Although not widely known to contemporary American audiences, Jorge Eielson (1924-2006) was an accomplished figure, who, as this recent cross-section of works at Andrea Rosen Gallery 2 attests, deserves greater recognition. On the one hand, Eielson had a wide-ranging practice, encompassing poetry and performance as well as painting and sculpture. But his artistic pursuit was highly focused, aimed toward breaking painting out of the strict two-dimensionality of its flat surface. As seen from the works in this small survey, he engaged that goal with a conceptual approach that was both flexible and remarkably consistent.
Born in Peru, Eielson had already achieved some acclaim when he visited Paris in 1948; three years later he moved to Rome, where he met such figures as Alberto Burri and Cy Twombly. Eschewing the other “isms” of the period, Eielson approached art-making by working off his own austere conceptual precepts. His signature series are the Quipus, which date back to 1963. The works, which literally mean “knot,” are a deliberate invocation of his Peruvian heritage, a kind of traditional counting device that was used in the South American Andes before the Spanish colonial conquest. In Eielson’s hands, these knots become a motif which he employs in a variety of formats. In some works, he pulls raw burlap across a canvas: into a knot in the corner with one, and into a looped knot at the top center of the canvas, pulled from its lower corners, in another.
In Quipus 31 N 1 (1966-1971), he pulls a white swath of fabric diagonally across a painted black square; in Quipus bianco-nero (1974), the center of the square is cut out, but for two indented corner elements, to emphasize the thick, black frame. His use of color ups the complexity and visual pleasure of the work; in the striking work Quipus vert – 3 (1971), the fabric is centered by a red cord in the center and tethered by yellow and green triangles of fabric from opposing corners, atop a green-painted, inset backboard. In a pair of works, several colored strands of bright dyed felt entwine with burlap, to create a vertical zip down the middle of the (square or circular) canvas.
Just as Fontana (who preceded him, and who himself was born in Argentina) exposed the membrane of the canvas with his holes and slashes, Eielson subverted its flatness by adding knots and wedges of pulled fabric across its surface. With its economy of means belying the symbolism of its sources, his work offers its own distinct, additive lexicon.