Random Sequence is a great choice of title for an exciting and vibrant show of mid-career abstraction by Ralph Coburn (b. 1923) at the Arts Club of Chicago. Organized around the first-ever installation of his 1962 work Premonitions, a group of 36 canvases meant to be arranged and rearranged, the phrase “random sequence,” originally coined by Coburn, along with this exhibition, succinctly encapsulate the complexity of the pattern of chance and choice that pulsed throughout the artist’s work in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Born in Minneapolis, Coburn spent his childhood between Miami Beach and Wellesley, Massachusetts. While he originally wanted to be a fine artist, he credited both his parents’ opposition, and his admiration of the flourishing Art Deco style of Miami Beach in the 1930s and ’40s, as influences in his pursuit of a career in architecture. Coburn trained both as an architect and eventually as a painter in Boston, finishing two years of the architecture program at MIT before World War II began. He spent the war as a draftsman with the Air Force in Miami and returned to Boston around 1944; soon after, he left MIT to pursue painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
This mid-career exhibition opens with ten works completed between 1949 and 1958 that show Coburn exploring geometric abstraction, repetition, and space and void (expressed by cutting into paper and canvas, something he did only rarely). Black Abstraction, five small ovals cut into stretched canvas and surrounding a painted white marquise shape, is one of two cut works. Nearby, a tiny untitled work shows three small geometric shapes—a triangle, a rectangle, and a half circle—cut into white paper, revealing a red background. The remaining works in this space—individually drawn panels of paper, or painted canvases, grouped together in a single frame to create a larger shape or collection of shapes—foreshadow his later concept for Premonitions. Coburn’s painting Orange and White Abstraction from 1950 is a great example of a lively abstraction: four small canvases painted with sharp passages of vivid orange-red meet to form a white cross shape, creating an effect so intense that one almost expects the image to rotate like a kaleidoscope.
A few works away, 8-Panel Arranged by Choice from 1951 is an ink-on-cardboard collection of eight squares striped with thick black diagonal lines. Down the hallway, Arranged by Choice Composition (of the same year) comprises twelve panels of India ink triangles on paperboard. Both are drawn with the careful precision of an architect’s hand and the nuanced shading of an artist’s. In each, panels might align to create triangles or lines; or they might not, remaining disjointed fragments. The titles of both, while straightforward, also imply two kinds of deliberation: the conscious choice that Coburn made to present these works as they are, and his understanding that given the opportunity, someone else would naturally arrange them in a different way.
Choice and chance were very much on the minds of Coburn’s contemporaries, and a constellation of friends influenced his approach to artmaking. Visitors familiar with the work of Ellsworth Kelly will feel a kinship in these galleries; Kelly also studied at the SMFA and he and Coburn spent a few years together in Paris after the war, where they sought to develop art that could speak to the ever-changing nature of life. Other inspirations included architect Walter Netsch, a few years above Coburn at MIT, who went on to design some of the first open plan office buildings while working for Skidmore, Owing, and Merrill; and contemporary composers that Coburn admired, like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, who freely experimented with chance, spontaneity, and unexpected approaches to their craft.
Coburn explores choice and chance to a dazzling degree in Premonitions. The maquettes for the work line the right hand wall of the first gallery, serving as inspiration for a potential installation of the canvases. The next room presents Premonitions in a close replication of the maquettes’ designs, with a few good changes (such as the more visually appealing approach of small canvases above large, instead of the other way around as Coburn had laid out in a few of the maquettes).
The six groups of cheery, colorful canvases are arranged in close, solid clusters, form more-or-less symmetrical patterns or ascend like a line of musical notes up the wall. Individually, the canvases could stand on their own—almost all consist of two or three colors, not always harmonious but not uncomfortable or jarring. In groups, though, they become powerful relationships of color and line, with bands of color flowing smoothly across canvases, or purposely being set off-kilter. (Blue, White, and Orange, a work on the opposite wall from Premonitions, illustrates this well).
The installation of Premonitions offered by the Arts Club focuses on Coburn’s intention to give the curator or owner of these works the freedom to arrange their own thoughtful, creative combinations. While “premonitions” hints at the potential anxiety inherent in having countless and varied options, it serves not as a definition of the work, but as a refreshing counterpoint to the optimism of the vivid canvases, emphasizing the duality that lies in making a choice.
Coburn called the paintings of Premonitions “moveable architecture,” and to honor his intention, the Arts Club will rearrange the paintings as the exhibition progresses. No timeframe has been announced—one hopes it happens unexpectedly, which will necessitate repeat visits to this wonderful show.