Jon Groom

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To Unknow What We Know: The Paintings of Jon Groom

Robert C. Morgan


"Painting creates a space, the artist works to give that space meaning, to fill it with unspoken silence which can go beyond our understanding into the realm of profundity."

Like most serious painters, Jon Groom's work holds many influences and affinities. He has arrived where he is through various modes of experience. While consistent in his pursuit of primary form and color, Groom does not make works that intend to surprise or titillate his viewers. His paintings, watercolors, wallpaintings, and installations embed a silent resonance within their surfaces. They are built from color and are modulated within the interstices of reductive form. They are surfaces woven into a fabric that echo the artist's subjective vocabulary - a subtle, inchoate archaeology of fundamental pictorial concepts. One may ascertain affinities between Groom and the work of other artists, both past and present, but finally his paintings are meant to stand indelibly on their own. When seen together they operate as a kind of mirror or condensation pulling beneath the surface of twentieth-century Modernism, revealing new concepts, new morphologies, and new lessons that explain more than we ever thought to ask. The emotional pulse within these paintings is extraordinary - inexorable - as they equivocate between darkness and light, order and disorder, implication and definition, history and myth, truth and illusion, faith and reason. They function like a glissando, pulsating in and out, testing our optical memory, searching for new metaphorical heights of pitch and timbre. Groom's musical evocations, or intonations, take us back into the deep strata of Gregorian chants, the light of Byzantine tesserae, the density of Moorish patterns, Hindu temple architecture, and the fertile emptiness (sunyata) of Buddhism. In Groom's paintings we may contend with the philosophical transposition of opposites, such as immanent and transcendent perception, what is near and what is far in terms of consciousness, and what constitutes our sense of absence in relation to our construction of the present.

In an interview from 1997 Groom points to the work of Barnett Newman as having "a kind of materiality and substance which implies more than it actually is." He sees in Newman's paintings a manifestation of color that addresses both the human condition and the spirituality of mankind.

This realization had a decisive impact on Groom. During a year's residency in Tacubaya, Mexico in 1995, Groom reveled in the spiritual hedonism of Luis Barragàn's architecture, specifically in the architect's use of color as a means to humanize and express "the warmth of mankind within the geometry of architectural form." Over the course of his career, Groom's connection to both painting and architecture has been profound. More recently at his studio, I discovered the artist's affinity for the work of Le Corbusier and, more recently, another Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor (whose spa in Vals directly influenced two new paintings, entitled Morning Painting and Evening Painting [both 2006], influenced by the spectrum of changing light seen through a rectilinear aperture). For Groom, the source of this painting/architecture dialogue was an encounter with the paintings of the Bolognese painter Giorgio Morandi early in his career. To envision the placement of bottles in space and to read the space between these bottles was enough to convince Groom that structure and light were ineluctably tied to one another. According to Groom, looking at abstract painting should be a "very physical experience" and - like that of great architecture - should lead the viewer toward a heightened emotional response. A specific example would be a recent three-part horizontal painting from 2004 - "a 360-degree painting," as Groom calls it, entitled Panorama Painting - where the artist incorporates four colors in a systemic sequence that move across three panels with a clear reference to architecture.

Elsewhere, in another interview (2003), Groom acknowledges the work of Malevich, Mondrian, Fra Angelico, and, especially, Piero della Francesca in coming to terms with structure and space in his work. He further cites the inspiration of the late Agnes Martin as an artist who "made painting without defining it," and recently has commented on the importance of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who demonstrated two diverse ways of painting light. Such bold assertions of influence suggest a considerable breadth in Groom's work and give testimony to a confidence in his own means of perception. The latter he regards as the primary source in his evolution as a painter. Just as his character admits a certain generosity of spirit - a quality he regards as essential to art - so his work appears to move to that direction. Born, bred, and educated in Wales (and later at the Chelsea School of Art in London), Groom was the son of an engineer who in mid-life gave up a career to concentrate on building harpsichords, eventually specializing in making intricate inlaid keyboards. Groom credits his father as being an inspiration who pursued his own creative direction in life. While perhaps unaware of the power of sublimation in his own youthful adulthood, Groom would eventually come to grips with it as he evolved toward a mature consciousness on his own, liberating himself from all inhibitions. For Groom, painting would become more than a profession. His decision to succeed as an artist opened the windows of his conscious mind to an unforeseen mystery whereby he would embark on an immense, multivalent journey through the countless thresholds of life.

