Color: Emphasis

Richter_KornGerhard Richter’s abstractions are perfect POMO vehicles. They describe how color, light and space work in our current painting endgame. As is made abundantly clear by these paintings abstraction continues to reference and represent the Modernist urge to rise to the surface. The high key hues keep jumping into sight bobbing right up to the edge of the picture plane. In this painting the clumsy yellow schematic line almost disappears in the lighter valued yellows of the background. The green scumble over the red pushes the hues one on top of the other while overlaying the surface of the yellow creating a push / pull of ambiguous color, light and space. They each create a singular intensity nearly matching one another in value. The blue grey and white slab of strokes breaks into pieces sending the values into a tailspin simultaneously standing out against the yellow ground and held in check by that yellow schematic line. Here form and structure are collapsing in on themselves lost in the process of mark-making. To paint and isolate this “form” of strokes, and once again, assert the surface, there is the black and red stroke dry brushed over the “accident” – a Postmodern ironic acknowledgement of Pollock’s denial of chance and a play on the idea of action painting. We are teased by the interaction of the secondaries, tertiaries and primaries. The structure and form of the painting shatters in the hue and we wind up thrown against its surface. Abstraction twice removed, a critique of a critique.

Like Mary Heilmann’s work in the last post this work is a very clever amalgamation of various types of painting practice, all designed to keep it light, surface-y and optical. There is also a sense of richness and generosity to Richter’s practice. His work is fat rather than thick, and by that I mean he lays on the paint, lays on the optical color – he give’s you your money’s worth – there’s no scrimping on the materials. The surfaces are usually clotted with dry, thick goop, and as he overpaints, that clotted surface creates textures in the new layers of paint. This abstraction sifts Abstract Expressionism through the sieve of Pop experience, and then again, through the idea of reproduction. It is a diagram of an abstract painting, a simulacrum, the meaning of it drained by referencing its very making and its insistence on optical color. These paintings are Richter’s Marilyns – great looking, high maintenance and very low participation – you know, like movie stars. Once again, this is color done for the chromophobe, a kind of applied color, a cosmetic color – there is no visual danger, no risk taking, no direct meaning inferred – just an act of cloning and replicating. We are at an endpoint of Greenberg’s dictum (expressed nicely in the movie Pollock – “You’re retreating into imagery again, Jackson. Paint is paint, surface is surface. That’s all they should be.”) Richter’s painting is the endgame of this idea, this is what color became in the POMO world – an optical critique of optical painting -painting twice removed from visual experience – paint and surface.

Gorgeous isn’t good Enough

Now what we are looking for in color, light and space is not just a way forward into a different thought process, but we are looking to find new meaning for the way we use these things. For instance if I lay a prussian blue brush stroke that has been valued with a bit of titanium white over a red orange field that has been burnished with a bit of green – what VISUAL (hot) or OPTICAL (cool) experience might I be imparting? Is it simply a neat effect of color or does it serve a larger purpose? Am I creating space, and if  so, what sort of space? Am I making a statement about language and form in the Johnsian sense, or am I merely splashing a flat rhetorical landscape in the Frankenthaler sense? Does that blue have a specific meaning to me, and does it create a deeper resonance of meaning now that it is laid over the red orange field? Or does that even matter at this point in Art History? If it is dark or light does that provide something other than an optical effect? Can I FEEL this color through my eyes, does it provide an emotional reaction, and if so, what emotion and where it might if come from? How does the color relate to the entire structure and form of the painting, and is there something going on that might create meaning in those forms? This could go on forever, but what we intend most from all of this questioning, is to find OURSELVES, find a way to stretch what we are doing with our color, light and space and find a different application, a different kind of meaning for what we are doing.

