As a high school student, Ejay Weiss did not excel in physics classes because he found the mathematical formulas that filled his textbooks to be abstract and meaningless. Yet, all his life, Weiss has been fascinated by the kinds of questions that physicists seek to answer: How did the universe get here? How does it work? How does one event impact another? For Weiss, speculative answers to such questions needed to be identified using a different language than the one that was being taught. As a practicing artist for more than fifty years, he has pursued investigations that are quite analogous to those of a physicist, but he has relied more on a creative process than a measured one, a process that expresses itself through visual thinking rather than numerical calculation or complex notation. Additionally, his investigations evidence the possibility for a peaceful coexistence between scientific and spiritual explanations. xxxxxx
Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Weiss grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood and took art lessons at an early age from his Aunt Lilian, herself an artist and member of the Art Students League in New York. In 1960, a year following a coast-to-coast cross-country excursion with groups from the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society, Weiss enrolled at the Pratt Institute to study architecture, but found himself more attracted to painting classes, which he audited. By the end of three years, he was already exhibiting his paintings in group exhibitions. Having lost interest in becoming an architect, he transferred to New York University to study English Literature in 1963. After two years, his love of painting won out. From 1965-67 he immersed himself in painting atmospheric landscapes such as Blind Man on Bench in Central Park (1966). Painted in oil in the artist’s East 78th Street fifth-floor walk-up apartment, this work is based on sketches that Weiss made while visiting Central Park on a cold wintery day. The artist had his first solo exhibition in New York City, held at the J. Walter Thompson World Gallery, in 1967.
In 1970, Weiss spent a six-month sojourn in the rustic woods of Big Sur, California. During his stay there, he began experimenting with acrylic paint, which was then a relatively new medium that had certain advantages over oil. In that the tubes were easy to carry around and the water-based paint dried quickly, acrylics perfectly suited his needs while working in temporary quarters. Weiss also liked the fluidity of acrylics and, upon returning to New York, he painted a series of abstractions that display the physical characteristics of the medium itself, with an organic process producing organic shapes. The series originated with a watercolor foldout book depicting the cellular and molecular structure of trees and plants, observed from different distances. In that the imagery in works such as Painting with Organic Forms (1970) also reminded him of the swirls, bubbles, and undulations one might observe in a thick liquid, Weiss began calling these the “chicken soup” paintings. Additionally, the colorful and rhythmic style of this series reflects the influence of Wassily Kandinsky’s early abstractions as well as of the psychedelic posters and album covers of the day.
Left: ‘Painting with Organic Forms’ (1970), acrylic on canvas, 22 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 4″
After moving to a loft on the Bowery in 1971, Weiss shifted his focus to his everyday surroundings, and began work on a series of “room paintings.” As he peered out the corner windows of his new studio, he began thinking about his recent stay in California and conceived the idea of making a painting that would be a “structural paradigm” of different places he had experienced. Room Painting #7 (1972), right, thus, stands as one of Weiss’s first paintings to refer to the space/time continuum, with the redwood trees of the background representing the immediate past, and the decorative interior in the foreground alluding to the present. While looking at this painting we become aware of various dualities, as in the contrast between indoors and outdoors, the East and West Coasts, or manufactured objects and the natural environment. Also evident in this painting is another concept that has interested Weiss throughout his career, the idea that everything is interconnected, that is, that there is a universal substructure that links all things together into one grand matrix. As in the early abstractions of Matisse, the landscape and the interior are conjoined by organic rhythms that are inherent to the nature setting of the background but are also existent in the foreground interior scene, observable in such details as the rippling curtain folds and the animated patterns of the furniture.
Continuing to explore the elements of his home and studio environment, Weiss next turned to painting details of his indoor plants, and used a magnifying glass to inspect his subjects carefully. For his Growth Series of the early 1970s, Weiss painted different types of plants and leaves from his indoor garden, clustering them together and rendering them several times their actual size. Enclosed within a circular canvas that replicates a view through a magnifying glass, the foliage in Growth Series #2 (1973) bristles with life, as if energized by the luminescent atmosphere shown behind it. For Cactus Garden (Growth Series) (1974), Weiss placed his subject on an electric revolving turntable so that he could study the forms while they were in motion, from a “geoscopic” perspective. By observing the rotating plants from above, he could record his subject as it moved through different points in space and time, and thereby produce an “aerial still life” as it exists in the space/time continuum and which is really not “still” at all.
