Photo by Josh White

AS A PAINTER, ALFRED JENSEN NEVER QUITE fit into any of the categories in which he was occasionally lumped. A friend of Mark Rothko and other abstract expressionists, Jensen was as indifferent to paint and its application as his ab-ex buddies were fetishistic, and didn't become famous until after that chapter in art history had passed. First gaining attention due to the similarities of his brightly colored signlike compositions to then-current Pop appropriations of advertising graphics, his work was utterly devoid of the ironic, culturally specific shrewdness that gave Pop its currency. Championed by adherents of a half-dozen formal schools, from hard-line Clement Greenberg flatness-mongers to calculator-toting conceptualists to funk-art crackpots, and endorsed by such wildly divergent theorists as minimalist guru Donald Judd, Art Brut patriarch Jean Dubuffet, and Happenings progenitor Allan Kaprow, Jensen found himself in the enviable position of being the subject of a heated debate — what made his work so great? Now, nearly a quarter century after the artist's death, the argument rages on, and L.A. painting fans have a rare chance to figure it out for themselves in a smallish but respectable survey at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

The crux of the dispute lies in Jensen's incorporation of dozens of obscure mathematical, scientific and philosophical systems into the construction of his elaborate geometrical designs. Beginning with Goethe's disreputable color theory (unhappy with Newton's physics, Goethe insisted that black and white were colors and that all the other hues were variations of this basic duality), Jensen's interests ran the gamut of arcana from Mayan calendars, Pythagorean number philosophy and Shang dynasty oracle bone forms to the electromagnetic speculations of the great English scientist Michael Faraday. Combining and overlaying these conceptual schemas produced vibrant, optically intricate grid patterns, which, taken at face value, slotted neatly into then-current ideas about picture making. The divergence of opinion about Jensen's paintings breaks down roughly into two camps. His main supporters say that his hermetic rationales are essentially meaningless — arbitrary systems used to produce striking visual art. The other camp claims that Jensen was a visionary philosopher who happened to choose painting as the medium in which to communicate his findings — that is, the works are significant only for the knowledge they manifest. Unsurprisingly, the former position is the prevailing attitude within The Art World, but it is the latter perspective that makes Jensen's work stand apart. What is surprising is that Jensen was taken into the bosom of The Art World at all.

That this occurred is due at least in part to the fact that he spent most of his early adult life traveling the world while building the collection of his wealthy friend and patron Saidie Adler May. Jensen was already in his late 40s by the time he settled down to his painting career in New York City. Born in Guatemala in 1903, he was shipped off to school in Denmark at age 6 when his mother died. He became a cabin boy, then a sailor, and wound up in San Diego selling lumber and studying art. Hearing about Hans Hofmann's Munich-based teachings, Jensen packed his bags and headed for Europe. It was there he hooked up with Saidie May and started living in (her) style, visiting the studios of Matisse, Giacometti, Miró and other European masters, then forging early relationships with the nascent NYC artocracy — Rose Fried, Sidney Janis and Leo Castelli. (With friends like these, who needs critical credibility?) After Saidie May died in 1951, Jensen embarked on a painting career in the new art world center he'd helped set in motion.

What is truly unexpected about Jensen is that, in spite of the ease of his transition from consumer to producer of blue-chip canvases, he actually deserves his position of respect. Resembling the astrologically cross-referenced scribblings of a conspiracy kook or accomplished modernist exercises in color-field abstraction or a blown-up fragment of Guatemalan textile, Jensen's work is the quintessential late-modern synthesis of Jasper Johns' cryptically encoded flatness and the savvy Outsider borrowings of Dubuffet.

While it's hard not to imagine the well-traveled artist calculating his career to the decimal point — the scale alone marks these paintings as museum-bound '60s school of New York — the undeniable power of their presence, combined with the apparent sincerity and coherence of the artist's philosophical underpinnings render any suspicions of ambitious cronyism moot. The fact that the dazzling visual strength of these paintings was achieved by an often nonchalant application of out-of-the-tube primary colors onto an intricately mapped structure lends credence to the Jensen-as-sage hypothesis. The paintings' accidental formal strength seems to prove that the artist's magical world-view translates directly into tangible physical events.

But don't go selling the station wagon and moving to the Numerology Compound just yet. Anyone who's looked at much Outsider art knows that any organizing visual system — regardless of whether or not it is in any way anchored in consensus reality — can produce formally compelling artworks. After two centuries of scorn, Goethe's color theories are now being recognized for their prescient emphasis on the inextricable subjectivity of perceptual phenomena. And even if Alfred Jensen's gorgeous, meticulously encoded color charts don't explicate a higher order of reality, they point our attention toward the equally deep, hard-wired mystery of human aesthetic mechanisms. Which, come to think of it, might just amount to the same thing.

ACROSS THE WAY AT PATRICK PAINTER, JIM Shaw offers up an equally compelling, if significantly more self-conscious take on the conflation of abstract painting, popular culture and mystical religions with “Kill Your Darlings,” an uncharacteristically uniform group of paintings on view through Saturday. The latest in Shaw's exhibits based on the newly discovered (read: invented) Mormonesque religion of “O-ism,” these nine large canvases purport to be posters — sans text — for O-ist feature films from the mid- to late 20th century. Consequently, most of the picture is left “empty” for the later insertion of title, credits, etc., while the main imagery in each consists of a vertical or horizontal row of three or four disembodied heads meant to represent figures from O-ist history or mythology. The catch is that the “empty” space is in fact filled with faux abstract-expressionist painting — and it's surprisingly accomplished at that.

When contemporary artists want to ridicule (or just reference) previous art-historical moments, it often serves only to expose their own ignorance or incompetence. In Shaw's case, the work is utterly convincing, with frequent passages of great gestural facility and subtle coloration. Which makes their fictional degradation all the more poignant. One doesn't really need to know the details of the O-ists' long and ongoing struggle with the blasphemy of representational art to appreciate the tension in these works. In fact, they bear a striking similarity to Shaw's undergraduate work from the early '70s, in which repainted fragments of pop-culture images float in a murky ab-ex miasma. Shaw often uses elaborate narratives — his own dreams, the biography of the fictional teen Billy, and now O-ism — as an invisible structural component to his work.

As with Jensen, these complex justifications may be reasonably considered to be the actual site of creative activity. But these particular works, simultaneously rooted in the period of art historical crisis during which Shaw's approach developed (and Jensen's gained recognition) point up the oversimplification of such a solution. We've had 30 years of postmodernism, but it remains the largely undigested challenges of modernism — not the least being the tension between form and content and the question of “Why bother?” — that make art worth looking at, and continue to provide excuses for making it.

ALFRED JENSEN: CONCORDANCE | Santa Monica Museum of Art Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. | Through April 19

JIM SHAW: KILL YOUR DARLINGS | Patrick Painter | Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through February 8

LA Weekly