DAVID HEADLEY by Jane Livingston, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1976
    One could not find a more psychologically well-equipped, systematically organized and determined color-field painter than David Headley.  His beginning assumption is that highly refined technical expertise and knowledge of the physical possibilities for attaining an elaborate vocabulary of painterly know-how are fundamental tools for ultimate achievement.  This is a way of tackling painting that presupposes the most strenuously earned qualifications to make ambitious, large-scale statements.   
    The exciting thing about encountering Headley's paintings at this particular moment in his career is the feeling that he is just at the point of critical breakthrough into a manner which has to single him out as one of the important painters of his generation carrying on and extending modernist color painting.  The painting Jura, in fact, may itself emboby this moment. 
    Headley's large-scale paintings succeed, for me, more than the smaller paintings.  In the smaller-scale works, however, there are moments of excitment, suggesting directions leading to any number of fascinating future paintings.  There is a tendency in the smaller works to vacillate between Headley's natural inclination toward tightly ordered and pristinely executed compositions, and sudden, almost spasmodic passages of disruptive rhythmical shemata.  There seems to be continual opposition between two forces: the intensely controlled, sophisticated grasp of color-shape systems, and an occasionally betrayed urge to succumb to a dynamic, disharmonic mode of painting - an almost daemonic aura.   
    It is tempting, I think, at first to be most taken with the amazing Shetland  series paintings, whose configuratively uniform, large expanses of all-over pattern, allow the full impact of breathtakingly complex coloration to assert itself unmitigatedly.  The subsequent  larger canvases, such as Jura and Deep End combine passages of elaborate grid-like color compartments found in the Shetland paintings with sometimes jarringly contrasting areas of bizarre incident, interdisposing fairly large blocks of color with bare canvas and with strange, free color drawing. Though less ingratiating than the Shetland paintings, one returns to Jura and Deep End again and again out of a sense of challenge: one wants to perceive just why they are disturbing.  Jura, of course, succeeds triumphantly in logically and provocatively combining the tight color-grid area with the eccentric,variegated areas.  It is as though, in a kind of seismic displacement, color and line and form are disintegrating at the periphery and are forming new,complexly mutated organisms which originate as if by an accelerated evolutionary process from the central grid.  The dual properties of careful organization and random-seeming episodes are synthesized uniquely in Jura.
    Headley has reached the point where he will extend this kind of more protractedly complex manner, introducing spontaneity and invented forms more easily.  His brilliant color paintings, Wit's End and Deep Nocturne in the Corcoran Biennial, are so episodic, so additive and wittily synthetic that they defy cryptic characterization.  They are neither wholly incremental nor wholly gestural; they seem to embrace virtually every possibility for large-scale, modernist color painting.  David Headley stands in direct lineage to Morris Louis.  I have not for several years been caught up in this kind of painting, by an artist of Headley's persuasion and of his generation, as I find I am in these strange canvases.  My puzzlement does nothing to alter my belief in David Headley's certain importance to the main development of contemporary painting. 

Untitled #4 (Shetland)


