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by Laura Justice Fleischmann
(with later additions)

Alfred Julio Jensen born December 11 in Guatemala City, the third of four children. His Danish father, Peter, had begun a building construction and furniture-manufacturing business in Guatemala after abandoning plans to join the California Gold Rush. His mother, Anna, a German-Pole, settled in Guatemala having traveled there as governess to a French family.


Mother dies and children are sent to school in Horsholm, Denmark, under their uncle's guardianship. Jensen begins drawing portraits of his classmates.


After graduation from school, Jensen is employed as cabin boy on a ship. He travels extensively and works as a seaman intermittently until 1926. He draws portraits of crews and passengers.

I listened to the wind and looked at the natural phenomena of life which is necessary to the development of an artist.1


Learning his father is dying, Jensen leaves ship in San Francisco and begins to walk to Guatemala. He is prevented from entering Mexico and works in California as a cowboy and chicken farmer.

I was a chicken farmer and I was doing murals of my chickens ... I drew in hundreds of chickens. I found that every chicken had its particular character...2


Arriving in Guatemala after his father's death, Jensen buys a farm with his brother. A small inheritance from his father augments Jensen's income.


Jensen sells his business interests and travels to California. Attends San Diego High School at night and works as a lumber salesman during the day. Receives a scholarship to the San Diego Fine Arts School at Balboa Park and attends under the direction of Eugene De Vol. Learning of Hans Hofmann's school in Munich and determined to enroll, he hires on a German ship.


Jensen mistakenly attends Heymann's school in Munich.

I worked my way across as a sailor...when I arrived in Munich I couldn't remember the name...it was an "H" man, but I didn't know who it was...3

Alfred Jensen (left) with unidentified artist friend, Munich, 1926
Alfred Jensen (left) with unidentified
artist friend, Munich, 1926

He meets the Americans Carl Holty and Vaclav Vytlacil who are students of Hofmann.

Heymann's class was being repainted...the whole of Heymann's students went to the Hofmann school to take drawing... There I found myself drawing between Vytlacil and Holty...4

After conversing with them, Jensen decides to join the Hofmann school. His work at this time concentrates on drawing after the old masters, particularly Bruegel and Durer.

I had a big library of the old masters and I went to the Neue Pinakothek every Sunday religiously so I was schooling myself in the old masters.5

Alfred Jensen (2nd from left) with unidentified art students, Munich, 1926
Alfred Jensen (2nd from left) with unidentified art students, Munich, 1926

In the fall of 1927 Jensen breaks with Hofmann who he feels is restricting his growth as an artist. Saidie Adler May, a wealthy art collector and student of Hofmann, offers her patronage to Jensen enabling him to continue his studies. At first reluctant, Jensen is encouraged by Vytlacil and subsequently enrolls at the Academie Scandinave in Paris in 1929. He studies modern sculpture with Charles Despiau and painting with Othon Friesz and Charles Dufresne, who becomes Jensen's "spiritual and painter-father." Saidie May enrolls at the Academie Scandinave in the same year. Jensen becomes her traveling companion and advisor to her collection. In 1929, they travel and paint in North Africa and Spain. In the early 1930s they begin travel throughout the major cities of Europe.

We copied two years in the Prado and brought our copies to be criticized by our French teachers, so we had the background-free copying, conversations with the old masters.6

Alfred Jensen (rear, left) with Saidie May (foreground, left) and unidentified artists, Paris, c. 1930
Alfred Jensen (rear, left) with Saidie May (foreground, left)
and unidentified artists, Paris, c. 1930

Mrs. May begins to collect modern French art.

I got in contact with all the great artists, Matisse, Giacometti, Miró, and we collected all these people and we visited the studios and bought right there...7

Jensen establishes permanent residence in the United States in 1934; thereafter, he and Mrs. May travel from there to Europe.


In 1938, Jensen visits Andre Masson at Lyon-la-Foret

We visited him...that was very important for me...He was one of the new spirits...8

While in France, Jensen becomes acquainted with the work and writing of Auguste Herbin; Herbin's interest in Goethe's color theory reinforces Jensen's thinking. Later that year he returns to the United States with May and they begin collecting contemporary American painting through dealers Rose Fried, Sidney Janis and Leo Castelli. During the war years Jensen and May travel to North Carolina, California and Chicago visiting artists' studios; they acquire little at this time however. After 1945 they begin to collect again - works by Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Theo van Doesburg, Naum Gabo and Fritz Glarner are added to the collection. Jensen is in the process of reading Goethe's Zür Farbenlehre, a study of color theory, which will occupy him for the next twenty years. He begins making diagrams from his Goethean studies which he considers researches into light and color rather than art. In 1946 Castelli introduces Jensen to Gabo and under his influence Jensen experiments briefly with constructivist sculpture.


