"I begin to hear the old sounds - the
ones I had thought worn out, worn out by intellectualization -
I begin to hear the old sounds as though they are not worn out.
Obviously they are not worn out. They are just as audible as the
new sounds. Thinking had worn them out. And if one stops thinking
about them, suddenly they are fresh and new."
John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing."
By Michele Leight
Today, color is something we can all own -
in a can, tube or jar - but well into the 19th century it was
as rare and off limits to the general public as jewels or exotic
"Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950
to Today" at The Museum of Modern Art in New York takes the
commercial color chart - factory made, mass produced, standardized,
available at any paint store on Main Street or the mall - and
shows how it overturned subjective ideas of the spiritual and
scientific powers of art embodied in "fine art's" color
wheel, allowing anyone to embrace "paints" as an ordinary
The exhibition was organized by Ann Temkin,
The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Curator of Painting and Sculpture
at The Museum of Modern Art, and includes 6 site specific installations
created for this show, such as the stunning striped floor, "Zobop,"
(2006), by Jim Lambie, made of vinyl tape, on view in The Agnes
Gund Garden Lobby.
Through the work of 44 artists this show demonstrates
how art and life can blend together in a world where eliminating
the "I made this," or Andy Warhol's "I want to
be a machine" does not mean the end of art - or that Frank
Stella could not create wonderful canvases "straight out
of a can." In such a world the possibilities of creativity
become endless: color is no longer just "art," but a
concept. This is the first exhibition devoted to this transformation,
and it is - not surprisingly - sponsored by Benjamin Moore Paints.
"Color Chart" is arranged chronologically,
and begins with a painting by Marcel Duchamp, "Tu m'"
created in 1918 - the artist's last - commissioned to fit over
the bookshelf in patron Katherine Dreier's library in New York.
It is an unexpected revelation of a renegade genius best known
for his readymade "urinals," hat racks, bicycle wheels
and "found objects." This "painting" is inspired
not by some romantic vista or experience, but by a paint manufacturer's
catalogue, which in turn inspired the lozenge shaped color samples
that were painted by Duchamp's friend Yvonne Chastel. After Duchamp
turned ordinary objects into "art," it was a no-brainer
for him to think of color itself as a "readymade, a concept
that was interpreted in a variety of ways by the artists represented
in this show.
All 90 artworks in this show explore two basic
themes: store bought color, (paints that are not mixed by hand),
and color "found" in daily life, like car paints, computer
color and glowing fluorescent light bulbs, neither of which require
the input of the artist's subjective tastes or decisions. Ms.Tempkin
"The color chart sensibility that began
to spread among artists in the middle of the twentieth century
was very much tied to a rhetoric that favored the democratization
of the realm of fine art. The reference points for these artists
was to be ordinary life, industrial or consumer culture, rather
than a transcendent realm apart. They positioned themselves and
their work not as an elite fraternity but as a part of the real
world - as exemplified by the blunt utilitarianism of the housepainter's
Occupying an entire gallery wall, Gerhard Richter's
"Ten Large Color Panels" (1966-71/2) is reminiscent
of magnified color charts available in any paint store, reflecting
his interest in "readymade" source material, like the
black and white photograph from which he has created monochromatic,
impersonal paintings for several years. Like Kelly's large scale
"Colors Arranged by Chance" and "Colors for a Large
Wall," (also 1951), this life size, monumental work thirty-one-feet
long reflects a preoccupation with architecture, which continues.
It has never been exhibited in the United States till this show.
Right beside Marcel Duchamp's bottle brush/safety
pins/bolt assemblage is a superb Rauchenberg, entitled "Rebus,"
painted in 1955, that incorporates every possible medium in an
artists repertoire - oil, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut and pasted
printed and painted papers, synthetic polymer paint, and fabric
on canvas mounted and stapled to fabric. The center of "Rebus"
is lined with 117 cardboard paint samples, echoing the painted
samples of Duchamp's "Tu m" which he had seen in 1953.
