A Single-minded Migratory Bird by Camille Xin

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Leonard Contino on view at CUE Art Foundation February 2-  March 9, 2012.  

Leonard Contino is the kind of visionary artist described by Rilke as a single-minded migratory bird. Although formally untrained, Contino's mode of geometric and optical art is highly sophisticated, his work a unique blend of spiritual and metaphysical curiosity.  He effortlessly switches between different mediums but other than his creativity, nothing is effortless for Contino. In 1962, at the age of 19, he injured his spinal cord in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.  He couldn't hold a pencil or a brush without the support of a brace. As a child, Contino drew and sketched, and before his accident, he pin-striped cars and hot rods in his Brooklyn neighborhood. But it was while at the Rusk Institute that he was encouraged to make serious art by a young fellow patient and sculptor, Mark di Suvero, with whom he formed a close, life-long friendship. ??At first, Contino made drawings and imitated old masters. Through di Suvero's introductions, he met many artists. Some of them were affiliated with Park Place Gallery, an artist-run cooperative gallery in Soho that emphasized avant-garde art by emerging artists. Contino was immediately attracted to the experimental edge of Geometric Abstraction and Op Art. Yet it was one of Clyfford Still's large abstract paintings that triggered his sense of composition and color palette. Contino showed his geometric paintings in group exhibitions at Park Place and Green Gallery which featured works by Mark Di Suvero, John Chamberlain, Forrest Meyers, Robert Grosvenor, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin, among others.  However, while most of his fellow artists went on to become successful, Contino, who believed in the reclusive mythos of Van Gogh, shied away from the art world.  For the next 40-some years, in a house near South Ozone Park, New York, he pursued his solitary, relentless investigation of paintings, reliefs, collages and sculptures. ??Contino's early works are hard-edged geometric paintings (including shaped canvases) composed of thick lines and contrasting solid colors that divide the canvas and form intricate shapes. They employ optical tension not so much to fool the eye but to engage the viewer in a moving energy field. Compared to similar works of the 60s, Contino's "Geometric Series" is executed with exceptional control and a rare sense of spirituality. Some of the shapes are inspired by the pottery patterns and blanket designs of North American Indians; some were architectural as seen in his Chinese Garden and Israeli Tents, or animals, as in Birds Head with Beak and Crossed Eyed Cat's Eyes. "(Contino's) early works tend to be monofocal," a reviewer wrote about one of his solo shows. "Depth is suggested within the form which remains anchored to the unmodulated picture plane." (1)

In 1968, Contino's father was given a bag of mat boards at a trade show. They inspired his geometric, spatially multifaceted  "Wall Reliefs Series."  At the same time, his mother fashioned a new brace for him, which made it easier for him to control his movements.   Contino cut and painted the mat boards in acrylic, then glued a "geometric puzzle" (without space in between) in the center of solid colored wood panels that he treated like canvas supports. These low reliefs project outward from the surface of the work, serving as a methodical reexamination of the relationship between painting and sculpture. This makes them essentially different from Frank Stella's wall-mounted high reliefs that are constructed like three-dimensional sculptures (with space in between) projecting directly from the wall. Instead of trying to organize the space as Stella did, Contino investigated the dynamic relationship between perspective and images, images and planes, as well as planes and material. Nevertheless, both of their works articulated a new formulation of painting as image and object. ??Contino, however, didn't abandon flat abstract paintings.  In fact, his new spatial understanding served as a catalyst for the development of his "Floater Series." Instead of filling the surface like he did in his early paintings, Contino let air in by centering the image on a shimmering acrylic background.  The "Floaters," like his "Reliefs," are allowed to breath and emanate light. Material is the element separating these two series. Contino and geometric abstractionist Ron Davis share similar concerns about perspectival illusion and optical tension, but these are not Contino's main preoccupation. His focus always goes back to the constant shifting of pictorial space. While Davis was trying to create three-dimensional illusion, Contino mixed it with two-dimensional geometric shapes. Bright color juxtapositions on interlocking squares, rectangles and triangles create an effect of shifting light and shadow, in turn producing spatial ambiguity. Spirituality continued to infuse Contino's works via Hopi, Navaho and Maya symbols. 

