Barbara Takenaga’s painting revels in patterns and systems, spanning the cosmos from the minute to the galactic.
Barbara Takenaga’s work is abstract, intricate, formalist—and yet strangely inviting. Looking at one of her acrylic paintings, whether hand-sized or room-sized, you feel as if you could step inside and in an instant be standing on a prairie under a brilliant night sky, exploring the microscopic structure of a cell, or pinwheeling through galaxies of outer space. Created by a process that the artist herself describes as obsessive, these works are eminently accessible, just as they are intended to be.
Some of the works approach the territory of Op Art. In Zardo (2009), aqua-and-white oval shapes undulate across the frame, seeming to twist and turn so that the surface acquires creases, like curves in Einsteinian space-time. In Pink (2008), black and white dots on a field of pink coalesce into a spiral, as if driven by an invisible force like electromagnetism or gravity. In some of her works, Takenaga flirts with representation, but what she’s representing is the physical world at its most abstract—ocean waves (Blue Wave, 2013), starry skies (Night Painting (JFM), 2016), geological formations (Red Geode, 2015), or fireworks in mid-explosion (Red June, 2014).
Takenaga was born and raised in Nebraska, and the vast space of the grasslands and the even vaster one of the sky must have had a profound effect on her vision, although it was quite a while before she acknowledged that to herself. Having based her technique of the repetition of patterns with variations, she tried simply dividing the composition in two as a new option. “That straight dividing line became a horizon line,” Takenaga recalls, “and then—oh my God, it’s Nebraska!” While her place of origin may have subtly haunted her work, Takenaga was never really interested in landscape as a genre and is still somewhat bemused when people see her work that way. Growing up, Takenaga’s visual inspirations came from science—the Hubble space telescope, cellular biology, and oceanography. She had a book called The Deep, which featured photos of the bizarre life forms that thrive at the lowest depths of the sea, where there is no light. “Despite nature’s fantastic innovations, I had to get rid of that book because it was was too frightening,” she says.
In the 1970s Takenaga went to Boulder for both undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Colorado, getting her MFA there in 1978. At that early stage of her career she was focusing on printmaking, and she was attuned to the Pattern & Decoration movement, which was very much a presence in the art world at the time. P&D, as it was called, rebelled against Minimalist orthodoxy by embracing not only beauty as a concept but traditional abstract design elements such as those in block-printed textiles, floral wallpapers, and the like. P&D embraced the identity of “women’s work,” and indeed many of its artists—though certainly not all—were women. While she never became a P&D artist, Takenaga was influenced by the movement—which is currently having a resurgence of interest—and she retains an enthusiasm for brightly-colored, pattern-intensive art forms such as Japanese woodblock prints, Indian Tantric folk paintings, and the posters of the Japanese contemporary artist Tadanori Yokoo (a 2010 acrylic on wood panel painting that alludes to one of his typical graphic elements is titled Tadanori). On the other hand, while she was in art school Takenaga was also a great admirer of Sol LeWitt, who was strongly connected to Minimalism and conceptual art. From LeWitt, whom she calls “a big hero of mine,” she absorbed the idea that system, pattern, and process are just as important as the finished product.
After leaving Boulder, Takenaga took teaching positions in Denver and St. Louis before permanently moving east. In 1985 she landed a job in the studio art program at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where she remained until her retirement in 2018. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, in tandem with her teaching, Takenaga was perfecting her art, having moved from printmaking to oil and finally acrylic. (She says she eventually couldn’t tolerate the solvents used in oil painting). Her painting practice owes a lot to her studies in printmaking. “It has informed a lot of what I do,” she says. “The emphasis on flatness, with no brush-marks or impasto, for example. Even my methods, like pooling the paint as opposed to brushing or knifing it on, came out of printmaking.”
