HOUSTON: HJ Bott was born in 1933, the same year as Bruce Conner, Dan Flavin, Sam Gilliam, Yoko Ono, and James Rosenquist, but is seldom, if ever, mentioned in this varied company. Although Bott has been making art for seven decades and has been showing regularly since 1977 in Texas and, especially, in Houston, where he lives and works, he is largely unknown in New York. This would be understandable if Bott were a regional artist, but his engagement with geometric abstraction, including support, processes, and materials, since 1952 is in dialogue with issues that have preoccupied postwar American artists as diverse as Jennie C. Jones, Agnes Martin, Dorothea Rockburne, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, and Merrill Wagner. At least, this is the conclusion I reached when I went to the exhibition HJ Bott: A Baroque Minimalist, at Anya Tish Gallery (October 23–November 27, 2021) and saw a selection of the artist’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings dated between 1952 and 2017.
The artist belongs to the group of intrepid individuals that dissolves the barriers between art and science, conceptual systems, and alternative models of reality. In 1952, Bott (who was not yet 20) made a number of drawings in which he used different kinds of tape (masking, cellophane, and electrical), in tandem with graphite and charcoal, to divide the rectangular support into various configurations of stripes (vertical, horizontal, nesting right angles, and diagonals), which can be further differentiated by the use of black or gray. This smart, inventive series, in which the young artist incorporated tape, a found material, anticipates Frank Stella’s Black paintings. In “Scotchline” (1952), Bott used masking and cellophane tape, along with graphite, to horizontally bisect a piece of paper measuring 9 3/4 by 8 1/5 inches into a stack of modular bands. (Because of a three-year stint in the army, from September 1953 to August 1956, he did not pursue the implications of this and the other drawings in the series.)
Bott’s interest in the relationship between surface and image, the visual and the physical, is one of the currents running through his two-dimensional work, starting with “Scotchline.” The exhibition jumps from that piece to the painting “Traceries” (1965), which was done on etched/scored MDF board. While I wished it included more work from this period, largely to fill in the gap between the early “tape” drawings and the change that takes place in Bott’s work, starting in 1972, it is also clear that his sprawling oeuvre needs the kind of deep look that could be properly provided by a museum and a committed curator.
On March 7, 1972, Bott invented what he called the Displacement of Volume Concept (DoV), when he conceptualized the Archetype Series. This is how the concept is described in the monograph HJ Bott: Rhythm and Rhetoric: 40 Years of the DoVConcepts (2012):
In its most basic form, the DoV consists of a square with two “S” shapes drawn inside, one from the top to the bottom and another from left to right or the inverse. Here, the square is sectioned into four of Bott’s sled-like shapes known as the DoV module. […] To the fullest extent of the division of space, the DoV incorporates a square filled with a grid, two diagonals drawn from corner to corner, a circle inside the square, and finally the two “S” shapes dividing the circle into a repetition of four basic paisleys. From the full form and its permutations one can find many […] shapes, such as the arrow, fleur-de-lis, paisley, yin-yang, four-cornered stars, and several variations of the cross, along with basic archetypes.
The introduction of the two S shapes adds a twist to the way Bott breaks up the rectangular support. Instead of using the edges to generate what happens within the rectangle, he devised an overlapping system of divisions that expand outward, as well as interrupt the other static divisions.
By working with the S shape within the rectangle, Bott developed what looks like a truncated sled, which can be made to interact in different ways with the other shapes and divisions. In “Nom De Plume (Gritch LXIII)” (1972), he uses polymers to adhere a flawless black and white skin to an etched pressed board, which is demarcated by a ridged grid of squares marked by X’s and vertical and horizontal lines, as well as larger circular ridges. The interplay between the white sled-like shape sitting within a black ground and the ridged surface of lines is mesmerizing because the physical surface and the painted form and black ground do not dominate; they maintain a contentious stalemate or embattled coexistence.
Thirty years later, in “Damndazzled Generalizing Specificity” (2003), Bott used glazed vinyls and acrylic polymers on polyflax to arrive at an absolutely smooth, hard surface, which seems to emanate an unearthly glow. The paint extends beyond the painting’s support, forming a jagged ridge on all four sides, as if we are looking at a polished slice of an unknown mineral.
An X composed of two crisscrossing bands stretching from corner to corner marks the vertical rectangle. Near the top and bottom of the picture plane are two sled-like shapes, and glowing semi-circles are made where the curved shapes overlay the crisscrossing bands. While the interiors of the semi-transparent sleds are mottled, the wavy lines straighten out where they overlap the bands.
Along with semi-transparency, Bott’s innovative use of sections derived from the S divisions complicates the formalist geometries that held sway in New York. Rather than accepting the confines of the rectangle or square, and shifting to shaped paintings, Bott seems to have found a way to challenge the edge without denying it. His interest in different kinds of paint and polymers, as well as etched surfaces, conveys a restless, open, and experimental temperament that is in dialogue with his better-known contemporaries. He found a way to be repetitive without becoming static or, worse, boring.
Alongside the paintings, the exhibition includes three sculptures that sit on the floor, made of industrial mesh and wire, parts of which are painted with Rustoleum or acrylics. Their forms at once porous and fixed, the sculptures are both defined objects and things we see through, which is hard to grasp in the mind’s eye. That resistance to apprehension is one quality of the sculptures that held my attention. They seem to simultaneously reveal and conceal themselves. I was reminded of a Mobius strip that Bott had found a way to elaborate upon, as well as complicate.
I think of this exhibition as an introduction to an artist whose work and approach I want to know more about. His oeuvre calls out for the scrutiny of rigorous scholarship.