‘Growth Series #2’ (1973), 56″ diam.
Weiss has acknowledged that one of the major influences to stimulate his interest in observing his subjects from different vantage points was a photograph of the earth that was taken from the moon on the occasion of the 1969 moon landing, and which appeared at the time on the cover of Life magazine. This interest gained momentum in the mid-1970s and manifested itself in his paintings as a result of two significant events that occurred while the artist was traveling. The first was in 1967, when Weiss flew over the Empire State Building in a helicopter while in transit to and from the airport. The second was a 1975 vacation in the Bahamas. Based on a pencil sketch made in 1967, Birdseye (1974-75), right, records the artist’s experience of seeing the Empire State Building through clouds while in the air. In polar opposition to this, Fathom 1 & 2 Diptych (1975) depicts coral reef with moving fish as seen from below sea level, and is based on quick sketches that were made after Weiss went snorkeling. Moving back and forth between examining a subject from close range and from a great distance, a practice which may be termed “micro/macrocosmic thinking”, has been a constant characteristic of Weiss’s oeuvre ever since.
In the early 1980s, Weiss added another element — the structure of a grid — to his aerial still life paintings. In Still Life with Game Board (1981), below, left, the grid is based on that of the popular board game Monopoly, while in Homage to Jeanne (1982), it takes the form of a tiled table. Weiss utilized his skills in architectural design and drafting, which involves plotting objects geoscopically on a grid, in developing this structure for his paintings. At the same time, incorporating imagery derived from games such as Monopoly and Checkers opened the door for expanding a work’s metaphoric potential. In Weiss’s view, Still Life with Game Board can be considered a metaphor for living in a capitalist society, with the still life objects serving as stand-ins for the competitive players in the game of life.
Homage to Jeanne (1982), below, right, on the other hand, is a tribute to Jeanne Owens, a painter and friend of the artist who had recently died. In the manner of an Old Master, vanitas painting, the imagery contains symbolic references to life and death, with the apples suggesting the richness of an abundant life and the fragile orchid alluding to life’s temporality. The cloud, a motif used earlier in the Empire State Building paintings, now refers to the space of the departed, as if to suggest that Owens herself is looking in on Weiss’s studio table. Within this context, the depicted frame, which presents the optical illusion of being simultaneously concave and convex, becomes the ambiguous transition point between the physical space of the living and the metaphysical space of the dead. The orchids, in that they have penetrated the metaphysical space, may also be interpreted as an offering to Owens.
In 1982, Weiss took another road trip that impacted his art. This time, the journey was along U.S. 101, from Santa Barbara to Big Sur. Upon returning to his New York studio, Weiss began to view the road trip as a metaphor for life’s journey, and commenced working on Road to Paradise (1982), below, left, a painting that perfectly sums up his thoughts at the time on how to portray the space/time continuum. Composed from three canvases that combine to form a triptych, the painting contains references to past, present, and future. Viewed from the passenger’s seat, the highway is treated as a metaphor for a lifeline, with the past reflected in the rear view mirror, the future being the road that lies ahead, and the present taking place inside the vehicle. To distinguish each time zone further, Weiss included subtle differences, as in the contrast between the clear skies that mark the future and the cloudy skies that refer to the past. Additionally, road signs suggest that there are different options encountered as we move through life, ranging from enjoying the sumptuous food shown at left and labeled “everything for the traveler,” to fearing killer whales, which are shown captive at Sea World on the billboard at the right. Two abstract elements, the circular red steering wheel and the visor covered with Jackson Pollock style drips, are reminders that, in addition to being an allegory about life, the work is, after all, just a painting.