Much of the artist's early career was spent working and exhibiting in London and New York. Since the early nineties, he has considered Munich his base, even though he travels frequently. He has lived for short periods in the United States, Italy, Mexico, India, Norway, and the Channel Islands.

As for Munich, he enjoys the fact that such painters as Kandinsky, Münter, and Marc found their home here a century earlier. Groom believes these artists - each in their own way - understood the process of transformation in painting, that they grasped the dialectic between the material and the spiritual aspects of their work. Though his approach is more reductive and more contemporary within his own time, Groom believes that Munich still encourages painting and offers a place where the history of Modernist painting continues to move forward at its own pace. Even so, Groom has often stated - with a degree of ironic conviction - that, for him, painting is less important as a medium than as a means by which to produce sensations of color and light. While he acknowledges that the materiality of pigment has a practical, if not necessary significance, he argues that pigment does not and cannot sustain painting on its own. For painting to convey color and light, the material substance must be transformed into something more palpable that evokes the spirit.

Groom's first exhibitions at Riverside Studios (1978) and Nicola Jacobs (1979), both in London, consisted of two-part vertical paintings where the lower panel was positioned askew to the upper. Each panel was painted a different color with a thin white linear arc connecting them. These works were initially understood by critics less in relationship to color than as a kind of hybrid, somewhere between painting and sculpture. This hybrid, of course, was something that the American artist Donald Judd alluded to years earlier in a widely-read essay entitled "Specific Objects" (1965), that many saw as the blueprint for Minimal art. There is little doubt that Groom was interested in Minimal art at the outset of his career, but not particularly in terms of theory or color. Minimal art was too removed from color, exempt from the intrigue of color mixing, the distillations of hue and value that, for him, made painting a rarefied occurrence. Groom saw color as his terrain.

It was through color that he wanted to proceed into the realm of non-objective art. His agent was the reductive structure of the framing edge - as it was for Newman - but Groom wanted to push the linear motif further, to suspend it within the painting, yet at the same time to reveal its lyric ambience, and thus, enable perception to articulate space.

While Groom was clearly aware of Minimal art by the late seventies, he never endorsed his work as being Minimal. Rather he saw his work more correctly as being "reductive" - a term more related to the painterly surface than to the three-dimensional modular forms employed by Judd. Rather than embrace the empiricism of Judd, Groom was more interested in the signifying potential of painting. He wanted to transform the pragmatic emphasis on material into an emotional or, in other words, a spiritual, emphasis. By the early eighties, Groom was looking for something vital in painting, an image without figuration - a sensate field contained diametrically within another field, an array of color with a disposition in order to reveal Blake's "fearful symmetry." The challenge was ahead of him: to find a coherent, unencumbered angle of vision, a new kind of light in painting, and thus bring time into space, so they might coexist together in proportion to one another. Given the pragmatic position of the Americans, Groom decided to go another way. While he shared an interest in the perception of space - as did Robert Morris, another artist associated with Minimalism - Groom was unwilling to relinquish the possibility that someone could actually be moved by his work or that his reductive forms and colors might generate ideas and emotions that were not prescribed according to his intentions. Put another way, he wanted to retain the dialectic of presence and absence offered by Minimalism but he also wanted to hold on to intuition.

In an exhibition catalog published by the former Ruth Siegel Gallery in midtown Manhattan (1985), the writer Chris Titterington affirmed that, while Groom's work may appear stylistically related to Minimal art, he doubted the artist "ever conceived of his work as having much to do with the materialist doctrine proclaimed in high Minimalist theory." While Titterington's observation is accurate, there was still the lingering problem of the painting/sculpture hybrid in Groom's work. Was it important that Groom's early work began to question the boundaries between painting and sculpture? Given that Judd had already done this in the sixties, I would say that it was less important than many believed. Also, it put Groom's work in a confounding position. By holding fast to both painting and sculpture (in contrast to making a clear transition between the two as did Judd), Groom's work ironically affirmed and denied the objecthood of each, thus confusing his assertion against painting as a purely formal medium.