Saidie May dies and Jensen travels briefly to California. Her collection (a promised gift) goes to the Baltimore Museum of Art. He settles in New York and begins to concentrate exclusively on painting. Jensen's studio is in the Lincoln Arcade where his neighbor is Ulfert Wilke. Wilke introduces Jensen to James Johnson Sweeney, Director of the Guggenheim Museum; Sweeney visits Jensen's studio. Jensen executes a number of portraits and also paints representational landscapes, still lifes and figures in an abstract expressionist manner.


Jensen meets Mark Rothko and a long-lasting friendship develops. Has first one-artist show at John Heller Gallery, New York, an exhibition of twelve canvases. These paintings are based on his study of Goethe's color theory which resulted in a change of palette to prismatic colors (the artist's term for those colors found in the light and dark spectrums of the prism). Exhibition receives favorable critical attention.

...one can appreciate these paintings for their strong, substantial composition and the glowing effect of primary color combinations ... Jensen's canvases show his positive qualities as a painter.9

Jensen meets Lil Picard, art critic, painter and sculptor, and a ten-year friendship begins. In 1953, he moves to a studio on East 10th Street.


In 1954 Jensen is included in a three-artist show at the Tanager Gallery with sculptor Robert Becker and painter Sally Hazelet. Jensen meets Sam Francis in 1955 and a mutual exchange of ideas develops between them. Jensen is invited to participate in the Stable Gallery, New York, annual group shows with artists such as Franz Kline, Joseph Cornell, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg. These groups exhibitions are important to Jensen's development and his understanding of his contemporaries' work. First one-artist show is at Tanager Gallery in 1955; in 1956 Jensen joins the Bertha Schaefer Gallery for a brief period.


Jensen begins to paint murals incorporating checkerboards and prismatic colors. He develops the idea of his diagrams into paintings on paper which investigate the logic for his compositions on canvas. The diagrams become works of art in themselves.

I was unconsciously doing my style for ten years but didn't know a painting could look that way.10

Calligraphy, previously used in the diagrams, begins to appear in the paintings. He is extremely prolific during this time. Henry Luce III acquires Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me from the Bertha Schaefer Gallery, beginning a friendship which continues through Jensen's lifetime. The painting is executed in the artist's newly matured style.

I knew that the prism held the clue that would enable me to arrive at an understanding of the genesis of color...the black and white mirror process in the prism paralleled that in the atmospheric dome and this led to the idea of the checkerboard image.11

Sam Francis brings Arnold Rüdlinger, Director of the Kunsthalle, Basel, to Jensen's studio on 10th Street. Rüdlinger later organizes an exhibition in Winterthur, Switzerland and includes Jensen's work. Jensen sells his first work from this show. He destroys a number of sketches and diagrams but is restrained by Rothko's protest. With the breakthrough to the checkerboard image a very active period in Jensen's career begins.


Jensen teaches summer session at the Maryland Institute, Baltimore.


Martha Jackson visits his studio and invites Jensen to join her gallery. He meets Gerome Goodman who becomes an important collector and friend. Luce commissions Jensen to paint a mural for the Time/Life building in Paris; called The Title Makers, the mural was destroyed by fire in 1967.


Jensen begins to exhibit in important group shows throughout the country. Although he retains an individual style, his work is exhibited with the abstract expressionists and geometric abstractionists. He reads J. Eric S. Thompson's Maya Hieroglyphic Writing in 1960 which recalls to him his childhood in Guatemala and provides additional thematic interests for his work. There is much artistic production at this time. In 1961 he has his first major one-artist show at the Guggenheim Museum. Through the introduction of Rüdlinger, he joins the Kornfeld & Klipstein gallery, Bern.


Jensen marries the painter Regina Bogat in New York. Has his first European exhibition at Kornfeld & Klipstein gallery, Bern, in October. Executes a series of paintings superimposing figurative elements of prismatic colors on checkerboards of black and white or, reversely, figurative elements in black and white against a prismatic colored checkerboard.


A two-artist exhibition with Franz Kline at Kunsthalle, Basel, is organized by Rüdlinger. A retrospective selection of sixty of his works is shown. The Jensens travel for six months to Italy, Egypt, Greece, and France. At the end of the trip, they spend six weeks in Switzerland painting in a loft above Kornfeld's exhibition area.

Counting temple stones in Paestum, Italy, 1964
Counting temple stones in Paestum, Italy, 1964

First child, Anna, born. Spends summer as Tamarind fellow making twenty lithographs. The set, A Pythagorean Notebook, explores ancient architectural structures to which the artist applies Pythagorean number structures. The prints are grid patterns with writing and numbers at the borders. Also executes a series of gouaches entitled Hekatompedon. These drawings are based on an ancient Grecian ritual which was of a religious and thanks-giving nature.