Soon after Weiss completed Road to Paradise, he suffered a severe injury that left him disabled for almost a year. Painting from a wheelchair, Weiss returned to the highway imagery in Road Picture (1983), but the green grassy fields had become barren and gray, the sky had become ominous shades of magenta and dark blue, and the billboards were now completely blank. Weiss had hit a roadblock and the imagery revealed his complete uncertainty about the future. Forced to relocate from his spacious loft to a smaller apartment, Weiss continued painting the highway image, but, in Picture Perfect (1984), the road now swerved in the opposite direction, and the view of outdoor landscape was now imagined as extended from the confining space of the artist’s new abode. Feeling restrained, Weiss expressed his yearning for mobility and freedom in paintings such as Oasis (1984), where he introduced sections of pure geometric abstraction, which in traditional modernist art had often referred to metaphysical spaces.
Weiss found the physical freedom he was searching for in 1986, when he moved to an open and airy loft space on West 37th Street. Continuing to paint metaphysical landscapes that mix abstract geometry with sky, he introduced a new idea in his diptych Sphere and Cone: In a Climate of Receptivity (1986), left. To represent the open-endedness of an infinite space, he decided that both of the diptych’s panels should be allowed to be rotated into any position. Additionally, Weiss now had a direct view through one of his windows of the Empire State Building, so he returned to the subject that he had explored a decade earlier. From 1986-88, Weiss sketched and then painted the building almost daily, choosing to observe and paint it during varied weather conditions and at different times of the day.
While paying homage to Claude Monet, who used a similar approach to painting cathedrals and haystacks, the series also owes a debt to Josef Albers. Weiss’s square-within-a-square format, as well as his use of a different color for each square window frame, are reminiscent of Albers’ well known series, Homage to the Square. Weiss remembers that the light entering his loft from several different directions gave him the sensation of feeling connected to a boundless, infinite space. Inspired thus to continue his investigation of the universe, he began thinking about the story of creation as it appears in the Bible. Borrowing elements from both science and religion, Weiss took on the task of depicting a moment from Genesis as it might be plotted within a multidimensional space representing the space/time continuum.
In The Temptation of Eve (1988), right, the story itself takes place within a compositional device that Weiss calls a “space frame,” which in this instance is a tilted square rendered in thick relief and painted lush green to refer to the garden. Nestled between two abstract structures–a horn-shaped leaf representing the serpent and a barren tree referring to the tree that bore forbidden fruit–is the reclining body of Eve, looking like the remains of an antique sculpture and actually based on a ceramic model made by Weiss. As a fragment of time, the space frame alluding to Genesis floats above a cloudy sky, below which is another tilted square that rests on a broad band of thick red paint which resembles the surface of a planet. All of this is set within a dark blue sky with a circular form, at upper left, that gives the illusion of being either the moon or a black hole.
Window-like openings such as this one are recurring elements in Weiss’s art, and can be observed even in the much earlier Painting with Organic Shapes (1968), where it appears as an irregularly shaped view into infinite space. In the Eden Series (1988-90), which was a logical outgrowth of The Temptation of Eve, Weiss would reshape this pictorial device, first as a triangle and ultimately as a square.
For his reexamination of Eden within the context of the multidimensional space of the space/time continuum, Weiss took a leap in the opposite direction from the macrocosmic viewpoint of The Temptation of Eve. In The Morning and Evening #6 (1988-89), complexity of details has been eschewed in favor of a microscopic view of an amorphous non-gravitational space that appears to be a galaxy of cosmic dust punctured by a triangular opening. Darkness and chaos give way through the passageway to light and clarity or, metaphorically interpreted, the lost innocence of Eden remains visible through time’s window.
As Weiss continued working on the Eden series, he eventually adopted the square-within-a-square format that had served him well in the Empire State Building series, since this would provide a compositional balance that seemed suited to equating Eden with states of perfection. In the Gold Eden series (1990), above, left, Weiss arrived at a compositional solution for articulating his idea that “Eden is in the here and now.” In these paintings, Weiss depicts both the outer and inner squares as beautiful and aesthetically gemlike. While the pristine inner squares still refer to some place or time in the distance, either past or future, the outer squares now resemble terrestrial surfaces, connecting them to the earth and planets and thus to the present. In order to beautify these areas and evoke “a magical paradigm of heaven on earth,” Weiss added in metallic silver and gold pigments. These are indeed hopeful and optimistic paintings.
