In 1961, Eleanore Mikus, who had been working with white paint and wax on uneven surfaces, raised nuance to a very high and rigorous level. Mikus’s nuance was not flabby, as it is in too many Color Field paintings. She brought together nuance and structure, making them into a subtly captivating experience. Surely, this is one reason why Ad Reinhardt, who saw Mikus’s work in a group exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was impressed and sought her out, and the two became friends.
One thing they shared — which played a role in their work — was that they had both attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia University. According to Robert Hobbs, in his catalog essay for Eleanore Mikus: Tablets and Related Works, 1960–69 at Craig F. Starr Gallery (February 3–March 25, 2017), Mikus left New York and got a Masters in Asian Art History at the University of Denver in 1967, where her thesis was on Tang-dynasty painter and poet Wang Wei and his impact on “monochromatic literati painting.”
Throughout the 1960s, Mikus’s work was well received. She showed at Pace Gallery in 1964 and ’65. The legendary curator Dorothy Miller acquired one of her works for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964, and included it in the exhibition, Recent Acquisitions: Painting and Sculpture in 1966. In 1974, her work was included in MoMA’s Printed, Cut, Folded, and Torn. And then the trail seems to go cold.
If we compare her with other women artists from the 1960s working in a reductive vein (Jo Baer, for example), Mikus seems to have thoroughly vanished, more so than her peers, and often isn’t included in surveys or textbooks of that period. Perhaps this exhibition of her Tablets at Craig F. Starr, which reintroduces us to this singular body of work, will help rectify this rather large gap in our understanding of the 1960s.
Mikus, who was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan, lived in New York from 1960 to ’72. She made “Tablet 1” (1961), a square cut out of grooved plywood. The surface’s horizontal and vertical grooves form a grid of different sized rectangles. Clearly, the perfection we associate with Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt was not Mikus’ goal. She was interested in merging rigorous control with chance accidents, as evidenced by the imperfect surfaces of the rectangles, especially alongside the grooves. Over this unevenly cut surface Mikus applied layers of white paint until she attained a tight, luminous surface — a state of vulnerable perfection. In “Tablet 142” (1964-65), She attached thin undulating pieces of wood, most likely made by planing a board, to the front of four vertical panels that have been abutted together and coated with layers of white paint. If the surface evokes bandages, that is not Mikus’ attention. Rather, she is combining the control required to apply the paint in even coats with the vagaries of the uneven surface.
In “White Relief” (1962), she glued down different lengths of corrugated cardboard to a cardboard surface and then painted everything white. We see the shadows cast by the cardboard’s uneven edges onto the surface. Her use of planed wood and corrugated cardboard convey the sense that there was a frugality to Mikus’ aesthetic, that she wanted to use everything that came into her studio and let nothing go to waste.
In a small, intriguing piece, “Untitled (1967), she wrapped a rectangular board with rose-colored cloth and then wrapped them both with an uneven grid of vertical and horizontal rubber bands. It is the surface we are supposed to look at, even as we know there is something hidden or, perhaps more accurately, unseen.
Mikus made “Tablet 1” in 1961, four years before Donald Judd published his seminal essay, “Specific Objects” (1965), which opens with this sentence:
Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture.
Mikus is never mentioned by Judd in the essay or, as far as I have been able to determine, in his subsequent writing. The likely reason is that Mikus was too poetic for Judd’s taste. He was a foundational artist who changed our concept of volume in relationship to weight and line. And while critics have mentioned Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman when writing about Mikus, I find that a stretch for the simple reason that she did not make paintings. She made “specific objects” that shared little with others working in the vein that Judd identified and defined, which favored the industrial and fabricated.
Mikus, like Ann Truitt, worked throughout the 1960s within a highly circumscribed set of variables. The other name I would cite is the Dutch artist Jan Schoonhaven, who made white-on-white wall reliefs out of wood, paper, and cardboard. One difference is that orderly grids do not govern Mikus’s reliefs: they are uneven and quirky. She uses classic repetition — as did Judd and Carl Andre — to make paint drenched reliefs that deal with light as well as talks to painting. Her territory is a monochrome relief and none of her more celebrated contemporaries went there.
When Mikus repeatedly folds and unfolds an index card, glues its flattened form to a board, and then seals the two in coats of white paint, she is clearly uninterested in the perfection we associate with the Minimalist aesthetic, and with artists such as Martin and Judd. The uneven surfaces and sections of grooved wood introduce imperfect lines and edges and the awareness of time passing. In contrast with Andre’s sheets of lead or copper, or Judd’s fabricated boxes, Mikus’s hand painted, folded, and cut pieces seem defenseless. She was not interested in replicating industrial perfection, but in using humble materials with nature as their kernel: paper, cardboard, and wood. Although she seems to share something with the reductive impulse of the Minimalists or, in Europe, the Zero group, Mikus is an anomaly that established a different set of terms by which to experience her art. It is time we open ourselves to what she did, as well as honor that achievement. For what Mikus did in her work was reject the materialist aesthetic artists such as Stella and Richard Serra were defining.
Eleanore Mikus: Tablets and Related Works, 1960–69 continues at Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 25.