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Jules Engel



Gouache and watercolor on paper
24.125 x 30.875 x 0.875 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

Well known for his work in experimental film, Jules Engel was a multifaceted artist who enjoyed a long and successful career as a painter, film animator, constructivist sculptor and, in later years, as the founding chair of the experimental animation department at California Institute of the Arts.

Committed to geometric abstraction, Engel deployed hard-edge, nonobjective shapes in ways that often suggest architectonic scenarios. Such is the case of Façade, in which crystalline planes outlined in black put one in mind of glass-paneled windows and doors opening unto a jam-packed cityscape. In it one spies a tall, dark building with windows aglow beside streets and freestanding walls that plunge dramatically into space. Meanwhile, splintered lines, checkerboard patterns, and strings of pinched diamonds that drift through the air enliven the scene and generate sensations of movement, which is not surprising in light of Engel’s concurrent work in film. Indeed, with its sequence of transparent panes that progress across the field, Façade reflects a cinematic sensibility, evoking tracking shots or successive frames in a movie reel.

Yet despite its complex dynamics, the composition sustains a formal cohesion, fostered by a pale blue wash that pervades the field like vaporous mist on a foggy day. At the same time, a white disc in a blue polygonal “sky” serves as a focal point, offering the wandering eye a place to rest. Beneath it a strange, gangly, flat-footed figure, with a lozenge torso and upraised arms that cradle the moon, draws our attention and prompts speculation. Is it a schematic person—a descendant, perhaps, of the silhouette characters in early experimental films—and could it be that the artist inserted it into this seemingly purist abstraction to jolt expectations, spark ideation, and thereby challenge complacent sight?

Susan Ehrlich

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