Ellsworth Kelly said he was never interested
in painterliness: "I want to eliminate the 'I made this'
from my work,'" he said. "Spectrum Colors Arranged by
Chance 11," (1951), illustrated at the top of this article,
was a radical departure from painting as we know it. The arrangements
of the squares are random, and the squares themselves are not
painted. Instead, this stunning collage was created by randomly
giving numbers to colors that were then placed on a preassigned
penciled grid. The colored squares were cut from commerical adhesive-backed
colored papers, and pasted down. While it looks as though a great
deal of planning went into it, Kelly's approach is founded on
pure chance. He made these minimal paintings at a time when giants
of Abstract Expressionism like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning
were loading their canvases with as much "personal"
information and emotion as possible. Kelly was neither an Abstract
Expressionist, nor a Minimalist; he created these ground-breaking
artworks while living in Paris, separated from mainstream New
York art movments. He believed that "the work of an ordinary
bricklayer is more valid that the artwork of all but a very few
Andy Warhol's humorous "Do It Yourself"
Paintings" (1962), based on "paint by numbers"
kits with which we are all familiar from our childhood, were in
fact the last he painted by hand,. His quest to democratize art
so that it could be made by anyone - regardless of talent - led
him to the mechanical process of silk screening. A few months
after Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, Warhol created the six
superb works at this show sometimes known collectively as "Marilyn/Flavors"
- Cherry Marilyn, Green, Marilyn, Mint Marilyn, Lemon Marilyn,
Blue Marilyn and Liquorice Marilyn (painted in 1962). The background
colors corresponded to the relevant flavor and were silkscreened
using Liquitex paint applied directly from the tube.
Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst - separated by
almost 25 years- routinely handed the reins of "painting"
or silk-screening of their artworks over to a stream of studio
assistants in a "production line" of art designed to
please the masses, like soup cans or brillo boxes off supermarket
shelves. Damien Hirst's famous "spot" paintings (from
paint taken straight out of cans), are still randomly applied
by teams of assistants along grids in which the size of the spots
must equal the size of the spots themselves. The only requirement
is that no color may appear more than once in a painting.
Since 1988, when Hirst created his first iconic
"spot" painting directly on the wall at Goldsmith's
College in London, 600 such paintings have been produced by studio
assistants. The "spots" at this show, "John John,"
are site specific, and applied directly to the gallery wall.
The colors used by artists whose work is represented
at this show are the antithesis of the Renaissance masters, or
even much later schools and art movements, that invested an enormous
amount of time mixing paints by hand. Lofty Renaissance patrons
were particular about which paints were to be used, and this was
specified in their contracts. Artists were bound by them, or they
risked facing stiff penalties by artists guilds for using low
quality paints. Many pigments were imported, and therefore expensive.
Color was status back then, but soon the invention of oil paints
opened up more possibilities because they could be mixed to create
new colors, separating a particular color from its natural source.
The catalog accompanying this show offers insights
into the evolution of paints from their hand wrought, eliteist
beginnings to the tubes and cans we are accustomed to today. In
the mid-1800s, the synthetic production of paint helped create
an entirely "new look" for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist
canvases, as these innovative young geniuses mixed old and new
paints together. Among other artist supply companies, Windsor
and Newton was established in London in 1832, and by 1841 the
American portrait painter John Rand invented the tin tube for
packaging oil paint - replacing animal bladders filled with paint
that were then punctured by the artist before use. However, artists
still relied on a "color man" for pure, durable paints,
and Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne and van Gogh bought paints for their
superb canvases from "Pere" (father) Julien Tanguy,
who opened his shop in Montmartre in 1874.
Josph Albers, best known for his series "Homage
to the Square" had a profound influence on the generation
of artists represented at this show - if only in their rejection
of his color theories. His exacting "Interaction of Color"
(published in 1963) was the definitive color textbook, and his
color wheel/color theory was used to teach generations of American
students color relations at Black Mountain College, and later
at Yale. One of his students was Robert Rauschenberg, who caught
the masters attention - negatively - with one of his early color
chart inspired paintings, which Albers said was the "stupidist
thing" he ever saw. In fact, it was the antithesis of everything
Albers held sacred in art. Albers "Homage to the Square"
(created between 1950-1976), proposed that the perception of color
depends entirely on adjacencies, or, that color is the most relative
medium in art.
