped at home by the pandemic quarantine, surrounded by plants. Picasso once noted that the greens that inundated him at a Versailles garden demanded that he paint them out of his system.

Woods’ abstractions are very different from Picasso’s vehement, prehensile distortions, however. Viewers may be reminded of the geometric razzle-dazzle of 1960s Op Art because of the underlying rhythmic structure, which also suggests the artist’s background in fluid dynamics, but the assertively flat patterns and domineering sizes employed by  Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley, with their flawless, mechanical-looking facture, are a far cry from Woods’ medium-sized handmade artifacts, with the colors modulated and mixed to create shading, space and even pictorial atmosphere. The color and tonal variations in Wood's grid patterns create light- and dark-centered forms that suggest change and variation within a controlled format.

Woods’ preference for mathematically grid-based abstraction reflects her methodical, approach to artmaking, perhaps  shaped by her decades of making fiber art (which included weaving audiocassette tapes) and her enjoyment of the visual paradoxes of M.C. Escher, like the lizards in Reptiles (1943) endlessly marching from printed-book 2D space into the viewer’s 3D space and back again. I am reminded as well of Josef Albers’ Despite Straight Lines prints, depicting geometric shapes seen in axonometric perspective, that resemble engineering drawings of irrational optical illusions. (Albers’ Stanford Wall, 1974-7, featuring some of these designs, stands on Roth Way just east of the Oval.) The methodical approach applies not just to the careful painting of her orthogonal grids—which combine the two-dimensional perfect forms of equilateral triangles and hexagons with diamond shapes that read as squares, seen in perspective—but also to her color mixing, which must be done flawlessly, with no retouching or correction. Woods found her color-mixing methodology, with the source colors placed at the corners of a square, and carefully mixed in the intermediary blanks, in the writings of the Bauhaus color theorist Joannes Itten; the idea of using a triangular grid for mixing instead of a square derives from the contemporary New York painter Sanford Wurmfeld.

The British painter David Hockney once postulated that the more time a painting took to make, the better it would be. (He was doing photo-mosaics at the time, which take 50 or 100 shutter clicks, and negligible time, so the math is still on the side of painting.) Viewers of Woods’ meditative mazes will find the the slow, accretive richness of these carefully wrought paintings to be infinite and inexhaustible.