Let me quote myself — and a whole lot of other people — in saying that Clark Richert is Colorado’s most important contemporary painter. That makes it redundant, maybe, but still necessary, because understanding Richert and his 50 years of contributions to the art scene here is to understand what the life of an artist is and how much a single, inventive mind can impact the world around it.
I could go on about his historic role as a founder of Drop City, the groundbreaking, 1960s artist commune in southern Colorado that gave footing to the whole contemporary movement in Denver, Boulder and beyond. Or about his work as a teacher at various schools where he has inspired a generation-plus of other artists.
But Richert’s most important contribution has been right where it should be, on canvas, and that continues today. He’s a relentless explorer of shape, pattern and color with an entertaining way of relating those things to science and math. He paints geometry, and physics and chemistry — dreadful topics, all of them, in my mind — but through the eyes of someone who sees those things as entirely imperfect and malleable, despite their reasoned and unyielding rules.
His current show at Gildar Gallery, titled Close Packed Structures speaks in a common Clark Richert language. Patterns dominate his large, acrylic paintings, many of them six-feet square, and connecting tiny octagons, triangles, circles, squares and various squiggles into large and colorful abstract assemblages. It’s eye-popping stuff.
These pieces are arranged based on theories and equations that Richert studies and uses for visual inspiration. The light refraction concepts of astronomer Johannes Kepler become a series of interconnected pentagons, decagons and five-pointed stars, rendered in shades of turquoise, red and yellow in Kepler’s Slant. For Witten’s Complex, physicist Edward Witten’s equations around structural space are translated as squares and rectangles linked together to form cubes and spheres that come alive in yellows, oranges, reds and blues. This reduction of ideas into geometric shapes links Richert to the great 20th century modernists who saw the world in similar, right-angled ways, but his fascination with science makes his paintings more grounded and purposeful. They may be what Ellsworth Kelly had painted — if Kelly had a Ph.D. from Stanford.
A viewer can go into a deep hole looking at the works and evaluating the qualified formulas behind them. There’s a certain sort of observer — curious, patient and totally geeked-out — who could spend a lifetime checking their arithmetic and structural soundness.
But that’s not the point, and that’s not the art here either. Richert may tap the mind of a scholar, but he uses the hand of an artist. He plays with patterns; stopping them and starting, overlapping, altering colors and placement. He uses existing intellectual notions, but translates them into a set of visual symbols we can relate to, rather than the hard formulas we know them to be. His art reminds us that all of this study of what humans are made of and how they see and understand the world, is developed by, and derived from, a human perspective. They go from cold to warm as you look at them.
Most of the work in Close Packed Structures is current, though there is one remarkable piece from 1980 in the mix that provides a real clue into Richert’s development as an artist. Rhombic Inversion plays freely with one of the more complex geometric shapes out there, turning a three-dimensional idea flat so it can be explored on a canvas (If you want better comprehend such rhombi as equilateral quadrilaterals and dodecahedrons, Google them, and I’ll see you in a week or two).
Rhombic Inversion shows Richert, 36 years ago, already into the habit of playing mathematician with his paintbrush. The painting takes liberties with color and arrangement, bit it is strikingly exact. The patterns — and they involve thousands of layered bits and pieces, all painstakingly recreated by hand — appear to be rigid and precise, with clearly defined lines and solid blocks of color. If there are errors or mistakes or incomplete sections, I can’t make them out.
But I do make out that those kinds of glitches in the works from 2016, pieces like Central Core of the Densely Packed II or Central Core Cube. Both interpret deep thinking, but there is less of an effort to be precise, to fully fill in shadings or to recreate exactly what a researcher might view under a microscope or through a telescope or whatever device helps them see things. Richert has always let in the occasional drip or missed connection, but his approach is freer now.
Maybe that is because he’s older and his fingers are less steady, or maybe it’s because he wants it that way; I really don’t know. But it’s evidence of evolution in the art and it’s appealing. The work is softer, more genial. Over the years, I’ve always wanted to step back to see Richert’s work, to take in the patterns and extract the science and geography from a distance. But this new stuff does the opposite — it pulls me in, focuses me on the parts rather than the whole, and the process over the product. It makes we want to touch.
And so here, in his late career (sorry Clark Richert, that’s math, too), Richert gives us another contribution, to see how art changes, and how perspective is honed and expressed in different, perhaps richer, ways as our bodies and minds mature. I wish I could say it completes some sort of cycle for him, allows him to slow down, but the opposite is true, it demands that he continue painting for years to come, so we can see what happens next. When you’re a historic figure, duty calls, whether you like it or not.
What makes a great artist? Rigor, plain and simple. If you paint science, you paint science, again and again for decades and decades, and maybe, by putting all those paintings together, you show us what science looks like.
Clark Richert’s Close Packed Structures runs through Dec. 23 at Gildar Gallery, 82 S. Broadway. It’s free. Info at 303-993-4474 or gildargallery.com.