Weiss’s optimism was short lived, however, as the sudden U.S. bombing of Iraq in 1991 was an unwelcome reality check. As in the laws of physics where polarities respond to one another with equal force in opposite directions, a swing towards heaven is likely to be countered by a swing towards hell.
In Weiss’s painting Rift (1991), right, the perfect balance seen in the Gold Eden series has been interrupted by turbulence. The abstract topography of the outer square has been split into dark and light sections by a fissure, visualized as a jagged red line representing molten volcanic matter. The window into infinity is similarly framed in part by this material, and the previous clarity of the view has become murky. To cope with the disheartening fact that the country was now at war, Weiss responded by fashioning a series of collages about the conflict on an almost daily basis. Painted in acrylic, the collages in the Gulf War Chronicle series combine newspaper headlines with magazine photos and other mixed media. Although Weiss continued to employ the square-within-a-square format, he filled each inner square with a number representing the number of days that the combat had ensued.
Left: ‘ Diptych Study for Deep Map’ (1991), acrylic and pumice on canvas, 60 x 30″
By the end of 1991, Weiss summed up his exploration of war and peace, heaven and hell, physical and immaterial, and other such dualities with a bipartite painting entitled Diptych Study for Deep Map (1991). In both panels, Weiss transformed the abstract topography to resemble the desert terrain of the Persian Gulf by adding in pumice and sand, with the lighter palette of the top panel suggesting daytime, and the darker tone of the lower section alluding to nighttime. Although the windows to infinity are tilted to suggest instability, they mirror each other in opposite directions like a force and counter force according to the laws of physics. As a mapping of the zeitgeist, Diptych Study for Deep Map presents the earth in chaos, yet an overriding order seems to be existent in the universe at large.
Throughout the 1990s, Weiss’s interest in advances in physics accelerated. During this period, his paintings became vehicles for making visual propositions regarding the structure and composition of energy fields and subatomic particles, including the Higgs boson or “God particle,” which is presumed to be the smallest element of the expansive field of energy that is believed to be the substructure of the universe.
Right: ‘Casablanca Lilies’ (1995), acrylic on gessoed wood, 54 x 30 x 2″
Weiss also became fascinated with string theory and the idea that the universe is composed of “quantum strings” that produce vibrations that interact with particles. In Casablanca Lilies (1994), which marks one of the artist’s periodic returns to a still life subject, Weiss introduced a visual hypothesis for an energy field by placing the flowers over an allover grid resembling a threaded mesh. While viewing this pictorial device as a mechanism for unifying the compositional space, Weiss also conceived the grid as a reference to the matrix of interconnectivity that is invisible to the naked eye.
In works that followed, such as Field #5 (1995), right, Weiss perfected his process for creation of the grid. Seeking to form this linear network using an organic process that mimics nature and also recalls the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, Weiss began building the matrix out of thin runnels of paint that move along the canvas’s surface by tilting the painting in different directions and assisting the flow of paint with the tip of a brush or the stem of a squeegee bottle. Thus, in Field #5, we witness the imagined relationship between particles of the universe and the basic units that bind them together, known as gluons. To connect this concept to the earth, Weiss also included a red spot and crack alluding to molten volcanic matter.
From 1995-2000, Weiss’s paintings became increasingly sculptural as he further developed his visual vocabulary for representing geophysical events. In mixed media works such as Field #6 (1995), right, and Little Big Bang (1998), Weiss used a mixture of ceramic powder and acrylic paint to create clusters of hollow yet durable abstract spheres that resemble tiny bowls with red cores that refer to volcanic matter. This bowl shape, which had been depicted in his still life paintings of the early 1980s, had now taken on sculptural form and an entirely new meaning.
By 2000, the bowl became a compositional device for exploring ideas on such topics as entropy, which Weiss defines as “the relationship between order and chaos,” and consciousness. In a series of sketches done in 2000-01, Weiss treated the bowl as a metaphor for consciousness from a Zen perspective, which suggests that conscious awareness is both within and without us. In the drawings, the bowl is shown interacting with a grid structure representing both the physical and metaphysical universes.