Still there is another way of seeing it. While Groom may have found the term "abstract painting" inconvenient in the twenty-first century, he was nevertheless a painter. In a brilliant move to subvert the label "painter," he shifted attention away from the issues of painting as a formal medium toward issues of content, namely, color and light. Realizing that abstract painting in recent years was not being given the serious critical attention that it deserved, Groom understood how to play the language games (well known among critics and conceptual artists) without becoming cynical. Simply put, he took a position against the idea of defining art through language since lan-guage limited one's openness toward sensory perception. Instead of relegating his position as a painter to defining the medium of painting as a formal construct (essentially a Greenbergian concept), he opted to push painting in the direction of experience. Intuition, not contrivance, became the basis of his decision-making process; therefore, the task of defining painting in terms of an obsolescent formal medium became irrelevant. Instead, Jon Groom embraced the transmission of meaning through painting. His vehicles were color and light and now, finally, the added dimension of space.


"The key word is energy. Painting seems able to encapslate energy "¦ I want my paintings to be very full (like a fully charged battery) and, at the same time, I want them, to be empty to allow whatever it is that occupies space to exist in its own right."

I recall a conversation with the artist where we talked about Buddhism. I mention this because the subject is never far from the thoughts of the artist. He will talk about Buddhism the way he talks about the technical details in a painting - whether the canvas is stretched over a board, whether the pigment is mixed with minerals, ground pearl, or quartz, whether a palette knife or trowel is employed in contrast to a brush - but is reticent to speak about formal decisions. Buddhism is a matter-of-fact enterprise, not something that is outside the mundane aspects of the everyday world. For Groom, Buddhism is about the practical function of things. Formal decisions, as such, are irrelevant. They are beside the point. He is predisposed to intuition, even if the decisions are preconceived, including decisions that are related to the mixing of color, the geometric organization of the space, the dimensions or scale of the picture plane. Even preconceived determinants are rarely discussed in formal terms. This is not his concern. Rather he is interested in how the viewer feels, the viewer's response upon first seeing the painting - how the colors vibrate or transmit energy, how they open windows of consciousness, induce silence, or incite feeling. Groom is interested in the aesthetic aspect of the work, that is, how the work is received - not the formal intricacies or preoccupations with how the painting was made.

The American poet and historian Carl Sandburg once made the comment that "life is a series of relinquishments." Groom was confronted with this reality in the late nineties - in 1998, to be exact - when he decided to give up certain negative habits and addictions in order to move his life forward.

He has described the aftermath of this experience as feeling paralyzed and vulnerable. He felt naked as if he were revealing his true self for the first time. The layers of the onion had been peeled away and suddenly a new green shoot began to appear. At this moment, Jon Groom began to connect with various forms of Eastern thought through the writings of Krishnamurti. Meditation practice would soon follow, the discipline of yoga, the search for samadhi: the focus and concentration on the undivided self. In the West, the concept of Self is contingent upon the Other. In Buddhism, there is no duality that separates or divides the concept of the Self into Ego and Id. In meditation, there is only the undivided Self, the egoless Self. To begin meditation is difficult, but through daily practice, Groom began to achieve a different perspective on life and consequently on painting. Rather than thinking in a preconceived way in terms of an advanced form of art - the basis of the Greenbergian concept of the avant-garde - Groom was satisfied to remain static, to hover within a quiet intensity where space and color resonate with light.

If the artist could become a reflection of this stasis, like a vibration of light or a ripple in a stream, then painting could become significant again. It was a matter of reducing one's emotional input in order to augment the feeling of absence, and then by transforming this absence into a reflective presence, allowing the subject, being the viewer, to be brought into focus through the internal structure of the painting. This led Groom to understand that repetition was not a negative feature of painting, but an advantage. By repeating a visual motif through subtle variations and permutations - as in his series Cycles of the Day (2000 - 2006) - a profound experience could be generated through the act of perception. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, the thanka or mandala is an object of meditation, a way of getting into the egoless Self, the meditative state of "no mind" (we-nein).