In the early 80s, Contino added new motifs to his "Floaters," such as long thin lines that resembled a bridge structure influenced by di Suvero's sculptures. A few years later, biomorphic shapes began dancing with three-dimensional forms in Secret Gardens to create the "Morphic Series," suggesting Joan Miró.'s playfulness. At this point, Contino's paintings pulled away from the norm by breaking down the barrier between geometric and surrealism. ??The spiritual aspect of Contino's geometric art distinguishes him from Frank Stella, Victor Vasarely and Ron Davis. Contino believes in one god with many names and a universal flow of energy connecting all religions. Over the years, Contino made many cross paintings that resemble mandalas, but for him the shape is ecumenical. Because of his mother, Contino became interested in Aten, the Egyptian Sun God worshipped by Akhenaten.  Together, they visited the King Tut exhibition at the Met in the late 70s. Contino was especially fascinated with the throne chair and its bursting sun surrounded by rays, topped with little human hands. Not long after that came his "Checkerboard Series." The color palette and checker patterns resemble that of the seat of the throne chair and King Tut's miniature golden coffin.  However, Contino kept his paintings far simpler. A symbol of the sun, presented in layered half circles, is often placed slightly off center on a checkerboard ground. Sending rays and waves down, it creates quadrilaterals from the interlocking triangles, circles and ovals. The series shares the characteristic that defines his artistic focus, that of, as he said,  "simple elements that are constantly changing according to various perspectives." (2)

Lines and planes are also fundamental to Contino's work, as seen in his "Black and White Series."  A quick glance shows straight black lines intersecting on a white canvas that generate optical agitation, resembling a mystical design. Yet when the viewers look longer, from a certain vantage point, they can make out transparent triangles and squares that are suspended and overlap as in Fast Track and Hair Spring. The transparency indicates that both positive and negative should be seen as a whole, yet viewers might end up wondering: is what you see what you see? While remaining minimal, Contino's "Black and White Series" defies Frank Stella famous mantra. Contino himself wants to see what's behind his "Floaters," hence he placed himself either above or below to investigate their spatial relationships. The paintings seem to subtly move when seen from different angles and perspectives. The hard-edged lines without his usual contrasting colors and shimmering surfaces "undermine any attempt to place them firmly in the tradition of the 1960's optical art."(3)

In recent years, this series has become horizontal in works like Gale, and his perspective turned frontal as in Light Wires. In addition, his straight lines have become even more minimal but not less emphatic. They don't represent or reflect, but facilitate his overall vision. In the sense of line drawing, they bear a kinship to Sol Lewitt's wall paintings, though Contino's works are much smaller in size. Nonetheless, his lines expand beyond the single plane and beyond the canvas. The finished images fall between the measurable and immeasurable. Its minimal structure and complex visual effect doesn't allow our eyes to rest on any static pictorial plane, "thus," as critic Barbara Rose put it, "the painting remains continuously alive." (4)

In addition to stringent geometric art, in the late 60s, Contino created a series of free-spirited "Collages" inspired by a copy of Penthouse magazine his mother found in the subway.  Contino's early geometric works used precisely measured grids, and his later paintings and reliefs were done with systematically developed variations, all of which avoided narration and facile interpretations. Collages freed Contino creatively and emotionally, allowing him to combine magazine cut-outs, checkerboards, drawings and paintings. His magazine cutouts often involved sexy women, animals, machine parts and everyday objects, which generate not only stories, but also humor, spontaneity and sensual energy. Collages are Contino's expressionism. As di Suvero commented, "collage expresses Contino's erotic energy. They are sometimes obscene, sometimes bizarre, but in them he let himself go." ??As close friends, di Suvero and Contino have inevitably inspired each other and have collaborated on a few metal sculptural pieces-Contino drew and di Suvero made them. In the early 90s, Contino made many wooden sculptures himself. Again, restricted by physical limitations and meager funds, his sculptures are all exquisite maquettes waiting to be enlarged. ?Contino does not produce his work in a linear progression. He circles back and forth between different mediums. As a result, each of his series evolves slowly but adamantly. It might take Contino a few months to finish a checkerboard painting, but he does it himself, handling a saw and making his own frames. A proud artist who is indifferent to money and fame, Contino refuses to be categorized as a quadriplegic.  He wants viewers to concentrate on his work. Yet his story illuminates his work and helps viewers to understand the process of his creativity.  Contino approaches art with extreme dedication and tenacity, the same attributes that enabled him to outlive all the doctors who, in 1962, predicted that he only had ten years to live.  After 50 years as an artist, Leonard Contino has generated a compelling body of work that, according to Rose, places him as "a visionary artist, in the tradition of Kupka, Klee, Kandinsky and such Americans as Dove and Hartley who "saw art as a kind of spiritual meditation on cosmic phenomena."(5)

1. Exhibition catalogue, Contino's solo show, Muhlenberg College, PA, 1979.

1. Quote from Contino in interview.

1. Exhibition catalogue, Contino's solo show, Muhlenberg College, PA, 1979.

4.   Barbara Rose, Exhibition catalogue, Contino's solo show, Janie C. Lee Gallery, TX, 1978.

5.  Barbara Rose, Exhibition catalogue, Contino's solo show, Janie C. Lee Gallery, TX, 1978.