I’ve often wondered about Pollock’s last years, and as that movie clip (see above) makes plain, it probably wasn’t a very easy time for Pollock. I guess he could have rested on his laurels and made hundreds more Blue Poles or Autumn Mists like so many contemporary painters seem content to do, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He understood that even though he had broken through to the surface and skirted the issue of decoration it could not last, there was too much painting at stake. He was beating at that locked door once again, only this last time, tragically, he didn’t make it through, he couldn’t see it through. The problem for us is that in the Postmodern world our imagery, abstract or naturalistic, and our color have little or no relation to one another. These works whip up desire, but desire for “what” exactly is anyone’s guess. For Postmodernists color is the map to desire but, it goes no further. We have come to believe that the color map and the desire it engenders are the realities of painting.

“Years ago, when we met, I dreamed of paintings I could love.”

Caravaggio kept returning to that red, that deep rich red. It’s there in each of his great paintings. It binds vision in such a visceral and uncomfortable way. We have a hard time relating to that idea of being bound by color. In Derek Jarmin’s Postmodern masterpiece we discover what that color can mean, and what it was connected to, where it might have come from. It is not just the trite idea of passion or love embodied in color theoretics, but it speaks of a deeper connection to paint, to blood, to life and mostly to vision. As Jarmin interprets it there was no retreating from the actions Caravaggio took on the canvas or on the streets, no separation of life from art, no gap between the two. Vision was real for both art and life. We Postmoderns can only see this in parts, in bits and pieces, not in continuity, not in flow. One thing doesn’t lead to the other, one color need not exist for the other. It only has to look good.

In David Batchelor’s Chromophobia the author lays out distinctions of color theoretics, both for the chromophobe and the chromophile. There is a wonderful theoretical sway between the idea of hot color or cool color, visual vs. optical. He articulates the issue perfectly…

“The colour circle has dominated the understanding and use of colour in art. Based on a geometry of triangulation and a grammar of complementarity, the colour circle establishes relationships between colours – primaries, secondaries and tertiaries, the pure and the less pure. The colour chart offers an escape from all that. It is, in effect, simply a list, a grammarless accumulation of colour units. In the colour chart, every colour is equivalent to and independent of every other colour. There are no hierarchies, only random colour events. The colour chart divorces colour from conventional colour theory and turns every colour into a readymade. It promises autonomy for colour; in fact, it offers three distinct but related types of autonomy: that of each colour from every other colour, that of colour from the dictates of colour theory and that of colour from the register of representation.”

For the last 50 years we’ve used that color chart. We customize with it, we apply it, we decorate with it. But it remains a tool strictly of Postmodern practice. Our question is can we not find a different use for this color chart? Can we not make it personal, more lived?

When I’m in the studio there is always the thought and experience of color as one and the same, that color and object can not be separated, that one draws meaning from the other and both together present a totality of visual experience. This allows a certain emotional content, a certain visual involvement in color that I don’t feel in the saturated flat hues of the Postmodern chromophobe. For them color is an application, a cosmetic, and a way to gain attention. In this sense they face the dilemma that both Michele and Jackson faced – the dilemma of the decorative. The difference in artists today is that they believe this dilemma is resolved, passe, that color is without meaning – that color is just color. But for many of us we want more connection, more specificity – we want color, light and space to mean something on the canvas just as it does on our lover’s flesh.

We are not suggesting a return to the Salon, the Academy or to Modernism, but we are saying that we should be looking deeper at our involvement, our visual, emotional involvement in the consumerist color that is so readily accepted, expected and unquesitoned. We want color to become our own, we want it to live through us instead of through the institutions, academies and the media that create those color charts. We want a more fleshy, visual reality of color, light and space. Again this doesn’t mean we should paint like the old Masters, create color light and space like them. Conversely, it is time to confront the Postmodern Provisional Painters as they continue to slice the meaning of color, light and space into smaller and smaller bits and bytes. Can we not learn from both while we step forward, while we create something new, while we find a different way to create meaning?

Color will continue…

Color: Chromophobia

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Shakespeare Sonnet 25

Christopher Wool has become one of my favorite Postmodern painters. I can not contain my exuberance when I encounter his paintings because he, or rather his work, is the Devil. That’s right, you read that correctly. He has pared his optical world down to the absolute basics of paint, and he has taken all of us with him straight down into the pit of abstract despair. Color has nothing to impart to us in this work – we are all chromophobes. Monochromes (black and white usually,) “brush strokes” (printed, sprayed and brushed,) texture (removing paint with astringent chemicals,) reproduction (in the usual media ways,) and surface, surface and more surface. It is Postmodern abstraction par excellence – media generated with handmade customizations. To use a Stella-ism what you see is what you see. What I see in nearly every optical instant I spend with his work is pure concentrated evil – in the Time Bandits sense (Mum! Dad! It’s evil! Don’t touch it! Bang!) One has to respect such venality, acknowledge and celebrate its accomplishments, and as an abstractionist, respect what this work does on the wall. It is wicked smart, optically vexing and theoretically sound. But even with its contextual heaviness and professional flourishes, it remains what it is, and that is not visually engaging. Once you’ve seen it, well, you’ve seen it. Ok this is all a bit OTT, but what the hell, I’m allowed.

Before we go further I’d like to clarify, once again, the difference between optical or visual interaction. Many of you are confused by my distinctions of these two very different ways of experiencing art. Basically this involves how we see and how we understand what we see. I believe McLuhan’s distinctions are best for this. “Some media, like the movies, were “hot” – that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with “cool” TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be “hot”, intensifying one single sense “high definition” demanding a viewer’s attention, and a comic book to be “cool” and “low definition”, requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value.”

Visual is Hot, Optical is Cool. Modernism is Hot, Postmodernism is Cool. Painting is Hot, Reproduction is Cool.

Chemical TuneNow we’ve talked at length about Mr. Wool’s paintings in another post and I mention it here once again because this is an example of the Postmodern endgame that must be won. It’s not just the idea of the “reproduction” of painting, but the entire Postmodern painting enterprise that remains in stasis. To this end I’ve added a repro-link that will make a lot of contemporary artists’ heads spin – especially as I talk about color. But you’ll have to just weather this storm with me. To begin I will state the obvious – without Matisse this work by Mary Heilmann would not be possible. Why? Because this comes post (after) Modernism – after color theory and after visual involvement. This is high Mannerist colorfield abstraction.  In Ken Johnson’s review of her recent NuMu Retro he lays out the POMO doctrine in no uncertain terms – actually writing the words we know to be true:

“Her palette extends to tarry black, but mainly it goes to bright colors from the 1960s and ’70s: fruity stains; carrot and avocado hues; swimming pool blues; psychedelic Day-Glos; and minty whites…the exhibition has a wonderfully airy, optically elating effect…Ms. Heilmann is a Postmodernist scavenger…she takes 20th-century art history as her personal toy box. A kind of painterly Pop artist, she gives vibrant new life to standard forms of 20th-century visual culture….” (italics are mine.)

In her work we can also see other references to 20th century practice – the manicured tossed-off scrub, the elemental scratchy line and the smeary slosh of wet into wet. But what we shall look at is the Color, Light & Space in this painting and how it works. (We’ve chosen yet another acidy green, on purpose, to reference it to our previous posts.) The ground lays across the surface of the painting – scrubbed into existence. It is those scrub marks that play with the value in that ground combining Modernist materiality and physicality in order to create shading and toning. This is a direct process rather than indirect color valuation – it shows the artist’s hand rather than a choice of value. Down the right side is a bar ( a menu bar?) of color, a kind of coded chart of secondary and tertiary colors, mostly deep in value or hue. These colors are used to create the points of reference within the field. The undulating ground threatens to swallow up the color dots (reference points) pulled from the chart. They are “nestled” within the field, staining it. Across the entire composition is the unfinished schematic line – the “un-built” structure. Here the architecture of measurement is broken by the field of brightly hued color. We keep looking to the color-coded points of reference which point back to the reference bar – they refer to the referrer – A to B and back again. One can not connect the plan to the references – the lines lead nowhere, the points are not defined by either the meaning of the color, nor the color chart. To put the meaning of this composition in the terms of another POMO artist of the same period we must “Stop Making Sense” in order to discover where and how we exist.

The painting is entitled “Chemical Tune” relating the image to both a scientific schematic and to music – in Kandinsky’s theoretics, something that abstraction should to aspire to. We are in the non-physical world of color, the Northern School of heady involvement achieved through conceptual practice, and the Postmodern world of open ended interpretation and contextual referencing – we are cool. But this use of color is full of a kind of chromophobia – the fear that ties meaning to color, that relates color to actual experience and takes color out of the decorative. This color identification exemplified in Heilmann’s work is yet another light entertainment. It is color done specifically for the chromophobe. Color like this works like something we are accustomed to, something we have seen in Bougereau and Yuskavage and nearly every contemporary Mannerist that puts paint to surface. Color as concept keeps the world of emotional visual entanglements at bay. Color, when applied like this, skirts the issue that Modernism raised, that Postmodernism ignored, and that we inherit. Can color become “hot” and physical in a “cool” and conceptual culture? This refusal to find real physical meaning in color is the hoary test we Postmoderns refuse to take. It requires a more in-depth commitment to visual interaction, one many of us are not willing to take. We are used to contextualizing art works as if they should have no inherent visual logic or personal experience. We discount the fact that we must step outside of ourselves in order to expand what we know, to discover a deeper, thicker color. Postmodern artists continue to remain mute about personal ideas, visions and experiences even as they ground us with their fields of hue. They paint without personality, without conviction, without specificity. What I’m suggesting is that these artists takes no personal visual stance about life, art history or theoretics, but instead they rely on appropriation, pandering and flattery. Sure those colors might put someone’s teeth on edge, but the abstract imagery is all about one’s interpretation and one’s taste, and in these kinds of abstractions color, form & structure remain separate and distanced. Postmodern painting in this sense is an art that makes everyone an “artist” and every chromophobe a color coordinator.

Death of Sardanapalus

Above is hot visual interaction painted by Delacroix. I believe this sort of picture scares the living daylights out of most artists today. Why? This is risky painting and color at its best. This won’t sit on a living room wall and add to the surroundings. It isn’t a conversation piece because one goes mute in front of it. This picture spills out into our space, makes its color and light our color and light. It demands more of us visually and doesn’t pander to our surroundings, our 21st Century appropriations or our endless refusal to become involved in what we see. We have to come to it, we have to attempt to see in the artist’s private visual language, it is insistent. Our Postmodern contextual world can find no context for this painting. It doesn’t work for us – there’s too much information, too much color at stake. We take it in slices – this grouping here or that grouping there. We look for the making of it rather than the experience of it. It’s as if Delacroix, acting the wild man, has said or done something unforgivably rude at our POMO dinner party – and wouldn’t it be better for the rest of us if he just left already (for chrissake Margaret – why’d you invite HIM?) But look at the wild composition of color. Every action is unified with that red and scarlet, the flesh is ignited in that heated light. The shadows fall into the deep blue-browns and burnished green-browns. That red is everywhere, theatrical, superconductive, OTT in both symbolism and thickness, and it bristles throughout the work. This isn’t just the erotic imagination of a 19th century dandy, this is visual acuity poured through the history of great painting. The warm light, white gold, cascades across the painting and every tortured movement, every twist and turn, every scene and treasure is illuminated and super heated – jumping out at us like water on a hot griddle. For our cool sensibilities this is just too much visual information, too much involvement. Is it any wonder that Delacroix inspired the color of the Impressionists? If you look you can see once again the spaces of Tintoretto’s Venetian hospital and Caravaggio’s mourning room – only here that color has exploded and the world has become a place of pure moving light, hue and deep contrasting values. There is no chromophobia here, no fear of color’s meaning, only the visual involvement in what color can accomplish when our eyes find “lived” painting experience. Rather than an optical game of chance or a contrived contextual extended field, Delacroix paints for our eyes in a way that made Duchamp clamp tight (“Painting is washed up.”) and Picasso shake his head in despair (“That Bastard.”) It is the difference between a chromophobe and a chromophile.

Color will continue…

The Shock of the New New

Damien Hirst wants to paint like it’s 1952. And he wants these paintings to have a ready-made auction impact, one that will make them classically collectible and bid-worthy. The problem is these paintings are instantly forgettable as paintings – momento mori lite. However, what is interesting in the media blitz surrounding the unveiling of this work is the media blitz itself.  Hirst has been publicizing for months that he has cleared out the studios and has been experiencing an existential communion with real work. We have had teaser images and articles planted in all the art world feeders. In a very clever move he has arranged to show them at the Wallace collection – an historic old trove of certified masterworks – in order to add historical heft and gravitas to his work. They are framed in the museum manner, with glass (like Francis Bacon) and installed on appropriate silk wall coverings. The entire presentation is designed as an extended field, a performance that channels the idea of a “great painter” with Hirst donning that Avatar.

There’s a lot of quotable material here:

“Hirst has personally funded a £250,000 refurbishment of the galleries – which have a blue silk background and gilded ceilings – to display his new work, so that the exhibition will be free to visitors.”

“Art’s all about making a comment about the world. I think today you can’t have the same impact that those guys had … there’s too much going on. We live in such a crazy world now that a mere painting on that level doesn’t really work.”

“…you get a bit bored’ of modern art galleries.”

But the killer promo for me is this one:
“These weren’t massive projects put together by the artist’s team of assistants but created alone with a brush and a palette by the 44-year-old father of three.”

This works on three levels –
1. The artist’s hand is involved – HE made the work in humility and out of a need to truly express himself.
2. This is the mark of genius – like Michelangelo on his ceiling, Bacon in his den or Rembrandt struggling in the mirror.
3. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things – he is married with 3 kids and he still accomplished all this in his 44th year. Amazing.

But to know what is really going on in the mind of Damien Hirst is to look at his deliberate choice of ironic t-shirt worn beneath the designer sport jacket. It says “The Shock of the New.” Now is Hirst heralding this work as new, the idea of the act of painting as new, the presentation as new, the money involved in presenting the project as new, or is it a way to appropriate Hughes’ critical heft – to assert his right to be part of  the contemporary artists’ pantheon in that cultural classic? I guess all of that may be inherently shocking to some, but it seems a bit like yet another branding campaign to me. I truly do enjoy a bit of flagrant media manipulation….

UPDATE: I just ran across this video and article that stirs the mix even more!  The vid is a hoot hosted by a very stiff presenter who would look right at home floating in one of Hirst’s blue vitrines. All the talking points are there making any real criticism totally superfluous. Brilliant!

Color: Modernism


We are a million miles from Tintoretto’s hospital. In fact we’ve stripped off and we’re stomping through a glade of flat secondary colors and collapsing space. Don’t be confused – Matisse’s secondaries and tertiaries are not the same as those in Yuskavage’s glade of optical indifference. What’s at stake here is something tremendous. Matisse was fighting for the life of his painting. We are watching him tear away centuries of stagnating space and grappling with the imperious lens machinery that was choking the life out of painters’ imaginations. All this in order to find emotion in the color and form in the flatness. It was no easy task for a Northerner in the Southern climes. That acidy green and the slick turquoise are nearly the same value collapsing the space between the land and the lake. The flattened world behind those meaty figures, sketched out by the pale pinks, warming oranges and heated reds, pushes them into our vision, raising them in our consciousness. Later we would come to know this sort of effect as the “push pull” theory of color – how the vibrancy of a hue can create an illusion of space and/or feeling when laid next to another color.