Groom was interested in provoking this kind of response in the viewer. To repeat the structure as a modular recurrence - a lesson learned from Minimalism - could become a powerful visual and conceptual force. This is where he wanted his painting to move. He wanted paintings that would appear paradoxically still, yet moving on a perceptual, vibratory, or molecular level as if hovering in space and time. In effect, Groom was searching for a synthesis of space/time in painting like that the Hungarian artist Moholy-Nagy had considered years before Minimalism in the Bauhaus. In contrast to Moholy-Nagy, however, Groom was less concerned with translucent planes than with the stability of the picture place - not the Constructivist diagonal, but the symmetry of form, the transformation of time into a modality of space, interactive space that held itself through color and light, through an assertion of timelessness.

A further note would be useful as to the meaning of the word "energy" as it is understood from an Eastern point of view and how I believe it connects with the two series of paintings entitled Between the Light (2003 - 2006) and Cycles of the Day (2000 - 2006). Both series are focused on the hinged bar or window motif in which mixed pigments are applied with a knife onto the surfaces. The subtle penetration of light between these equidistant color modules gives the surface a balanced and utterly refined appearance. Each series is standardized in measurement: Between the Light, consisting of thirteen paintings, is the larger of the two, measuring 180 x 210 centimeters, whereas Cycles of the Day measures 90 x 160 centimeters. Both series are positioned vertically so that the hinged bars float horizontally within the surface. The "energy" factor in these paintings is, as the artist states, "encapsulated" in their containment or enfolding of color, space, and light.

Groom talks about his paintings in the language of Buddhism as being both full and empty at the same time. He wants his paintings to hold a specific energy and, thereby, to intensify that energy as they maintain their position in space. If these parameters are in place, contingent upon the viewer's reception, then the painting is doing its job. In this sense, the functional apparatus of the painting - as suggested by Groom's paradoxical emptiness and fullness - is received through a kind of transmission of energy from the artist to the viewer. The concept of energy in East Asia has a very positive, healing connotation. It refers to the health of the mind/body mechanism of the body and is monitored on a routine basis. What is important for both men and women in Korea, for example, is an awareness of the qi (in Chinese, ch'i) or the flow of energy as it occurs throughout the body on a daily basis. According to Confucianism, the qi circulates not only within a single body but also within the social body. If the qi is flowing and circulating in a healthy way, the intellect functions accordingly. In this sense, intelligence is not seen as separate from energy but is part of the same phenomenon. In the context of Groom's paintings the recognition of energy emanating through the colors and forms is close to the ultimate content of the work. But any direct crossover between the Eastern concept of the qi and Western aesthetics would be difficult to consider. The means by which the transmission of energy or meaning occurs in art is simply not the same. Even so, in the case of Groom's paintings, the shift has moved towards the East and, to this extent, has incited another possibility for thinking and feeling on the part of the viewer.

Some of Groom's most extraordinary works have been shown directly on the wall. He has made numerous wallpaintings, such as First Light (2004), originally shown at Galerie König in Hanau. But the most impressive works to date are his watercolor installations in which individually painted sheets of paper, either in monochrome or two colors, are placed together on a wall where they construct a single image.

The repetitive pattern incites a field of energy that pulsates both visually and optically. Examples would include Face of the Buddha (2003), consisting of 216 parts, and Jewel Tree (2005), composed of 574 parts. In a third work, entitled Tokonoma (2005), Groom provides a subtitle: The Many and the One. This phrase implies that the whole is contingent on the parts and that the parts work together as one. Beginning in 2003, the watercolor works constitute a new form of installation without forsaking the basic impulse of painting. The visual energy in these works projects through the structure - visually, physically, and conceptually - and becomes indivisible and indelible. As a potentially singular image, these works may offer the viewer a sense of solitude without longing, a sense of resolution with the outer world. The vehicle in either case is color. Perhaps, more than any other series of recent work by Groom, these watercolor installations reveal most accurately how light emanates through color and how the process of transmission works aesthetically on both our perceptions and memory.


