Leap of Color
On ViewYares Art
The effect of color is one element in art that continually eludes codification. Braque, not known in his mature phase as a particularly flashy colorist, once mused, “Color could give rise to sensations which would interfere with our conceptions of space.” Historical attempts to formulize color’s fugitive sensations, its “interference,” through multiple (often conflicting) color theories and paeans to the chromatic spirit in art, can be useful in understanding its technical deployment. Yet there remains an unknowable factor to the overall effects of chromatics once freed from the lab or the studio. The ecstatic symphony of hues orchestrated by Henri Matisse and André Derain in their Fauvist phases was intended to strategically overwhelm the academic view that color should be sutured to representational form in a way that would support the representation, but not overtly express the phenomenal sensation of that form in color. Color is basically sensational, its own register of expression, and that’s exactly why it became such a powerful, elemental factor in post-war abstraction: that factor which ultimately escapes explicit ideation via its overt expression. Leap of Color takes off from here.
The show is dominated by artists associated with what became known as the Washington Color School, including Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, and Gene Davis, whose careers benefitted from Clement Greenberg’s notion of “post-painterly abstraction.”1 After supporting Pollock and a few other of the Abstract Expressionist artists through their lean times, Greenberg took it upon himself to demarcate the new generation of abstract painters through the same lens of aesthetic and historic inevitability he applied in the 1940s and ’50s, thereby betting up the stakes of post-WWII American cultural hegemony. In a 2019 Rail interview with Sam Gilliam (notably absent from this show) I gleaned some first-hand information: this so-called Washington Color School was much more fractious and loosely organized, more of a collection of individuals already involved with their own explorations of color and structure in painting. Greenberg’s post-painterly art historical gambit that became welded to this group unfortunately came to overshadow the nuance of each artist’s individual contribution. Can one really “see” a Noland without “hearing” Greenberg? The forms that each artist coolly pursued became synonymous with a repressive brand of Formalism, yet their varied preoccupations with color effects largely managed to slip through the capture of such a widely-thrown, rhetorical net. With some temporal distance, the possibility of viewing these works on their own terms might be revelatory. Lesser-known artists from this group, such as Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring, offer an unexpected jolt of formal play. In his acrylic on canvas Midnight Blue and Sky Sheet (both 1963), Downing sets circular elements in motion, in large radial and grid formations, respectively, that hover curiously between secular mandalas and corporate super-graphic—energetic logos optically mollified by mid-to-dark saturated blues and yellows offset by governing whites. Downing was perhaps responding to Noland’s similarly hieratic use of concentric form, such as in Missus (1962), also included in the show, with a more generalized intent, as if to critique the older artist’s symbolic portentousness. Mehring’s works here, including Primal (1962) and Spring Is (1963) are large acrylic and collage on canvas paintings that parallel formal trends in early 1960s California hard-edge abstractionists such as Karl Benjamin and Lorser Feitelson. Their collective tendency toward symmetrical balance is evinced in the work of another West Coast abstractionist, John McLaughlin. Fletcher Benton, who was acquainted with McLaughlin, shows here one of his signature kinetic sculptures, Synchronetic C-333 S (1970), which evokes Isaac Newton’s chromatic delineations derived from his observations of prisms in sunlight.
Gene Davis, also associated with the Washington Color School, is represented here by a large, stunningly understated, vertical stripe painting entitled Black Dahlia (1981). Davis has said he found an “exquisite monotony” in the vertical format he became most identified with. The inclusion here of Dorothy Fratt, working in Washington contemporaneously, is a welcome discovery, in that the artist’s paintings such as Red Sky at Morning (1982) offer an optional take on color field painting, one that seems to have subsumed aspects of the uncannily hued, abstract symbolism of Adolph Gottlieb’s late works. One of Gottlieb’s early mentors, Milton Avery, is represented in the show by a 60 × 72 inch oil on canvas painting from the late 1950s, one of the artist’s most prolific periods. Due to the scale of Dark Mountain (1958) one gets enveloped by its muted greens, yellows, and blue abstract, expressionist strokes that make up its ostensibly representational subject.
In the category of what might be called “loose-edged abstraction” are the artists Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Larry Poons, Esteban Vicente, and Hans Hofmann. Olitski’s mode of atmospherically dispersing color across his canvases was heralded in the early 1960s by Greenberg as the next chapter in his canon of the post-painterly. This would seem to jive with the critic’s lineage of post-war American painting as atavistically-derived from the expressively chromatic compositions of J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet. Olitski’s optically-blending droplets of color seen then as effectively more present (when “presentness” meant grace, to paraphrase Greenberg’s protégé Michel Fried) than Noland’s crisper partitions. The two artists are dialectically “cornered” in the show. Olitski’s Judith Juice (1965), a rectangular field of ultramarine blue edged with a rusty orange, vibrates understatedly next to Noland’s Blind Passage (1977) an acutely-angled shaped canvas transected by muted red, yellow, and blue stripes. Another energetic, yet less polarized pairing is that of Friedel Dzubas’s epic (95 × 256 inchs) Ikarus (1973) with Larry Poons’s somewhat smaller Ruffles Queequeg (1972). Dzubas landed in New York in the 1950s from his native Germany and for a time shared a studio with Helen Frankenthaler. He was a friend to both Frankenthaler and Greenberg at the time and was present to witness the change from Abstract Expressionism to post-painterly abstraction at the transition. His work can seem the most idiosyncratic of that grouping in that his characteristically large swaths of prismatic chroma retained the theatricality of the large strokes of the so-called action painters. Yet, he still managed to break free from the underlying drawing of their compositional structures. Poons arrived on the New York scene in the early 1960s with optically dazzling lozenge shapes that zipped across his canvases like experiments in molecular dynamics. He ultimately shed the style that made him famous early for canvases heavily worked with encrusted accumulations of widely hued paint, often coalescing entropically into muddy sloughs. Ruffles Queequeg, however, is dominated by a delicate pink ground onto which the artist paints scruffy notations of blues, greens, and violets. If anyone can be said to take on the mantel of lyrical brushwork combined with delicate color of Monet it has to be Poons, whose most recent work yet continues in that refractory tradition.
Leap of Color doesn’t take any radical conceptual leaps towards redefining color aesthetics for the 21st century. The youngest artist in the show, Penelope Krebs, offers one potential version in her plain-spoken, wide-banded compositions in analogous hue ranges such as the blue-dominant June (2017). The serial nature of her works shown here might reflect industrial production or generic similitude or simply a contemplative response to an oppressively color-coded culture. In the meantime, color is going to be whatever it wants, as it always has: an expressively phenomenal vehicle of prismatic transcendence.
- This was the title Greenberg gave for a travelling show of primarily Washington, D.C.-based painters originating at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964.