After a long time showing her work in group exhibitions or solo in university or other non-commercial galleries, Takenaga broke through in 2001 with her first commercial solo show, at James Graham in New York. The period 2000–2001 also marked the beginning of a major period of the artist’s work, in which she doggedly pursued one vision, one method—even, one might say, one composition, in multiple variations—for almost a decade. The seed of this vision was her awareness of spiral patterns in nature, such as the whorl in the fur on a dog’s leg or the cowlick at the back of a baby’s head. From this she expanded outward to spiral galaxies and stars expanding from a center in a way that suggests the Big Bang, the origin of the cosmos as envisioned by astrophysics. “I did that for 9 or 10 years, basically the same composition,” Takenaga says. “The idea was to hold a really tight structure and then have variation within it. It was a compulsion, in a way, to make those paintings. I loved it and could sit at my table and be engrossed in making these paintings in this repeated, slowed-down, open-ended process.”
For Takenaga, the dialectic, the creative tension, was between the essential structure and the variation. “Rules are generally good,” she says. “In society, they keep us civil. When you work in systems, you don’t break the system; that’s the integrity of it. But you try to be as playful as possible within that structure.” The structures that she discerns in small- and large-scale natural phenomena, and that she emulates in her paintings, suggest, in a non-literal way, fractals or mathematical series like the Fibonacci numbers (which do in fact govern the spiral growth patterns of many living creatures). “These patterns that come up are present on all levels,” she observes. “That’s a fractal idea—the small information is carried in the large information. Cases can be made for the deepness or pervasiveness of these kinds of structures.”
Pervasive though they may be, these structures eventually wore thin as a source of creative inspiration: “I got to the point where I said, this is not fun. I’m done with this work. And that was a hard place to come to. How do I move on to the next thing, after nine years of being completely engrossed?” The next thing, it turned out, was to loosen up her style and visual vocabulary. She started out by deliberately breaking her own rules. “I gave myself assignments, to get out of the rut,” she recalls, “like, you can’t use any dots at all, can’t be symmetrical or radial. It was frustrating for a while, but instead of painting these dots in a pattern with precision, I was pouring paint and splattering it. It would form little globs, random or organic. Instead of me having a preconceived idea, the paint would tell me what it wanted to be. It wasn’t all about me and my system here. I was basically following the paint.”
She also found herself returning to some earlier sources of graphic inspiration, such as Japanese prints and screens. While her family is Japanese-American, Takenaga was not raised with any exposure to Japanese art. “I never wanted to do work about identity politics or anything like that,” she says, But it’s just come up in the work. For whatever reason, I never liked Western art history in the same way that I loved Asian art. Caravaggio or Cézanne never reached out and grabbed me like they did for other artists I know, but I always loved Japanese screens and prints, Indian miniatures, simple gouache mandala paintings. It comes up; it’s in there.”
Her recent work still has plenty of patterns and precision, but there’s a freedom to it, a sense of effortlessness, that makes it lighter and less obsessive. For example, Twister (2015) has spirals in it but also rays like a sunburst, all laid down over a ground of various kinds of splatters and drips, and the paint at the edges of the composition seems to bleed outward, as if to obliterate the boundary formed by the edge of the wood panel. Aquamarine (2018) has a lattice of recurring curves in various shades of blue, suggesting the waves of a classic ukiyo-e print but also fish scales or snakeskin, such as might be found on a textile. And again, the seemingly random splotches of white paint scattered throughout give this intricate skein of patterns a sense of shimmering openness.
In the fall and winter of 2017–18, the Williams College Museum of Art gave Takenaga a 20-year retrospective exhibition. During the two years leading up to that, MASS MoCA in nearby North Adams showed “Barbara Takenaga: Nebraska,” an expansion of her landscape-like work to mural format. She painted it on a 100-foot wall in muted grays and blues to conjure the “blue hour” when dusk shades over into night and the starry sky reaches down to the ground. Placing the viewer at the horizon line linking heaven and earth, the work also connected the artist’s birthplace to the outer reaches of the universe.
By John Dorfman