"My paintings have been described as windows. This is partly true. I focus on the idea of the window, not the window that looks out on the world, but the window which allows us to look inside ourselves, the reality of who we are."

Over the course of his career, Jon Groom has had several prestigious honors, including a residency at Villa Waldberta under the auspices of the Kulturreferat München (1987) and the Arts Council of Great Britain (1990). His important exhibitions include the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (1994), the Casa Museo Luis Barragàn, Mexico City (1997), Galerie 422, Gmunden (2004), and the Ludwig Museum, Koblenz (2006). He has had several influential associations, including long-time friendships with the painters Sean Scully (a former teacher) and Jerry Zeniuk, both of whom reside part of the year in Munich. While Groom is known as a painter (a label he has reluctantly accepted), his work might be regarded from a material perspective as an exegesis on painterly variations. The diversity of media ranges from watercolor on paper to various acrylic pigments mixed with polymer. In addition (given his interest in architecture and his background in sculpture), Groom has completed several important public commissions, including several acrylic wallpaintings. Four of the most prominent are Evidence: Five Copper Paintings for Lincoln Cathedral (1990), The Bayernwerke Wallpainting, Finsing/Munich (1995), Wallpainting: Iron Pyrite and Ivory Black for the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Munich (1997), and Axis Wallpainting: Two Walls, One Ceiling, for Uniplan International, Kerpen/Cologne (1997).

Given this range of mediums, Groom has focused most of his forms on the "golden section" - a geometric concept that was first articulated by the pre-Socratic philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, then later applied to the Lambdoma scale in music, and to the intervals in spiraling forms, ranging from nautilus shells to galaxies, in the twelfth century by Fibonacci. He is fond of paraphrasing Donald Judd to the effect that the artist can more easily judge what is wrong in a geometric form than determine what exactly makes it right. While Groom may begin with the "golden section" - the most perfect rectangle, also, incidentally, used by the architect Mies van der Rohe in New York's Seagram's Building (completed 1959) - he still insists that his manipulation of forms is largely contingent on color relationships. In this sense, there is no formula by which he constructs a painting. Groom insists on intuition; his eye will tell him the truth. One of the more remarkable sources from which the artist has drawn inspiration is the ground plan used in various Hindu temples. Having spent considerable time inside these stone structures, Groom became fascinated by the spiritual balance within these interior spaces. Through this investigation, Groom became interested in Robert Lawlor's concept of the gnomon as "a succession of increments or growth [that] defines a passage through time "¦ so time is depicted as a relentless expanding fire of life, throwing outward and consuming again the forms held in the initial seed altar."

Groom's appropriation of the floor plan of Hindu temples in his recent paintings - also based on the principle of the golden section - can be seen in works such as Five Days I (Light Blue, Violet in Gold) and Five Days II (Violet, Dark Red, Ochre in Violent Gray), both from 2005. In the first painting the blue rectangle is inserted vertically and symmetrically inside the gray floor plan, while in the second version, a proportionate arrangement of two horizontal rectangles fits within an ochre square. In either case, the position of the two shapes is placed in the center, equidistantly between the top and bottom edges. Groom's attention to the perception of color arrangements in terms of how the forms are adjusted has an uncanny quality, an assertiveness that refuses to prove itself right or wrong.

It is a matter of making things work according to a holistic reading, something that might be called composition, an idea that encouraged Matisse in the early Fauve period (1905-1907) to go beyond the formula to the thing itself, in other words, the visual correctness that goes beyond intention and may actually go beyond the aesthetic rules (or trends) of the day. Whatever those rules are, they are not as compelling for Groom as the moment in which he recognizes the totality of a painting coming into view.

Another series worth mentioning is a work that impresses me as diary-like, as a kind of journey of intimate viewing. Though the work is collectively entitled The Translations (2004), the artist has given each a separate title as each painting functions as a separate stanza or verse within the poetic whole. The canvases are small (55 x 48 cm). There are nine of them - a magic number, according to the Cabala. All of the paintings except for two employ a small horizontal rectangle within the large vertical rectilinear format. The two exceptions have vertical rectangles placed asymmetrically to the right, without redundancy, within the vertical format. For example, a painting entitled In the Now has a pale blue over a gray. The other entitled The Journey Home has a pale pink or near violet over a darker shade of blue-gray. The vertical pink monolith is less wide than the blue one. Rather than telling a story each painting in The Translations (as a whole) gives an utterance. Together they attain a kind of rhythmic structure. The squares within the rectangles need to be broken by the vertical shafts of light. Each canvas is a metaphorical window to a separate world, yet somehow the windows fuse together in a transitory sequence, a series of blinks, where the shutters open and close before our eyes.

