It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyse one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful.

Donald Judd

There are many contradictions in Donald Judd’s works, both in and with his writing. The obdurate, revealed nature of most of the material he chose might logically deny significant illusionism – and yet his grand work 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986, housed at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa Texas, dissolves into acres of shimmering immateriality worthy of Monet’s garden. Judd’s aluminium impressionism may not be about the brushstroke and gesture which he adamantly disavowed, but it is about the duality of “goju” (hard and soft). That Judd’s works are simultaneously hard and soft is one of their central contradictions and at the heart of the works character and resolution.

This notion of contradiction also lies at the heart of Matthew Allen’s intimate practice. Like Judd, Allen’s commitment to the rectilinear puts him firmly in the Mondrian camp. Right angles abound and the clarity of his repeated forms, the functional modularity with which he builds a painting could lead a less sensitive soul down the restrictive escalator of formalism.

Allen however is a romantic, and though colour and its emotional manipulations have only recently re-entered his vocabulary, the dominant material that he works with, graphite on linen, is ripe for atmosphere, for welcome uncertainty. As a material it needs to be coaxed and finessed into life, very much by hand – and eye. For all their apparent formality Allen’s works are the product of touch and fine judgement. Matthew’s best works remind me of the way that American painter Winston Roeth describes working with colour. You must “keep the pigments moving, caressing them until they lift (off)”. Though the graphite appears, like Judd’s raw aluminium, to be implacable, under Allen’s guidance it begins to kindle, offering up traces of light and reflection.

One also thinks of Günter Umberg, whose blacker than black paintings attune our eyes to register the first cognition of light rather than darkness, or more accurately, its absence. Once again contradiction is at the heart of Umberg. Allen’s graphite panels approach neither the silence of Umberg, nor the pitch of Judd but they do have a quiet hum to them. All that patient coercion of graphite particles imbues them with a sonic vibration that is perhaps the memory of his repetitive touch trapped in the material. Critically Allen has also, for the first time, added traces of black pigment to the graphite itself. This subtle amalgamation further alters the behaviour of the graphite, especially in response to light and gives the hitherto cool ambience of the polished graphite, a new climate. The title for this exhibition, Umbra, suggests something of this new atmosphere.

It is the use of unmodulated colour and its clarity that acts to hold the object. Though the strong reds and crimsons swell against the coruscation of the graphite panels and the soft ochres may appear to defer by comparison, their juxtaposition and the animation at the edges demonstrates the multiple contradictions that comprise these works as a whole.
The new paintings that Fox Jensen McCrory will present in Auckland undoubtedly extend Allen’s concentrated practice. Already a painter determined to mine the possibilities that material and patient process can deliver, Allen’s new works demonstrate a desire to invest his work with a latent romanticism and aura that foregrounds the works sensitivity and consciousness.

Andrew Jensen, October, 2023