Left: ‘Bowl Maximum Entropy #4’ (2001), acrylic on canvas, 56″ sq.
In paintings that followed, the bowl is depicted both full and empty, as well as submerged within and set apart from the grid. As a metaphor, the bowl then represents the dual nature of consciousness as being both internal and boundless beyond perception. While working on the bowl series, Weiss’ practice was interrupted once again by a global event that, as a resident of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, he witnessed firsthand: the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. To deal with the trauma, Weiss embarked on a series of paintings aimed at paying tribute to the victims of the devastation. In his 9/11 ELEGY: Ghost City series (2001), he returned to the square-within-a-square format of the Eden series, but the optimistic tone of the outer square now yielded to a mood of darkness and gloom.
In this regard, Weiss acknowledges an affinity with Mark Rothko, whose late works, including the Rothko Chapel, convey a similarly somber temperament. As a reference to the United States, each painting began with three broad bands of paint using the colors red, white, and blue. Over this initial layer, Weiss than painted in the window into infinity and the surrounding area, which was now filled with jagged paint runnels and executed in black and white in the tradition of Picasso’s Guernica and Motherwell’s Spanish Elegies, but with ashes mixed into the pigment. While accents of red refer to fire and blood, the open sky in the center acquired poignant new meaning, as the leap into infinity was the only way out for those forced to jump.
At the same time, this empty square (or rectangle in the elongated versions) hauntingly replicates the shape of the structures that were no longer there, from both aerial and side views. From a spiritual viewpoint, heaven on earth had shifted to hell all around. From a scientific perspective, the collapse of the towers was an incidence of negative maximum entropy.
While honoring those who perished in the great tragedy of 9/11, Weiss’ Elegy paintings constitute an important development in the artist’s ongoing quest to reconcile human events with natural ones. For Weiss, political and environmental changes are closely intertwined. In 9/11, we saw the simultaneous loss of lives, constructed architecture, destruction of land, and so forth. With such devastation all around, the only direction one could now move in was towards reconstruction and healing.
Right: ‘Table in the Wilderness ‘ (2005), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 54″
Such an approach is evident in Table in the Wilderness (2005), where Weiss reflected upon the power of the human spirit to endure and survive. Based on Psalm 78:19 from the Bible, which reads “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?,” the work presents a hopeful image of fulfillment and abundance, with a bowl of fruit as the metaphor for these qualities. Immersed like an oasis within an ambiguous and infinite space of colored light, the image is one of sustenance and optimism. Like any healthy living thing, this fruit flourishes under the energy of a radiant light orb at upper left, a symbol of both inner strength and divine intervention. Reinforcing this sense of well being are the lush paint runnels that drip from the fruit like a gushing waterfall.
As Weiss’ spiritual awareness intensified, his scientific investigations moved along a parallel path with a similar focus on rebuilding. From 2006-08, he devoted a series of paintings to exploring the relatively new science of emergence, which studies complex systems and networks from the bottom up. Examples of these systems include computer algorithms, ant and bee colonies, the human brain, the immune system, and even city neighborhoods, which are all considered to be linked to one overall connective pattern.
Left: ‘Emergence #14’ (2007), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 48″
In the Emergence series paintings, Weiss simulated this concept through the painting process itself. Continuing the investigation that began with the introduction of paint runnels, he constructed each work so that everything would evolve from bottom up organically. As the artist explains, “the momentum of the flowing paint infuses and interconnects the entire surface into an inevitable though not necessarily predictable grid. This serves as a microcosm of similar laws at work in the universe, such as those governing gravitational fields and particle physics. Each layer of runneled paint ultimately evolves with others to evoke a quantum event, which emerges into a rhythmic unified field as a whole, and through which the resulting painting emerges.”