DAVID HEADLEY by John Deckert, Arts Magazine, 1981
    Were it not for his sensitivity to orchestral form, a viewer might think that David Headley had taken a bulldozer approach to the Modernist tradition of painting.  But his impetuous spirit resembles closely that of a symphonic composer, squeezing and buffeting diverse elements, compelling them in concert.  By holding to that aesthetic distance, his work reaches beyond the temperamental self-searching that characterizes much of the American mainstream. 
    Headley's art is an art of convergence and displacement; flaunting its idiosyncracies and boisterous in its unpredictable profusion.  He seems neither content with nor contained by the singular incident, preferring instead the restless intercourse of a turbulent aesthetic.  He is likewise unwilling to accept or comply with the incestuous and labyrinthine principles of art historical evolution on the contemporary scene.  Headley's unselfconscious transgressions may well be a catalyst to the enrichment and expansion of American painting.  
    The most recent paintings are impacted with wildly divergent images gleaned from the vast divisions of abstraction, reshuffled and extravagantly consolidated in a single small-scale work.  Such a painting is Death Wish where fractured sections of hybrid painting styles are dislocated with capricious abandon and wedged into a disordered synopsis.  Schematic images are defaced by a vagrant expressionism and share common borders with spasmodic masses of congealed color lying, as if erupted, on top of the canvas surface.  The occurrence of such defiant (and sometimes comical) aberrations is more deliberate than is at first apparent.  Calculated aberrations display not only Headley's will to confirm his art historical debt but, more importantly to exert his tenacious desire throughout the body of work to venture toward more and more extensive pictorial alternatives.  
    In the early 1970's his Shetland paintings were a systematic exploration of chromatic variation and pattern.  The Shetland paintings were purely optical pictures, some with 10,00 distinct colors, submerged beneath the coordinates of a geometric pattern.  Following that mysteriously kaleidoscopic style, Headley began to explore the dynamic of simultaneous and contradictory visual experience to an increasing degree as the central motivation for his work.  Because of the enormous variety of images incorporated in the new paintings, the mark of his personal style is discovered as much in the arrangement and interrelationships of discrete forms as in the individual pieces of each puzzle.         
    These succeeding years witnessed a gradual disintegration of Headley's pristine surfaces and found passages of a gentle expressionism migrating across the compositions, as in Jura, a painting in the permanent collection of the Corcoran Gallery.  Culminating in 1976 & 1977, a series of large-scale canvases titled Deep EndWit's End, Deep Nocturne and The Chinese Menu  furthered Headley's exploration of uncharted territory.  In these mural-size paintings the processes of displacement and distraction became most apparent.  Something primal had changed and it marked a major thrust in the momentum of his work.
    The chromatic variations in his analytical early work were anchored by a multifaceted grid pattern.  But suddenly, these gentle, intuitive variations shifted to become juxtapositions of a dramatic nature.  Color became more erratic and less a matter of blending on vast chromatic fields; compositions, too, underwent similar radical alterations.  The scintillating effects of his chromatic fields were broken and the insistence of fragmentation became a disturbingly dominant motif.  The earlier blends and permutations of hue and value were more abrupt, losing their expansive translucency to opaque planes of irregular geometry.  
     New elements began to enter the paintings at this point, suggesting a traumatic nature to this transformation.  In Deep End, the prominent feature is a large truncated rectangle, in an ominously unprecedented black, which rests wedged behind several sections of the fragmented pattern motif.  Bare canvas is exposed in an adjacent large section as though the very foundation of paint were being washed away, deteriorating by erosion.  Further evidence of  pyschological dislocation is found in a long vertical border comprising the right side of the canvas, painted in what can only be described as "discomfortable blue," containing a linear motif dreamlike passage akin to a delerious slipping into unconsciousness. 
    Yet, despite the onslaught of such subliminal undertow, there is a quality of resilience and bouyancy to Headley's body of work which refuses to succumb to ponderous melodrama.  Even in the heavy-handed markings and teeming atmosphere of a painting such as The Chinese Menu there remains an openess to spontaneous incident and a sense of 'pleasure unraveled' in the creation of large-scale compositions.  There is a density to the abstract figuration which is not burdened by heaviness and a delicate quality to many passages that avoids fussiness.  Headley has created a commodious arena  for large-scale color painting where even the elements of opposition are bridged by eccentric rhythms and laced with the resonance of internal necessity.  
    David Headley's paintings exhibit a remarkable inventiveness and diversity of images ranging from the obsessive through the impulsive.  Viewed from the vantage point of Headley's oeuvre, it seems almost as if the last half-century of Modernist painting were a search for and a testing of fundamentals.  In Headley's work we discover a probing of the possibilities for the grand and encompassing forms that are the hallmarks of a major historical development.  