Which generation of artists has not sought
to surpass their teachers? What followed was inevitable - Alber's
brilliant students rejected his "theories" - but his
influence on them was enormous and can be felt throughout this
John Cage, the legendary musician/composer/artist,
also taught art at Black Mountain College, (where he met Rauschenberg),
and later at The New School in New York, and was also an important
influence on the artists of his generation, particularly Rauschenberg
and Richter, whose "alternative" role models often did
not come from the art world. Cage was a prolific lecturer, particularly
in New York City, and his famous "Lecture on Nothing"
(1949) advocated "nonintention" on the part of artists,
and a receptiveness to and acceptance of ordinary life in the
previously "hallowed" halls of the fine art world. This
contributed to a pivotal shift away from Abstract Expressionism
and geometric abstraction - in sound (music) and color (in art).
In a chapter entitled "Color Shift,"
in the exhibition catalog Anne Tempkin writes:
"Cage inspired artists as various as Rauschenberg
and Kelly, whom he befriended in Paris in 1949, to approach their
art without preconceived ideas. Like Duchamp, he gave license
to a contemporary form of iconoclasm that gently but swiftly toppled
long-heralded heroes and ideals. Cage's presence and influence
were transatlantic, and his thinking had as much resonance for
the American Minimalists as for Richter or Daniel Buren."
This show resonates with all age groups and
cultures - it was overrun with foreigners and Americans alike
when I returned to see it after the press preview, which is something
I always like to do, to get a sense of how the general public
is reacting to any art show. A group of visitors stood with heads
craned upwards to view John Baldessari's witty "Six Colorful
Inside Jobs," a silent, 30 minute video of an artist paiinting
himself - literallly - into a corner. We all burst into laughter
as if we were watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy.
Dan Flavin's "Untitled (to Don Judd, colorist),
1-5", created in 1987, was an outright show-stealer. It is
an extraordinay experience - akin to being in a beautiful cathedral
with sunlight filtering through stained glass windows - to stand
in the otherworldly glow of ten standardized fluorescent bulb
colors, transformed into a luscious, sensuous paradise by one
of the world's leading Minimal artists.
Flavin dedicated this gorgous work to his friend
and fellow artist, Donald Judd, whose "Untitled," (1989),
injects a jolt of primary color into the spare atrium gallery
on the sixth floor of the museum, contrasting with the towering
megaliths of midtown Manhattan, visible through the atrium roof
above. While both these legendary "minimalist" artists
may reject anything but standardized colors, the juxtapositions
they utilize create what can only be described as a romantic,
mood elevating sensation in the viewer. "Minimal" does
not necessarily mean devoid of emotion in the work of these contemporary
"Race" as subject matter is cleverly
represented in Carrie May Weems "Eight Paintings with Eight
Colors," (1987-1990), from her "Colored People"
series, that literalize the verbal expression "color"
by using standardized colors to hand-dye black-and-white photographs
in "gumdrop" colors, seducing viewers into "the
complicated discussion about race that I want to have with the
audience and myself," says the artist. Weems chose
models at an age when "issues of race really begin to affect
you, at the point of an innocence beginning to be disrupted."
The rectangles continue through the decades
with Byron Kim's "Synecdoche," 1991-present," a
series of painted oil and wax panels each based on the skin tone
of a single model that are reminiscent of Richter's color charts,
and, coincidentally this is comprised of 265 panels; Mike Kelly
"Missing Time Color Exercise (Reversed) No.2," (2002),
a marvellous assemblage of magazines, wood, plexiglass and acrylic
on wood panels is based on his partially complete set of the magazines
"Sex to Sixty," which he was drawn to as a teenager.
The magazines are arranged chronologically, in grids, with a painted
panel representing each missing. issue. This is Kelly's tongue
in cheek parody of art school "color assignments" (probably
related to Albers "Interaction of Color"), in which
he extracts a shade or tone of a neighboring magazine and applies
it to the colored panels.
