VIVIAN SPRINGFORD by Arlene Shechet

This essay was published in conjunction with the exhibition Vivian Springford, Almine Rech Gallery, New York, September 12 - October 20, 2018

I subscribe to the notion that a mature artist is one who possesses the ability to play. Rigorous play is perhaps a fitting way to describe the improvisational activities of artists and musicians working in the 50s and 60s, and Vivian Springford was one such artist—working in New York and voraciously experimenting with acrylic paint at the time of its invention. Of the dozens of paintings made in these years, however, most have been closeted away, and it is only recently that they are happily beginning to see the light of day, being removed from storage, unrolled and stretched. As an artist, I come to Springford’s oeuvre sensitive to her process and sharing some of her interest in Eastern thought and imagery, and as a woman artist, I am especially sympathetic to her plight to achieve recognition in a white man’s world. As her paintings are brought into the public eye and allowed to breathe in their full intensity, I am pleased that Springford might now become "part of the conversation” related to postwar stain and process painting.

Recently, I had the privilege of seeing the illuminating Sam Gilliam exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel. I believe that seeing Gilliam’s work today helps us to understand and appreciate the breakthroughs of this period in American painting, of which Springford was very much a part. Both artists were experimenting with radical ways of applying color onto un-stretched canvas, and letting the improvisational language of jazz directly inform their working methods. Gilliam states about John Coltrane: “Coltrane worked at the whole sheet, he didn’t bother to stop at bars and notes and clefs and various things, he just played the whole sheet at once.”[1] This statement gives us insight into the dance that Gilliam performed to make his luminous, draped works. I would suggest that another quote from Coltrane might well describe Springford’s painting process and circular mandala-like works: “I start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at once.” [2] His words resonate with how I imagine Springford must have worked. There is no prescribed up/down, front/back relationship. She rather approached the canvas as a terrain, expanding outward and inward at the same time. Moreover, the aesthetic, the spiritual and the psychological were all in operation simultaneously for her, and this all-at-once way of working had powerful visual results.  

I imagine that Springford approached her painting process as a kind of event—a series of carefully orchestrated gestures that resulted in a new kind of landscape, a terrain of liquidity and motion. Like Gilliam, Springford eschewed the use of stretcher bars during the actual making of the works although once her process was complete and the painting was arrived at, it was presented formally as a “square-ish” shape, set into form by wooden stretchers. The importance of newly invented acrylic dispersion paints cannot be overemphasized in the excitement and experimentation of this period in painting. Leonard Bocour, and later Sam Golden, practically fed artists their new paint products, opening up new avenues of experimentation in color, scale and speed of working. Springford's later works—lush bleeds of vibrant color on large canvases—innovated on the foundations laid by the early Abstract Expressionists, and would not have been possible in oil paint.  

The works on paper, though modest in size, reveal a sophisticated balance of control and freedom. Many of them seem to begin as drips, splatters and pools of watercolor and gouache sunk into the page. Punctuating these bleeds are crisp shapes collaged on top, which are in fact cut from other paintings of hers. These shapes function like stoppages, changing the speed at which the eye moves across the page, emphasizing a willful direction balanced with openness. Like in ceramic glazing, the challenge is in planning and improvising at the same time. It is never a science, but rather a process of repeated experiments, calculations and surprises, in which one is constantly forced to surrender control when the piece enters the kiln. The key is in experimenting enough in advance that there is an arc of expectation for what might happen—setting up conditions that tend in a direction, even if the exact destination is unknown. 

Springford’s canvas compositions have both a centripetal and centrifugal energy to them, producing a tantric effect, the result of her entire body moving around the surface. In many, we can see evidence of her gestural hand beside and within the diaphanous bleeds that otherwise dominate the composition. In Untitled (Cosmos Series), 1984, unevenly brushed white paint stands out from the orb of color surrounding it. The color however, bleeds inconsistently, some parts diffusing more than others. I read this inconsistency as intention—Springford’s ability to manipulate the paint, to interrupt the pour, to mediate the stain. In other works, she strategically varies the paint’s absorbency by applying gesso unevenly, so that the ground will absorb paint differently throughout. What’s fascinating is the way this confuses the idea of paint being applied on top of a surface; rather, the color becomes one with the weave of the canvas as it soaks in. It becomes part of its structure, much as glaze becomes fused to clay when it is fired, or dye becomes absorbed into paper pulp. In a few works, the paint becomes more concentrated—as though flakes of pure pigment have fallen out of their solution, and been dispersed onto the surface like shrapnel.

Reflecting on Springford’s process, and her Eastern influences, I am brought again to the words of another great painter, this time a woman. Pat Steir, when referring to the Japanese poet-calligraphers, commented: “They spent a lot of time physically and emotionally preparing to work, and then they got up and just did anything….I plan, and then I get up, and I’m so surprised I do something else completely.”[3] I like to imagine Springford working in a similar way, treating her canvas as uncharted land, which she was nonetheless adept at navigating. She was confident in her gestures, yet always responsive to how materials could surprise her. I am hopeful that as these paintings are seen by a more inclusive art community than the one she lived in, that connections between artists and art forms will continue to resonate. Springford was tapping into many worlds at once, and moving in a way that I trust will continue to surprise.


[1] Gilliam, Sam. Wall text for The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973. Curated by Dr. Jonathan Binstock and Dr. Josef Helfenstein. 6 June – 30 September, 2018. Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.

[2] The original source of this quote is unclear, but it served as an inspiration for the title of the recently released album, “John Coltrane: Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album” (John Fordham, “Jazz album of the month - John Coltrain: Both Direction at Once: The Lost Album," The Guardian. June 2018, httpss://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/29/jazz-album-of-the-month-john-coltrane-both-directions-at-once-the-lost-album [accessed July 25, 2018]

[3] Steir, Pat. “Pat Steir Paints a Painting” by Hilarie M. Sheets. ARTNEWS. 7 Nov. 2012.  http://www.artnews.com/2012/11/07/pat-steir-paints-a-painting/ Accessed on 26 June, 2018.