Tony Bechara Creates Chaos With Grids

Tony Bechara is the least-known member of a loosely affiliated group of abstract artists who developed a meticulous approach to the phenomenology of color. Centered in New York around Hunter College, where Sanford Wurmfeld, Gabriele Evertz, Vincent Longo, and Robert Swain taught for many years, this group (active since at least the mid-1970s) has long been interested in color theory and issues of perception, going back to Josef Albers and Georges Seurat. One reason they have flown under the radar can be extrapolated from the art historian William Agee’s observation of Wurmfeld’s Cyclorama projects, an immersive experience in which the viewer is surrounded by color: 

A generation of art, permeated by conceptualism and theory, has devalued the power of the visual; like color itself, as well as art, painting that provides visual pleasure has been seen as too easy, too simple, lacking in “intellectual” depth. This is wrong, for it fails to understand that the mind and eye, the intellect and the senses, cannot be separated, and in fact are inextricably joined in one thinking, feeling body. Sensory intelligence and visual intelligence are fundamental to our being. The visual is profound, for it is how we see and thus how we comprehend the world.

Although I knew of Bechara from conversations I had with Wurmfeld, I was not prepared for what I encountered in his self-titled debut exhibition at Lisson Gallery. Working in acrylic on square canvases ranging from 24 by 24 inches to 61 by 61 inches, he divides the entire surface into quarter-inch squares in which he paints one of 28 colors. The colors can shift tonally or sharply. By taping off each vertical line of squares after he has carefully filled every one in, he seamlessly combines rigor and randomness. The result is dazzling, engaging, and unsettling, since it undermines any sense of stability that we associate with a grid. It is the latter aspect that I think is the artist’s contribution to optical, perceptual painting. 

Tony Bechara, “Random 28 (Red version)” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 61 x 61 inches

Bechara begins a painting by determining the number of colors he will use to fill in the grid. Because he covers the previously painted areas with tape (a process he calls “painting blind”), viewers can discover no underlying pattern to the artist’s color choices — which kept this viewer looking and looking.

While all of the exhibition’s seven paintings dated 2023 have a 28-color palette, each one is rendered in a specific set of colors, indicated by the title. (The show also includes one painting from 1979.) For example, the proportions of one color to another can change, as in the identically sized “Random 28 (Red version)” and “Random 28 (Green version).” This phenomenon is evident at a considerable distance from “Random 28 (Red version),” yet as you move closer, the blues, greens, yellows, and oranges become more assertive. The red remains dominant, but not as decisively.

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Tony Bechara, “Random 28 (Green version)” (2023) acrylic on canvas, 61 x 61 inches

The sheer number of squares in each painting, and the range of colors Bechara achieves with a predetermined palette, is likely to bring computer screens and pixels to mind. However, his colors and hues are of various saturations. In contrast to most painters interested in color and perception, his paintings are cacophonous, almost shrill. Their lack of order may not be comforting, but it seems very true to our current world situation. Change and rupture are embedded within the works. In those he’s done a on a deep stretcher, the painting continues around the sides, making it clear that we cannot see the entire work at once, refuting the principles of Minimalism.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1942, Bechara is in his early 80s. This exhibition seems to be the tip of the iceberg in a career that spans at least 40 years, as the early painting, “125 Colors” (1979), demonstrates. His interest in a dissonant visual experience sets him art from Op artists and many of his peers working in the same vein. He seems to want to test the viewer’s ability to visually comprehend his work while initiating a dialogue between the eye and mind about the limits of perception. By embracing the inevitability of chaos and disorder in his paintings, even as he works with rules and boundaries, he brings the subject of mortality into his art. 

My one disappointment regarding the show is with Lisson — as a gallery with deep pockets and a publisher of many exhibition catalogues, more should have been done for Bechara’s debut exhibition there. A major survey and deep study of the artist are long overdue. 

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Tony Bechara, “Random 28 (Blue version)” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches

Tony Bechara continues at Lisson Gallery (508 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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