Anne Tempkin writes in the chapter "Color
Shift" that some "artsit-thinkers," like Donald
Judd and Sol Lewitt, had a huge influence on the slightly younger
genreation of artists like Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin through
their rejection of color, because they equated it with excessive
melodrama. In the early to mid 60s black and bland became "de
rigeur," as canvases composed entirely of one color or variations
of one color covered exhibition and gallery walls, and color itself
was suppressed, leading to what we now know as "Conceptual
Sol Lewitt wrote this in "Paragraphs on
Conceptual Art," published in Artforum in 1967:
"Conceptual art is made to engage the
mind of th viewer rather than his eye or emotions. The physicality
of a three-dimensional object then becomes a contradiction to
its nonemotive intent. Color, surface, texture, and shape only
emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls
attention to and interests the viewer in this physicality is a
deterrant to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive
As this show demonstrates, however, "color
turned out to be ideally suited to the Conceptualist methodologies
of seriality and system, in the sense that the placement of objective
parameters on the use of color provided a perfect vehicle for
demonstrating - even calling attention to - the objectivity of
the artists. The Conceptual artists' preference for obtaining
and using color designed for the general, nonspecialized customer
would also underscore their desire for independence from the history
of several centuries of bourgeois painting." (Anne Tempkin,
"Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today.")
Decades earlier, Pablo Picasso used commercial
paint in his Cubist paintings, and Georges Braque - who started
out as a commercial house painter - used "found" wallpaper
as well as paint from cans in his famous Cubist compositions.
James Rosenquist used discarded commercial paint from his job
as a billboard painter to create his famously "wrong colored"
paintings - and decades earlier Fernand Leger and Siquerios relied
on Ripolin and enamel paint respectively for their murals - the
latter taught workshops on how to use enamel paint to Jackson
Pollock, among other New York artists.
Cost played a factor - especially in large
scale works - and commerical paints were far cheaper than art
store paints - while they also reflected the edgy, bohemian lifestyle
of artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Franz Kline. Discarding
the eliteist medium of fine art painting enhanced their revolutionary
aura, and the "depersonalized" texture they produced
- they did not show brushmarks - suited the "look" they
wanted to achieve. De Kooning kept the first five gallon cans
of zinc white and black enamel paint he boutht on the Bowery in
New York with Franz Kline his entire life. "It was an important
part of their self-image" writes Ann Temkin.
If color is irrelevant, then why canvas? It
did not take long for Sol Lewitt, Blinky Palermo and succeeding
generations of artists to work directly on the wall, or make cloth
paintings, or, in Ed Ruscha's case, prints using organic colors,
as in "News, Mews, Pews, Stews & Dues," (1970).
These food prints were created using a mortar and pestle, which
crushed baked beans, mango chutney, tulips and other things British
to formulate organic "inks."
Cory Arcangel's projection from a digital source
"Colors," (2005), references Dennis Hopper's 1988 film
of the same name about violence between the Crip and the Bloods
street gangs in Los Angeles. Staring at it for a sustained period
produces the most unsettling sensation, a cross between falling
from a great height and being spun around at high speed - downright
scary. Arcangel wrote a computer program that plays the movie
one horizontal lineof pixels at a time, top to bottom, and each
line is stretched to fill the screen, resulting in animated bands
Concentric stripes continue in Jim Lambie's
"ZOBOP!" illustrated at the top of the story, made from
lengths of industrial vinyl that produce an equally unsettling,
although pleasurable, sensation. Negotiating steps in this dizzy
jungle of eye popping "flooring" requires extra "awareness,"
but the sculpture garden stabilizes the scene with its serene
familiarity. Indifferent to making marks with his own hand, the
artist says: "The system makes the work."
Although we may never make paints out of our
salad greens, a vinyl tape floor carpet, or star in our own video
where we paint ourselves into a corner, the sense of possibility
this show inspires is mood elevating and thought provoking.