Since 2008, Weiss has focused his attention on environmental issues such as global warming, the rising sea level, and pollution. An avid sea shell collector for most of his life, he has applied his unique process of painting according to the laws of physics to the subjects of seascapes (2008-11) and aquariums (2012-14). In the monumental thirteen panel painting Vertical Seascapes (2009), detail, two of 13 panels, right, Weiss dramatically showcases the interplay between forceful ocean waves and the sea shells that they have pushed ashore. In each individual panel, the compositions are split fairly evenly between undulating waves and clusters of shells, which Weiss considers to be “quantum beings” because they have endured for at least half a billion years. Recalling the artist’s foliage studies of the early 1970s, the shells are portrayed as magnified, pristine, and enduring. By contrast, the water is shown as active and restless. So, from a scientific perspective, stasis and motion as well as solid and liquid are brought into balance. To lend a spiritual dimension to the paintings, Weiss has infused the center of each with a gemlike luminosity, the source of which is ambiguous: it may have emanated from within, or been cast from afar. When aligned side by side, the thirteen seascapes read somewhat like a film strip, which each representing a moment in time, and emergent or reflected light alluding to the past, the future, or the presence of divinity.
The destructive power of the elements was never so apparent to New Yorkers as when they experienced the 2012 natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, which submerged sections of Manhattan in over fifteen feet of water. For Weiss, a scientific fascination with the event stemmed from the fact that the devastation resulted from a convergence of the hurricane with a storm from the Northeast.
In his painting Eye of the Storm (2012), left, Weiss returned to an aerial view format as well as a somber black-and-white palette. With paint runnels and swirls superimposed over a grid of lower Manhattan as viewed from within the storm’s center, the painting is divided into areas of darkness and light, which suggests an upside as well as a downside to what occurred. And, with its focus on an underwater environment, this work became a natural segue into the Aquarium series, where turbulent water and assorted aquatic life cohabitate within the contained physical structures of a shadow-box frames.
While making the space in these works appear deeper by extending the painted imagery onto each frame, Weiss has also added a sculptural dimension by constructing plant and marine life out of recycled studio materials, including dry scraped and peeled paint, strips of canvas, used paint tubes, used brushes, cut and torn painted strips of paper, painted twigs and dried stems, beach sand, shells from his collection, which he paints to appear wet and full of life. As the series progressed, Weiss enriched his palette, attaining more saturated and radiant color by adding pure fresco pigments to the acrylic. Eschewing a dystopian view of radical changes in the environment, Weiss takes a stoic approach and considers such developments to be an “ever-evolving diversity and beauty that our planet provides, as a bounded yet infinite continuum.”
Left: Aquarium/Grottos (2014), mixed media, 15 x 9″ each
Analogous to the practice of a marine biologist preserving precious relics, Weiss’ latest efforts involve the creation of Aquarium Grottos, three-dimensional constructions encased under glass cloche domes, built from shells, recycled materials, and sculpted Gorilla Glue. In that these more sculptural works have evolved directly out of the Aquarium paintings, Weiss considers them to be simply three-dimensional paintings. As he has done with the frames in the earlier series, he has painted the bases of each structure such that the plant and marine life inside each dome is linked, as a continuum, to the space outside of it. For a larger version, Grotto (2015), left, Weiss has once again shifted from microcosm to macrocosm by working installation-scale. An extension of the domed works, this room-size structure is similarly constructed from shells and recycled materials, only its cavernous interstices are now more clearly visible. To convey the idea that the structure is part of the earth, which is always rotating, the work has been mounted on a revolving turntable. And, to present it as just a fragment of the universe at large, a mirror has been installed on the ceiling above, lending the implication of an infinite space.
In surveying the paintings of Ejay Weiss from a fifty year period, there emerges a most significant constant thread: While approaching his artistic practice with concentrated scientific scrutiny, Weiss never abandons a faith in the inevitable yet unpredictable paradox of existence, nor sacrifices a humanistic respect for the universe that binds us together as one.
© By David S. Rubin, Contributing Writer
David S. Rubin is an independent curator, writer, and artist. He has been active in contemporary art for 35 years and has held curatorial posts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; MOCA Cleveland; Phoenix Art Museum; and the San Antonio Museum of Art. He is currently working on an essay on Ejay Weiss’s portraits.
Rubin can be found on linked-in at https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=22853511&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic