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When Music, Color, and Canvas Meet

`I LOVE formality!'' exclaims artist Ellen Banks, gesturing with her hands as though she were describing the most wonderful thing in the world. She apologizes for the encroaching chaos that threatens the order of her studio. But I've seen much worse, like my own. She offers me a chair without things piled on it. I take it. She goes on to explain that her work is based on a methodical response to musical notation; that she responds to the music as she sees it written down, not as she hears it played. Much in the same way that a musician might sit down and play, she interprets the score with organized systems of color and shape. You might think that the systems are important when it comes to understanding the work, but it's not so. Banks will be the first one to tell you that her methods are just to get her going, that we don't need them.

Banks grew up in Boston, more exposed to music than art, and has lived here all of her life. She teaches at the Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts, and shows her work here, in New York, and abroad. When she was a teen the abstract geometric paintings of Modernist Piet Mondrian made a lasting impression on her. She doesn't know how it happened, but something about their pure ordered expression captured her. After pursuing Minimalist painting to a dead end, she was reunited with her love of music by translating scores mathematically into code and onto the canvas.

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Ellen Banks explains that it is the order of formalism that appeals to her. Structure, she says, gives her freedom. Two things are going on here. The ordered nature of her systems provides her with a clear vision, and a peace that comes with the acceptance and service of that vision. The music is the other thing. It is a source, an inspiration; but also a channel, and finally a vast resource. It is a language like no other. It consistently turns up in talks I have with artists as the one thing at the back of their work. Banks is discovering music through her painting, and she loves it. She is discovering what made composers from Bach to Joplin tick.

There is nothing particularly formal about Ellen Banks as a person. Just the opposite. It seems to be more a question of balance. Literally. As though formality helps keep her from falling over. The warmth of her personality comes through in the paintings. A benign and energetic spirit dances down the corridors of her works. She handed me one of what she calls her books, portfolios of loose works on paper which in sequence form a single composition. The rectilinear shapes that represent her complex and changing interpretations of musical notation share the space with more than just their color and geometric shape.

In the last few years the work has been done on handmade paper, which is extremely irregular. She makes it herself. It introduces into the work both an aggressive surface texture as well as a randomness that is a kind of controlled chaos. Banks showed me some canvases that were much larger than she. This was newer work. To the surface of these larger works she had applied her paper before painting on them. Layers of color washed over the images to obscure the block shapes, which emerged to form some sort of hieroglyph. The results were unexpected for me. The whole business of the musical notation is perhaps too rational. But I didn't see music or systems. I saw warm, textured abstract paintings of great power that reverberated with the spirit of I don't know what. Music?

This series showcases artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures art in motion before labels are applied.

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