Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Birth of the Cool

Number 18, 1951, by Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas; 81-1/2 x 69-7/8 in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, NY (53.216) ©2006 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

“The history of art is messier and more haphazard than most theories allow,” writes Karen Wilkin in the catalogue to the exhibition Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 currently at the Denver Art Museum. Beginning with Heinrich Wolfflin’s concept of the history of art as a pendulum swing between linear (i.e., precise and clean) and painterly (i.e., full of individual gesture) and then moving on to Clement Greenberg’s modern appropriation of that dichotomy in his appreciation of the Abstract Expressionists, Wilkin sets the stage for the generation after Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko–the Color Field painters. “Their art can be read as departing from the possibilities suggested by Rothko’s poised rectangles,” Wilkin writes, such as Rothko’s Number 18 (above). Yet, as Wilkin quickly shows, the relationship between the Color Field painters and their Abstract Expressionist “ancestors” as well as between themselves made for a “messier” story than their calm, cool paintings reveal.

Yellow Hymn, 1954, by Hans Hofmann. Oil on canvas; 50 x 40 in. The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust; courtesy Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York. © 2006 Estate of Hans Hofmann / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Wilkin sees two factors defining what Color Field painting is. One is the idea of “cool,” “in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the word,” Wilkin adds. McLuhan defined “hot” media as those works that “reach out” and grab you, whereas “cool” media require the individual to take the first step. The frenzy of the Abstract Expressionists heated up the art world in a way that the Color Field painters wanted to cool down. When the Color Field painters looked for inspiration among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko obviously provided a model, but the lesser-known Hans Hofmann offered a different take on how an economy of means could be full of possibilities. Hofmann’s Yellow Hymn (above), with its organization and “push and pull” of warm and cool colors projecting from and receding into the surface, opened up possibilities that some of the better-known Abstract Expressionists couldn’t. “You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock,” Helen Frankenthaler said in a similar vein, rejecting the claustrophobically overpowering gestures of de Kooning for the freer, all-over effect of Pollock’s drip paintings. Matisse stands as another teacher for the Color Field artists, demonstrating how to build pictures with powerful, unmodulated blocks of color, adding to Hofmann’s lessons.

The second factor linking the Color Field school is the person of Clement Greenberg, who co-curated the Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition that first gathered these diverse artists together, allowing him almost single-handedly to define the terms of the movement and who and who wasn’t included. The power of Greenberg, the earliest critical champion of Pollock, seems almost impossible today, but was all too true in the 1950s and 1960s art world.

Flood, 1967, by Helen Frankenthaler. Synthetic polymer on canvas; 124 x 140 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art (68.12). Photograph Geoffrey Clements. © 2007 Helen Frankenthaler. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Helen Frankenthaler emerges as one of the central figures of the Color Field movement. “Frankenthaler’s multivalent images seem to distill the large phenomena of the natural world—sea and sky, night and day, and changing weather—into subtle, richly modulated relationships of hue,” Wilkin writes. Works such as Frankenthaler’s Flood (above) mimic nature’s power yet remain true to the tenets of abstraction. Sadly, as Carl Belz recalls in his short essay in the catalogue, Frankenthaler’s approach to Color Field painting soon received the criticism of being “too soft” by critics such as Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg fierce rival. “Too soft,” of course, served as code for “woman painter,” a standard putdown for female artists. Flipping through the biographies of the Color Field painters by Hrag Vartanian at the end of the catalogue and looking at the artists’ photographs, you quickly realize that Frankenthaler was the lone intruder in the all-men’s club. To think that she found her point of departure in the art of the macho Pollock, you realize just how innovative and individual Frankenthaler’s art truly is.

Floral V, 1959-60, by Morris Louis. Acrylic and magna on canvas; 98-3/8 x 137-13/16 in. Private collection, Denver. 1993 Marcella Louis Brenner. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Wilkin compares the effect of innovations in acrylic paint on the Color Field school to the effect of the advent of prepared oil paint on the Impressionists. Tubes of paint freed the Impressionists to venture forth into nature and paint in the open. Quick drying, brilliantly colored acrylic paint similarly freed the Color Field painters to try new effects, such as Morris Louis did in his Floral V (above) and other multilayered works. “It is impossible to determine which came first: the painters’ desire to cover large surfaces with thin, saturated, even handed color or the existence of paint that made this possible,” Wilkin writes. This chicken-egg conundrum lies at the heart of the Color Field movement, providing an early example of modern artists exploiting new materials and technology in pursuit of new effects.

Moultonville II, 1966, by Frank Stella. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paint on canvas; 124 x 86 in. Collection Mr. and Mrs. David Mirvish, Toronto. Photograph Sean Weaver. © 2006 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Color Field painting today suffers from a inferiority complex, something that this exhibition should rectify. As Wilkin points out, although Color Field art shares much with their contemporary movements of Minimalism and Pop Art in terms of striving towards economy and anonymity of touch, Color Field art gets labeled as “decorative” or, even worse, “corporate” for lacking any overt political content even during such turbulent times as the 1960s in America. Belz captures some of the flavor of this pecking order and its injustice in comparing Frank Stella’s shift from Minimalism to Color Field in works such as Moultonville II (above) to Bob Dylan’s infamous choice to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. “As each radicalized his art and deepened it by taking inspiration from his art’s past and extending it into the present,” Belz writes, “each revealed the past in a fresh light. In doing so, each took me along to places that were at once familiar and new.” Using the example of Stella’s transition, Belz finds the essence of Color Field’s attraction, namely its ability to be both conservative by taking the best of the past and radical in extending that forward, thus providing a “model for lived experience” itself.

Chi Ama, Crede, 1962, by Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas; 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; purchased by The Phillips Collection through funds donated by The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips, The Chisholm Foundation, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald Brown, 1998. Photograph Steven Sloman. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Perhaps more than any other modern art movement, Color Field art is a creation of art critics, for good and ill. Michael Fried’s “combination of intellectual rigor and passion for every aspect of works of art,” Wilkin writes, “quickly set a standard for illuminating formalist criticism” as he promoted works such as Robert Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede (above). Unfortunately, the bald pate of Clement Greenberg continues to rule over the Color Field world, for better or worse. “Even today,” Wilkin laments, “a decade after his death, the personal animosities aroused by this difficult, thorny man can seem to get in the way of objective judgment of his achievement, and by extension, to obscure the excellences of the art with which he was most closely associated.” Fortunately, Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 exorcises the ghost of Greenberg, lifting the label of pure decoration to reveal the creative thinking and even radicalism of the artists and their works. In curating and writing Color as Field, Karen Wilkin allows the Color Field school to step out of the long shadow of Clement Greenberg and show their true colors.

[Many thanks to the Denver Art Museum for providing me with a copy of the exhibition catalogue to Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 and for the images from the exhibition.]

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