Barbara Takenaga makes swirling and radiating dot-pattern paintings in an abstract tradition. She paints riveting pinwheels and vortices in circular motifs and repetitive patterns with organic flows of paint. Her paintings combine aspects of Japanese printmaking, Tantric painting, and Op Art. Her work process is an exercise in measuring time and in shifting spaces.
Takenaga, a third generation American, was born in North Platte, Nebraska. Growing up in Nebraska, she never saw original art in galleries or in museums. She only saw copies of art works in books. She attributes this viewing of art through books as the reason for the flat quality of her paintings. In 1972, she earned a B.F.A in Art and English from the University of Colorado Boulder, and in 1978 she received her M.F.A. from U.C. Boulder. She taught at Washington University and University of Denver before moving to New York City. She also taught at Williams College in Massachusetts from 1985 to 2018. .
Most of Takenaga’s paintings are made on panel or linen with acrylic and iridescent paints. She bases her elegant paintings on intricate mathematical systems. They traditionally begin with a circle slightly off-center in the middle of the canvas. From this single focal point comes radial lines. Kaleidoscopic, repetitive, geometric compositions of dots and lines are drawn freehand and could be compared to a cosmic event, a celestial form, or to an Op art hallucination. By adding the horizon line to some of her paintings, she breaks up the signature swirls of dots and careening lines to make an abstracted landscape.
Takenaga welcomes emotional reactions to her art. “My paintings are often seen as trippy cosmic explosions, obsessive pattern paintings, or cartoon-like scientific diagrams gone awry. For my part, I want the work to be elegiac, evocative and occasionally funny, with some visual buzz and sensation.”
In her “Tadanori Meets Hiroshige,” Takenaga appropriates elements from the Japanese illustrator Tadanori and from the famed artist Hiroshige to make a configuration of radiating beams in contrasting shades of blue. An orange and green swirl tops off the beams, and a yellow vertical bar spans the left side of the canvas. In “Red Funnel” a shape resembling a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes emerges from a murky greenish gray in an apocalyptic atmosphere.
In subsequent work, Takenaga begins by pouring paint onto the surface of the canvas and allowing it to settle. She then plots her marks so that her lines expand, contract, and swirl in space. She has also taken to throwing paint on a canvas in a style she calls “faux Ab Ex.” This can be seen in her 2013 “Green Light” where minute splatters of paint are isolated and then outlined in something that looks like a cartoon.
Recently, however, Takenaga has broken away from the format she has used for years by not starting her composition near the middle of the canvas. She has abandoned radial symmetry and has toned down her rich color palette using four simple colors: black, silver, aqua, and white as seen in her 2018 “Outset” and her 2019 “Manifold.”
She approaches print making in a similar way. She uses the intaglio process to achieve a freeform background. She flicks soap ground from her brush onto the surface of a copper plate coated in water that splashes and spreads. When the plate is dry, she hand paints delicate marks over the patterns. She adds depth by darkening the shadows with spit bit aquatint and defines certain elements with soap grout.
She has won the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of Fine Arts and the Eric Isenburger Annual Art Award from the National Academy Museum. She has received various residencies, and her work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, businesses, institutions, university art galleries, art centers, banks, and foundations. In 2020, she was given a Guggenheim Fellowship and was recognized by the National Academy of Design and American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Her work is in the permanent collections of Arkansas Art Center, Museum of Nebraska Art, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, The DeCordova Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, among others.