In the 1950s, three of America’s greatest avant-garde filmmakers and occultists – Jordan Belson (1926-2011), Bruce Conner (1933 – 2008), and Harry Smith (1923 – 1991) – worked for the alternative, idiosyncratic greeting card company, Inkweed Studios (later known as The Haunted Inkbottle). Lionel Ziprin (Jewish mystic and poet) and his wife, Joanne (dancer and hand model), who lived on New York’s Lower East Side, ran the company.
While Belson, Conner, and Smith would make their own distinct contributions to culture, all three of them shared a strong interest in various systems of esoteric knowledge, altered consciousness, and hypnotic visual states, expressed in their films through flickering light, kinetic jump cuts, and repeated sequences.
I first met Conner in the in the mid-1990s, while living in Berkeley, California, and I have written on his work many times; in 2013, I reviewed an exhibition that paired Ziprin and Smith; and in 2017, I provided a blurb for Ziprin’s book of poems, Songs for Schizoid Siblings (Song Cave, 2017), with an Introduction, Notes and Bibliography by Philip Smith.
The reason I mention these details is to underscore my interest in non-mainstream art, avant-garde film, and the occult. Of the three filmmakers, Belson is the least known – a truly hermetic figure who does not have a public persona, like Conner or Smith. As far as I can determine, he seems to have done almost no interviews nor made any public pronouncements, and wasn’t part of any scene. In the early 1970s, he withdrew his films from distribution.
For years, all I knew of Belson was a VHS tape of his Mysterious Journey (1997). Later, I got the DVD, 5 Essential Films (2007), which includes Allures (1961) and Epilogue (2005). The whole DVD runs less than 45 minutes. In an age of computers, Photoshop, digital images, and CGI, Belson did everything in analog and often in camera. He shot the films in his apartment. A master of special effects, he caught Hollywood’s attention and was hired to work on Robert Parrish’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), and Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977). Philip Kaufman hired Belson to create the special effects for his adaptation of The Right Stuff (1983). Kauffman ended up using around three minutes out of the 20,000 feet of film that Belson shot.
At some point, early in this century, I learned from Raymond Foye that he was visiting Belson regularly in San Francisco, and that Belson had been making drawings and paintings for many years. In 2016, Foye organized an exhibition, Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos at Planthouse, which I reviewed. It was in that exhibition that I first saw Belson’s pastel drawings, which were being shown in New York for the first time.
Only Foye – who, as I pointed out in my review of Dark Star “possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of various underground currents of poetry, music, and art” – could have possibly organized the current exhibition, Jordan Belson Paintings 1950 – 1965, at Matthew Marks Gallery (May 2 – June 19, 2019), which consists of 23 paintings, four digital transfers from 16mm films, and four movies, none of them longer than 9 minutes. If some of us knew about Belson’s films, only Foye knew what else he was up to in his small San Francisco apartment.
My one problem with this exhibition – and this is on the gallery and not on Foye – is that there is no catalogue. Given the many lavish publications that Matthew Marks has proudly produced over the years, the absence of a catalog for a show as momentous as this one is noticeable. It might not be a crime in the real world, but it amounts to one in the art world.
Belson studied painting at California School of Fine Art (now San Francisco Art Institute) and the University of California, Berkeley, receiving a BA in Fine Arts in 1946. In 1949, his work was included in two exhibitions at the Museum of Non-Objective Art (now called the Guggenheim Museum) in New York. Inspired by the films of Oskar Fischinger and Hans Richter, which he saw in the mid-1940s at the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he began making films using his scroll paintings. He called these films “cinematic paintings.”
Spanning the years 1950 to ’65, none of the paintings at Matthew Marks is larger than 24 inches, with most being 12-by-12-inch squares. Given that Belson made films, which were to be projected on a screen, I think his decision to work on this scale meant committing to acts of concentrated meditation. Ideally, only one person can look at them at a time. He wanted the viewer to see only what was in front of his or her face – and it was to be scrutinized from up close. It is a kind of private looking that is all but forgotten – and even denigrated – in an age of spectacles, installations, monumental scale, and selfies.
The earliest works – all dated “circa 1950” – are linear, ornamental forms done in oil, enamel, and wax on black paper mounted to a board in an artist’s frame. These are exhibited within insets in the walls, which have been painted a warm, deep gray. The insets, which are lit from inside, reminded me of the efforts made by high-end jewelry to display rare objects to maximum advantage. Mounted slightly away from the inset’s back wall, with the bottom edge thrust forward, the painting is presented to the viewer for close examination.
I think the comparison with a jewelry display is instructive in its unintended irony. The value of Belson’s paintings has nothing with its material state, nor with its production costs. Because there is no agreed-upon mandate on what constitutes the purpose of art, each artist defines it in his or her work. Belson’s interest in contemplative, introspective states is what I find fascinating and compelling about his work, whatever manifestation it takes.
Defined by linear geometric structures, intertwining, snake-like lines, ribbed forms, symmetry, and asymmetry, the entire form of “Untitled” (c. 1950) becomes a unified icon to muse over, while considering the interactions of the contrasting structures within it.
In the later paintings, which are dated between 1953 and ’65, Belson usually works on a square surface with a centrally located circle or sphere, or with an inflected field of dryly painted monochromatic color.
In “Target” (c.1953), which is painted in casein on a panel measuring 15 by 15 inches, Belson comfortably fits the target’s concentric circles against a mauve ground. The outermost circle is a deep red, with the next rung a glowing orange, and the next one painted a dull yellow. The following three interior circles are in different hues of blue and violet, that the cool innermost circles are contained by hot and warm ones. A dark red circle, set down like an unapproachable gem, defines the center. The medium is casein, which becomes a non-reflective, chalk-like surface. The panel is mounted on a round, dryly painted green panel set within a thick black frame.
In addition to casein, Belson used tempera and dry pigment in oil. In addition to concentric circles, he found inspiration in geometry and pictures of nebulae – cosmic dust and gases – as well as spherical structures, which he used in images such as “Porazzo Polyhedra” (c. 1965), an open sphere made of octagons and pentagons tightly fitted together. A feeling of wonderment, mystery, and meditation flows through the work. Belson’s art possesses an inner glow – dust becoming light.
For those who are unfamiliar with Belson’s amazing films, I suggest going to the exhibition twice – first to see the paintings and then to sit and watch the films. The low lighting and gray walls, presumably to accommodate the viewing of the films, work perfectly with the paintings and their mystical underpinnings. Belson is part of that select visionary company that includes Conner, Smith, Forrest Bess, and Alfred Jensen, as well as Antonin Artaud, Emma Kunz, and Hilma af Klint from earlier in the 20th century. No matter how much you try to assimilate these artists into the art world, they will never fit in.
Jordan Belson Paintings 1950 – 1965 continues at Matthew Marks Gallery (523 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 19.