Jensen's paintings at this time are inspired by his previous trips to Europe and Greece.


The Jensens make a trip to Guatemala, Yucatan and Mexico, where much travel is done by airplane. Paintings inspired by aerial vision are comprised of concentric bands of small checkerboards. One-artist exhibition at Cordier Ekstrom, New York, presents canvases executed in this motif. Jensen's interests turn to physics and astronomy. Reads the I Ching and J. Needham's Science and Civilization in China which has strong influence on his personal philosophy and provides thematic material for many paintings. Son, Peter, born in 1970.


Family moves to Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Beginning his two-year association with The Pace Gallery, New York, Jensen has a one-artist exhibition there during this year. Theme of the canvases exhibited centers on Jensen's interest in the I Ching and in the teachings of the Delphic Oracle.

That they convey, in any case, a definite sense of conviction, beautifully exemplifying the principles they purport to expound, attests to their success as modern abstract paintings, scarcely needing the prop of a comparison to, say, Hindu yantras or Moorish mosaics, let alone a concordance of old lore. Jensen is, simply, a painter of wonderful skill and intensity.12


Wieland Schmied, Director of the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, organizes a traveling exhibition of Jensen's work from the period 1957-1972. In 1973, Jensen writes of his paintings:

The idea of correspondence has great significance and replaces the idea of causality, for things are connected rather than caused. Thus lovely things summon others among the class of lovely things, repulsive things summon others among the class of repulsive things. This arises from the complementary way in which a thing of the same class responds. This idea that things belonging to the same class resonate or energize each other has guided me in producing my 1973 paintings.13

One-artist exhibition at The Pace Gallery, New York.


During this year Jensen is preoccupied with the ancient quinary number system and the seasonal effects of the planets.


Jensen's interest in number structures and dualities provides themes for numerous canvases.

Studies the theory of paramagnetic phenomena vs. the diamagnetic approach as espoused by Michael Faraday, a 19th century physicist and chemist who discovered electromagnetic induction. Exhibition of Jensen's work from 1961 to 1974 at The Pace Gallery, New York, 1976.

Alfred, Regina, Peter, and Anna Jensen, 1976
Alfred, Regina, Peter, and Anna Jensen, 1976

Jensen paints the diagrams, The Sum of the Heavenly Numbers is Twenty-Five and The Sum of the Earthly Numbers is Thirty, which attempt a solution to The Great Mystery II, a work painted thirteen years earlier. The Great Mystery II is an irregular ground grid of black and white with superimposed Chinese numbers derived from Shang oracle bone forms of the 14th to 11th centuries B.C. The diagrams are mathematical explorations of the position and function of the "invisible 20" as realized through the working of The Great Mystery II.

His insight and his work have steadily grown; and there continue in him yearly floods of new thoughts, new discoveries, new connections for old thoughts that have been left dangling, and always with the enthusiasm and conviction we associate with youth.14


Mural Changes and Communication installed in Lister-Hill Center, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.


Dies April 4 in Livingston, New Jersey, near his home.


Major retrospective exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


  1. Leila Hadley Musham, "Alfred Jensen: Metaphysical and Primitive" (New York, 1975), unpublished, p. 15A.
  2. Irving Sandler and Michael Torlen, Interview with Alfred Jensen (Glen Ridge, New Jersey, 15 May 1975), unpublished, n.p.
  3. Linda L. Cathcart and Marcia Tucker, Interview with Alfred Jensen (Glen Ridge, New Jersey, 30-31 March 1977), unpublished.
  4. Regina Bogat Jensen, Interview with Alfred Jensen (Glen Ridge, New Jersey, August 1977), unpublished, p. 10.
  5. Ibid., p. 2.
  6. Ibid., p. 6.
  7. Sandler and Torlen, p. 9.
  8. R. B. Jensen, p. 9.
  9. Martin Zwart, "Alfred Jensen," Art Digest, vol. 26, no. I I (March 1952), p. 22.
  10. R. B. Jensen, p. 24.
  11. 11. Musham, p. 9.
  12. Peter Schjeldahl, "Ever Intimidated by a Painting?" New York Times (28 May 1972), p. 17.
  13. Alfred Jensen, "About My Work," Alfred Jensen: Recent Paintings (Pace Editions, Inc., New York, 1973), n.p.
  14. A. Jensen, "Explanations for a Friend and Artist," Alfred Jensen: The Aperspective Structure of a Square (Cordier & Ekstrom, Inc., New York, 1970), n.p. Text based on a letter from Jensen to Allan Kaprow, 24 September 1969. Reprinted as "Jensen Mikro Makro," in documenta 5: Internationale Ausstellung (Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, 1972) and Alfred Jensen (Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, 1973).
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