The exhibition Anna Kunz: With Rays invites the ghosts of modernism in—its title, a reference to Joseph Albers, its immersive flatbed canvases, its abstract forms and saturated pigments—but in Kunz’s handling, these overdetermined modernist referents are gestures performing alongside an elastic choreography of color that is emphatically in the present. As Wittgenstein wrote, “the meaning of a word is in its use.”
Like many of us, I ventured back into the physical space of an art museum only last spring, following more than a year of distance. Sharing with a friend what I’d seen, I startled us both by coming completely undone, my words tumbling into sobs. I’ve heard enough stories to know I wasn’t alone in being overwhelmed by physiological relief upon a post-Covid return to embodied art experiences. We may have been sustained by the ballast of newly accessible virtual spaces for exhibition or performance, but we have seriously fallen out of touch with art; our returns remind us that what is touching or moving about art is often not visible but kinesthetic, its very capacity to touch and move us. Artless wordplay perhaps, but as Rilke told his young poet, most experiences live “in a space that no word has ever entered.” Anna Kunz’s process, with its slow rituals and patient labor, is such a place for the unsayable. Her title, With Rays, has no literal reference to Albers’s yellow square, but rather is an invitation and a promise of radiance. Her paintings reach us not in forms but as color—color as touch, in varying dilutions it seeps through, pools around, or gives body to the supporting fabric; color as luminosity that tinges the ambient light between the work and viewer; color as sensation, a fugitive remainder-image transferred through the retina to an individual’s sensory-motor system; color as body, both artist’s and viewer’s, no doubt felt differently and individually to each, but felt deep as bone nonetheless. And color, finally, as gesture, an invitation to movement through a terrain of dynamic simultaneity where color thickens or disperses the gaze into spaces of play and depth, here and there, now and then.
Anna Kunz, Demo 18, 2021, oil on linen, 13 x 11 in. (33 x 27.9 cm.)
How exactly does one choreograph with color? Kunz’s history in performance art, including a 2009 stage design for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, equips her for an openness to the improvisations between forms and spaces. In Birches (2021) six canvases, 30 x 40 in. each, are sutured into one by the vertical gathering of her architecturally sound color-columns. Varying tones of green, blue, and cream form a rhythmic hierarchy in which some units take cue from the visible breaks between canvases to stop or shift course, while others travel past, over, or through this faint marker of objectivity. The painting’s tempo is punctuated by cool-color consonants and their sunlit contrasts or by the occasional ostinato of a horizontal banner; but all the while, a deep and resonant motif soaks redly at center-left as if returning from a before.
Anna Kunz, Diamond Pointed Light, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 60 in. (167.6 x 152.4 cm.)
An architectural space and rhythm is perhaps most easily read in Birches or Familiar Rhythm (2021), but it’s a through-line in Kunz’s process and media. The 60 x 66 in. canvases on view are only one scale within her body of work. She constructs paintings first on loose, porous fabric the size of a hand. As the paint dries, these small works retain the rounded shape of the artist’s open palm. The “palm-paintings” testify to her touch, focus, and private practice, but they also mirror the scale and distance of life experienced through a phone screen. Kunz’s 11 x 13 in. Demo works are on a scale adapted to the human head. In this head-space, she “moves the mud” of the paint, more deliberately and playfully; thickened, focused marks boldly meet more peripherally rendered tints. At 60 x 66 in., her paintings take on a map of the artist’s height and wingspan, or the architecture of her body’s encounter with the world. If Diamond Pointed Light (2021) began as a palm-sized gesture, it is now more fully fleshed out, and any provisional motivations have come out into the world. This painting’s colors suggest at once atmosphere, invitation, and poetic pathos. The rigid gold wedge at right also appears to fold softly open, nudging upward with a probing corner the voluptuous white mass above it. In the aperture revealed beneath, more signals of touch emit from the provisional edge along the red dome’s orange-ochre border, which tentatively makes contact with a pink-lavender horizon-mound beside it. In Misted Edge (2021), a similar kind of kinesthetic empathy is suggested by the coexistence of elasticity and rigidity, of form and its yearning beyond form.
Anna Kunz, Stretched Night, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 60 in. (167.6 x 152.4 cm.)
Kunz’s attention to the body and its gestures requires collaboration with the material world. She describes working slowly to “get acclimated” to her colors, leaving their chemistry and viscosity to lead. Her chosen fabric, unprimed, invites and receives the paint on its own terms. In the disorientingly subtle tone-shifts of Stretched Night (2021) or the slowly-worked gray-taupe washes of Hypnotist (2021), color is layered in time. Containing the patient pauses required for blending or drying before returning for another pass, the color projects both a physical presence and the deep space of memory. Attending to multiple canvases in a workday, Kunz works on the floor from above and circling aerially from every side. The paintings form a kinesthetic language that puts us in touch with another’s movements, lived and felt as our own. In their contagion, the works are intimate, not exhibitionist. Colors mill about offering compassionate gestures that nudge, pool, open wounds and stitch them up. Exposed to and from all sides, from and toward any vector, this is no more the modernist flatbed propped up as a new monolith, this picture plane has rays.
Nell Andrew is author of the book, Moving Modernism: The Urge to Abstraction in Painting, Dance, Cinema (Oxford, 2020). She is professor of Art History and co-director of the Interdisciplinary Modernisms Workshop at the University of Georgia, in Athens, GA.