The concept of the window in painting goes back to Claude Lorrain in seventeenth-century France. He was the first to articulate a structure for the individual painting in terms of a window.

Through the window or framed canvas, one could view nature. Moreover, these framed canvases were meant to be viewed in a domestic environment - a private domicile - in contrast to the early wallpaintings (frescos) found in the large cathedrals of southern Europe. Claude Lorrain determined that his metaphorical windows should produce a pictorial illusion. In other words, the viewer should be convinced that he or she was looking through a window into the landscape. Therefore, the French painter devised a tripartite system of painting in horizontal bands that would involve a foreground, middle ground, and background. In Claude's paintings - as well as those of Antoine Watteau - we are meant to celebrate the out-of-doors or the plein air of summertime. Life is relaxed and love is in bloom. If figures are present in these images they usually occupy the foreground at the base of the picture. In the middle ground, we might find a pond beside a cluster of ruins from Roman times at the beginning of the first millennium where nature had asserted itself between the brick archways. In the background near the top of the painting might be the village church steeple in front of a hillside with clouds and sky.

There is always a history in painting as there is history in any aspect of life. There is both a personal history and an art history. Like most serious artists, Groom is interested in both. Long before Claude's articulation of painting as a window, the Italian Renaissance had given the foundation of his theories credibility. During the Renaissance, geometry and perspective that incorporated the human subject into the picture plane had become fundamental issues. In the mid-1980s Groom decided to move to Umbria with the intention of studying the works of Italian painters. It was here that the importance of Piero della Francesca, Giotto, and Cimabue came into view. In Umbria, Groom learned to decode the structural parameters that enabled these artists to articulate form and thus to articulate the presence of the spiritual world. Rather than working from the position of an art historian, he identified himself as an artist in search of an historical precedent.

Essentially, Groom wanted to unlock the canonical compartmentalization between the Renaissance and the art of the present - at least in terms of the kind of painting he wanted to do. He began to understand the geometry in the work of these painters as having a resolute form and structure accompanied by a precision of color and light. This allowed Groom to see both the connections and the contradictions between himself and the Renaissance, and to designate a place for himself between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of painting. Rather than mystification, he saw order and felt elation. This incited a tumbling affect. He was in the heat of absorbing major conceptual advances in painting made centuries ago and his own rediscovery of primary form.

The critic Clement Greenberg used to say that contemporary painters were trying to make explicit what the old masters made implicit. I doubt that Groom knew this in the mid-eighties during this time of intense discovery and self-recognition in Umbria, but in retrospect it may characterize what he saw and most emphatically what he felt.


"In the future, art forms will eventually return to where they started - toward a sacred force, a sacred power."

The question of relinquishment, as discussed in relation to art, is still lingering. There is more to be said. The process of giving up unnecessary material things or bad habits is perhaps easier than relinquishing second-hand information that has been acquired over time. But there is a paradox in doing this. According to the American philosopher John Dewey, art gives human beings access to knowledge, no matter what age or at what period in their lives. Dewey believed that we have the opportunity to learn who we are through art. Groom recently told me that "painting is a journey toward understanding the unexplainable things in life" - and this carries a similar connotation to the words of Dewey. But what about the Buddhist idea of relinquishing what we know in order to arrive at a state of pure mind? Can this be done on a conscious level? Is it fair to say that to unknow what one knows is to discover oneself as an artist? I believe this is the case. But then to unknow something is to know something first. In this sense, artists are perpetually in a state of transformation, always learning and unlearning, always relinquishing what has been acquired. In the most profound sense, this is how I understand Jon Groom. This is what I have gained from having had the opportunity to spend time with his paintings.