Leonard Contino: Abstract Visions

By Joseph Di Mattia

Leonard Contino is a hard-edged geometric abstract painter who has been making art for over 40 years.  In addition to painting, Contino’s works include sculpture, wall reliefs and collages.  His paintings are in a number of museums and private collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Foundation of Contemporary Art, Geneva.  Contino’s work, which has been described as precisionist and “visionary”(1), represents a relentless exploration of pictorial space using dynamic geometric forms.

A self-taught artist, who always sketched and drew as a child, Contino first used paint to pin-stripe cars and hot rods in his Brooklyn neighborhood.  In 1962, at the age of 19, he suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a diving accident, which left him a quadraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. While receiving treatment at the Rusk Institute, he met another patient, artist Mark di Suvero, who Contino describes as “a madman, constantly painting and drawing to rock and roll. “(2)

Fascinated by di Suvero’s antics and encouraged by him, Contino, using a brace for his hand, started to make drawings and eventually to paint.  Through di Suvero, Contino met other artists, including many who were affiliated with the Park Place gallery. In “Park Place: Its Art and History,” Linda Dalrymple Henderson, describes the sculptors and painters of the artist run cooperative gallery in downtown New York, “as united by their multifaceted explorations of space. Their abstract paintings and sculptures, with dynamic geometric forms and color palettes, created optical tension;” and were inspired by a mixture of mathematical theory, “space age technologies, science fiction, and the psychology of expanded perception.”(3)  According to Contino, “as a self taught artist, I was a little naïve about art history, but by the time I showed at Park Place, in 1966, I had already been making geometric abstract paintings on my own. From those days until now, I’ve never thought about in what tradition my roots lie, maybe because I’ve always thought it was more important to do the work.”

In his paintings, Contino’s uses three motifs: biomorphic shapes, tessellated patterns of interlocking squares and rectangles, as well as transparent and solid color triangles, which Contino calls “floaters.”  In these paintings, Contino builds up thin layers of acrylic paint to create subtly shimmering surfaces.  The paintings appear to glow and emanate light. At the center of the canvas, he places hard-edged densely colored solid triangular shapes. These geometric shapes and forms, encased in soft aureoles of light, appear to be weightless and suspended in space, creating a complex pictorial illusionism. However, for Contino, it’s not so much to fool the eye as in trompe l’oeil or Op art but to engage the viewer by creating a painting that he says “is like a field of energy. “

That’s even more apparent in what he calls his “checker” paintings.  In these paintings, Contino covers the canvas with a checkerboard pattern. Using a palette comprised of secondary colors, Contino again builds thin layers of acrylic over the alternating squares, which give the paintings a soft glow.  On top of this quadrilateral background he adds interlocking geometric shapes, which can include triangles, circles and ovals. Often he divides the canvases into slightly off center sections, both horizontally and vertically, creating a highly illusionistic pictorial plane. As he puts it, “when your eyes move across the canvas it is impossible to focus on any one set image.”

Within this flexible geometry, the spatial ambiguities occur over time creating a continually shifting pictorial plane.  For Contino, these paintings are “made up of simple elements that are constantly changing. “  This constantly changing pictorial space is a hallmark of Contino’s art, something that he has persistently pursued for over 40 years.  And over that time, Contino has created a body of work that is lively, rigorous and represents a compelling artistic vision.

Joseph Di Mattia is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

(1) Barbara Rose, “Notes to Janie C. Lee Exhibition,” Houston Texas, 1978.

(2) Contino, Leonard. This and all other quotes are from a personal interview conducted by the author on January 15, 2010.

(3) Blanton Museum of Art. Austin, Tex. 2008  “Reimagining space : the Park Place gallery group in 1960s New York. <http://blantonmuseum.org/exhibitions/details/reimagining_