Death Wish

Deep End

Chinese Menu

AVID HEADLEY by Ellen Schwartz Harris, Lehigh University 1987
    It is David Headley's ambition to establish a new theoretical base for painting.  One that embraces all the complexity and contradiction of modern existence and seeks to re-establish painting's traditional dialectic between color and drawing. 
    To accomplish this goal, he has found it necessary to go beyond Modernism's reductivist tenet; he has abandoned Modernism's convention of 'signature style' and serialism. Instead, Headley forces a multiplicity of techniques and styles to exist side by side with little or no transition between them.  Lyrical and hard-edge abstraction alternate with realist figuration and sculptural elements, just as monochromatic passages suddenly give way to contrasting colors.
    The result is a visual cacaphony that both assults and beguiles the viewer.  In the process of coming to terms with so much visual stimuli, one comes to sense, then to affirm, an underlying poetic and structured order.  Ultimately, no one segment has significance separate from the overall organizational principles in any given work.
    For example, in Everything Happens Everywhere, All the Time, at Once (a graffiti phrase that Headley saw scrawled on the Prince Street post office in Soho), images accumulate and add up to a macro-statement about archeology, intellectual history and material culture - an effort more akin to the grand panoramic paintings of the 19th Century than to anything in the 20th.  He makes use of "iconographic bracketing" to make his points.  Dinosaurs (on the left), suggesting man's inescapable animalistic origins, are contrasted with man's spitituality, exemplified by the charcoal rendering of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral (on the right). Variations on this theme ricochet throughout the imagery in this enormous 10' x 30' canvas, all of which is previewed in the lower left corner where Zinjanthropus Man's head is silhouetted against a Mondrian painting.  Other elements, abstract as well as figurative, create a contemporary version of the classical theme, The Triumph of Reason.
    Paintings such as this one are challenging in the extreme to the Modernist viewer ( conditioned by all-over composition and 'one-shot imagery'.)  It takes some time and thought, for example, to recognize in the Janus-like portrait of Einstein ( at the precise fulcrum of the painting ) both a homage to the 20th century's greatest science genius and conversely, the creator of one of mankind's greatest scourges: the atom bomb.  Above Einstein, the Three Stooges hold standard comedic symbols of violence - a pie, a stick of dynamite and a cannonball.  Who are the philosophers, who the buffons?  It is like Headley to shake the bedrock of our convictions and leave us on slippery footing. 
    David Headley the anti-Modernist, began his artistic career in 1964 as a dyed-in-the-wool Formalist.  Schooled near Pittsburgh in the late 1960's, he found inspiration in painters Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who were extending the aesthetic frontier first opened by the Abstract Expressionists.  
    Then came the Vietnam War, where Headley served in the artillery in the Central Highlands.  This experience alienated Headley from the art of the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's that had previously inspired him and in which he had been schooled. Further, he felt alienated from both the culture that had plopped him down in the mountain jungles of southeast Asia, as well as alienated by the excesses of the counter-culture that arose in the 1960's. This existential predicament Headley experienced caused him to go on to question the very basis of Modernist and Avant-Garde art: Why should art require a progressive reduction to its component parts?  If there is something essentially arbitrary about the act of creating works of art, why is it more 'truthful' to affirm paint's tactile nature or canvas's two-dimensionality?    
    In 1973, Headley began to paint abstract works ( the Shetland paintings, 1973-75) in which logic and mathematical precision of color and drawing replaced Expressionism's sentiment and Formalism's austerity.  In the Shetland paintings, thousands of distinct colors and values change subtly, seamlessly mutating in all directions.  Headley's Shetland paintings are not about color and drawing, per se;  they make use of  color and drawing to reach a transcendent state of perception.  As a result of the thousands of distinct colors in each Shetland painting, the viewer is overloaded: one's eyes stop registering specific colors and see for the first time the continuum of color. 
( Or as the artist's wife overheard a couple at the Corcoran Gallery say, after they had looked at a Shetland painting for 30 seconds, "Jesus Christ! they're all different!")
    Having liberated color from interactive relationships, Headley proceeded to tackle drawing.  Historically, color and drawing were understood to be antithetical impulses.  Practitioners tended to consider themselves Rubenistes or Poussinistes; and later followers of Delacroix or Ingres, and later still, followers of  Matisse or Picasso. Post World War II American artists had, by and large, side-stepped this issue by melding color and drawing as a result of Jackson Pollock's all-over drip paintings.  
    Headley wanted to restore the traditional dialectic of color and drawing to the art of American abstract painting.  He wanted both color and drawing to operate independently within the same canvas, not as part of the singular gesture.  Headley's breakthrough was 'simultaneous juxtaposition.'  Jura (1975-76) was his first painting to achieve this effect.  In Jura, varieties of drawing are arrayed around a central core of scintillating colors.  The facture of this work is still Modernist and, particularly, shows Headley's debt  to Morris Louis and Gene Davis, Washington Color School artists, with whom he was familiar while living in Washington, DC during 1975.  But Jura was "Washinton Color School painting with a difference," said Gene Davis to Headley when he first caught sight of  his paintings at the Corcoran Gallery in the summer of 1976.  Jura was not allover in its pictorial organization, and its desire to be inclusive rather than reductive already set it apart from post World War II painting. 
    Since then, David Headley's work and ideas have gotten larger and more elaborate.  In largeness ( two canvases in this exhibition are 30' wide) there is impact and panoramic scope for the artists bag of tricks: you can't put the Taj Mahal into a gunny sack, so to speak.
    Recently, heavy gold frames and constructed elements have made their appearance, as well as occasional internal lighting to illuminate the inside of these 3-dimensional sculptural paintings. Most significantly, realist figuration has come to take equal place with abstraction in the paintings, with images culled from pop culture as well as from literature and the history of art.  The inclusion of so many competing and sometimes contradictory styles, enable the work to become styleless; that is, non-reductive, non-serial, and not identifiable with his own artistic hand.  The traditional dialectic of color and drawing have taken the place of Modernist style in these Post Modern narrative works of art. 
    There has been a steep price to pay for this aesthetic success.  Headley demands much of the viewer, and many are not up to the challenge. Initially, we feel assulted by the sheer size and by the pictorial range of this work.  Then, we are expected to search for the meaning embedded in every component, realist and abstract, alike.  We must even be willing to set aside cultured principles of taste, since we are likely to find E.T. or Elvis co-existing alongside a passage inspired by Bouguereau or Viollet-le-Duc. 
    One could fairly say that Headley's current work is both a fulfillment of Formalist art principles and the delineation of new artistic territory.  Once an apostle of Modernist art, then an apostate of Modernism, David Headley now occupies a different aesthetic terrain altogether.   

Everthing Happens ...

Avenue de la Liberation


"REPICTURING ABSTRACTION: DAVID HEADLEY" by Richard Waller, University of Richmond Museum 1995
    David Headley's appropriation of image and style represents a theoretical stance and a personal philosophy that embrace abstraction as a necessary way to fulfill the early promise of Modernism.  The refiguration of abstraction is his approach to maintaining the viability of post-modern painting. Demonstrating what he calls his definitive style of "high formalism," his recent work involves the resolution of history painting and pre-modern art with post-modernist pluralism. He views Modernism as part of a legacy that comprises all of art history and material culture laid bare for use by the contemporary artist. For Headley, formalist principles are not necessarily reductivist, and "color and drawing, as well as the secondary characteristics of paining (form, texture, illusion) can be stretched significantly to embrace the sculptural potentialities of modern art. Duchamp and Johns need not be antithetical to Noland or Olitski. It is this philosophical schism that my painting has resolved." This ongoing "resolution" remains Headley's ambitious theoretical program for painting. In what he has aptly dubbed the "Style Wars" of twentieth-century art, he has made this war of fracturing and pluralism his cause.
    Headley created images encompassing styles of abstraction, from expressionism to hard-edged pattern; banal images from popular culture, including Elvis, dinosaur "illustrations," and cartoon characters; and pastiches of traditional Western painting styles and realist images -- and he sets them free in an all-encompassing space akin to a time warp. His paintings involve all manner of media: fluorescent plexiglas, mosaic tile, tinted mirrors, needlepoint, liquid-and-sand mechanisms, television sets, air-brushing, watercolor, acrylic and oil on canvas, and traditional fresco painting. He unifies this broad combination of styles, passages, media, techniques, and experiences by framing his works in heavy, bold gold-leaf molding and fretwork; but this "traditional" framing becomes an integral element of Headley's paintings. They initially jolt us with their complex cacophony, but contemplation brings aesthetic order and enjoyment.
    In his painting Two Schools of Thought, 1987-94, academic realism is placed cheek-and-jowl with diverse types of abstraction. We are overwhelmed by the interplay of pictorial experiences. Headley refers to this as "a heightened collision of styles, as Abstraction confronts Realism." Its appendages fairly explode from the wall into the real third dimension; only the frame seems to hold the work in check, allowing us to savor the range of painting he has placed before us. The central axis is broken by an open fluorescent-plexiglas cube jutting out almost two feet. Complex pattern-painting is "framed" into a spiral, while an academically painted nude is juxtaposed with an abstract-expressionist oil passage, protruding elements mimicking the figure's illusion, and a trellis-like abstraction painted in traditional fresco. Collaged vignettes include an airbrushed photograph of a forest fire, an acrylic-stained image of a Frederic Edwin Church iceberg painting, and a science-magazine illustration of a landscape on a moon of Jupiter. Headley has also included a watercolor abstraction found in the garbage, a found oil painting, a continuous-wave machine, and a working television set. His "high formalism" uses appropriation to bring us into a discourse between the two schools of painting. But this is decidedly a wide-ranging discussion. Although his dialectic should theoretically lead us to a resolution, the artist seems more intent on presenting contradictory, even incongruous ideas in order to revitalize the very act of contemplating contemporary abstraction. Perhaps the aesthetic experience of immersing ourselves in this intricate maze filled with color and forms is our resolution. The witty irony of the visual experience points beyond the "philosophical schism" of art-world polemics to a new way of seeing.

Two Schools of Thought