For the last five or six years, Stephen Henriques has produced a stunning series of abstract works, first alluding to the seacoast scenery he has known all his life, especially along the California coast, and then a series called “Tectonic Plates,” which changed his compositional habits, introducing long razor-thin lines and dividing the canvas into spaces that aren’t “geometric” but still relatively clean, using various subtle takes on the straight line—while always retaining the brilliant colors he is known for, brilliant yet far from merely primary and in-your-face.
I thought this was a potentially endless series, but the artist knows best! Some of the abstract, seacoast, and “Tectonic Plates” works call Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings to mind. Since the “Ocean Park” series is as good as any work in modern abstraction, who could complain? And anyway, the most striking thing about the “Tectonic Plates” (and “Casco Antiguo”) group is not the Diebenkorn resemblance but the rectangles of brilliant red or blue that slash against the diagonals, bringing Hans Hoffman in where he couldn’t have been expected and making the incongruity work.
But an artist feels differently. Two phases in Stephen’s career, first his swirling abstractions and then the jazz paintings, have no obvious antecedents, and an artist will inevitably value them highly for that reason alone. Stephen keeps returning to jazz motifs, recovering images that he has worked with for decades, at times intermittently and at other times steadily.
The newest work reflects that period still has razor-thin lines (not always in predictable places), beautifully calculated drips, and a masterful offsetting of calm expanses with wonderfully layered and edgy detail. The sharp diagonals come from the piano lids of the jazz paintings, and the razor-thin lines come from the brims of Thelonius Monk’s trademark porkpie hats (you see Ornette Coleman wearing one here) as Stephen paints them.
These new paintings do everything that can be learned from a lifetime working with a brush: there is open space, scumbling, criss-crossing to build up multi-colored surfaces, scratching, dripping, and blotching, with edges and lines negatively defined by meticulous yet casual-seeming overpainting. Stephen has always been a faultless colorist inclining toward a vivid palette, but there’s something new in these paintings: somehow, without changing the range of the palette, his attack, or technique, has deepened the colors, given them a velvety glow.
Much has been written about Stephen’s saturation in the jazz scene. I was there in the early days, hanging out and listening to all that vinyl. Many of his titles are jazz compositions, and I not only recognize them all, I associate a lot of them with listening experiences I can remember. We’re in our seventies now, and no one can begin to fathom how much jazz mattered to us then. Still does to Stephen: as he paints all day he goes through phases of listening to nothing but Dolphy, or Coltrane, or Ornette, or Gonzalo Rubalcaba. They’re in all his paintings
Paul Fry is a frequent contributor to Artnews and the William Lampson Professor of English at Yale University.