So what happened to Tintoretto’s original space, light and color. In his own time it was overwhelmed by Mannerism. What followed in the ensuing decades were short periods of reform and innovation like Caravaggio’s space and light, but by and large, painting tended to the reclamation of older forgotten styles (the 40 year rule?) and endless stilted permutations of comfortable ideas within the academy – Neo-Classicism being the prevalent form brought back time and time again – much like the chinos and jeans at your local GAP store. By the mid 19th Century painting had become so institutionalized that a few new painters taking cues from the more risky master painters of the preceding generation began to question what a painting should look like. I won’t bore you with the histories, many of you know these things. The rebellion started with the Impressionists as they reacted against the traditional verisimilitude, stilted color and empty light taught by the academy. They needed to discover a new way to use color, light and space. In their work these discontented artists were reacting to the speeding up of their society through it’s extensions – trains, gas, lights, communications, electricity and the proliferation of Daguerre’s new process of fixing lens based images. Impressionism began to deconstruct the stale and cramped studio light and space of the Salon in favor of a more expansive landscape light and space. These painters also began to explore and present the processes of mark making in a new exacting way. Most importantly they began to present themselves, their visions, as a part of the life of their times. They worked in the fields and streets like the citizenry. They translated the world around them into quick strokes and dabs that mimicked the quickening gaze of civilization as life gained a new velocity, a new touch and a new vision.

On your left is is a very cool customer from 1879 – about the same time that Monet painted his dead wife and an ignored Cezanne trudged through the French country side. Considering the “hot” subject matter this image is very “cool” indeed. Which is probably part of the point. Every color in this painting is valued with blue and formed by a crisp even white light. The blacks and browns, the shadows are all cooled with blues and greens. All the values move to the light and the pale. This beautiful woman is not the warm and vivacious Southern Venus formed in Titian’s Venetian light. No, this is the Venus of the lens and the studio of the mid 19th Century, cold, distant, obtuse, and yet filling us with a strange desire to look but never touch. This is the color, light and space of the Northern School. It is a spiritual, crisp, distinct, nonphysical world of optical conceptualism rather than visual experience. In our last post on color we discussed Lisa Yuskavage’s Postmodern Venus in the Grass (that’s not the title, but I like it.) This is her ancestor.

When following a painter’s intention look to the light. There isn’t any one source, except for the main figure’s pure clarity  – the light comes from everywhere and nowhere. Sex is a matter of gender and allegory. (And unlike Yuskavage’s hirsute Venus, this one’s been to Brazil.) She is a neo-classical statue, tarted up with a bit of Pre-Raphaelite insouciance, formed in pale tones and cold as the marble from where she was appropriated. She harkens back to ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the very crispy Boticelli.

Part of the fun of this painting is the replication. Venus, according to Bouguereau’s mirror and lens, is busy making out with every swarthy sea creature around while maintaining her chastity. In the back she’s got her hair tied up while she’s tied up in the arms of the manly bearded sea satyr – her shapely pale backside turned our way (Cubism before Picasso.) There she is again (twice) sandwiching a very tanned and happy satyr who is blowing his own horn, loudly, partly because he’s the insignificant part of a manage a trois, and partly because he’s obviously a braggart. A couple of Cupids ride a “sea horse” and I’ll let you come to your own allusion for that one. All of the characters pay heed to – well who else? – the chaste Venus (dead-center,) who is either stretching after a slumber or she’s trying to channel Madonna’s 1980’s pit fetish video. In the icy clouds above we have the fecund promise that seems to follow every Venus, and because she’s not just a goddess but the goddess, that promise amounts to an entire kindergarten class (what a woman!) As ridiculous as this mise en abyme may seem the color and space of the painting have been designed to engage our more refined thoughts. It is a high concept allegory of love embodied in a popular and trite image of beauty. This ice princess is beyond emotional entanglements – she remains nothing more than a machine for desire – she is an idea, a concept. And like any good conceptual image that relies on contextual meaning, the entire painting is composed for our endless entertainment rather than for our physical involvement. Desire over passion.

The avant garde were trying to find something more “real” in paint. They thought that this sort of work was absolutely ridiculous. There was nothing real, nothing experienced here. There are no frayed edges, no heft or weight. The avant garde were left unsatisfied by an encounter with this sort of work and demanded a new form of expression. Artists were experimenting with different ideas about color, form and technique in order to find deeper expressions. By the time Matisse came to his breaking point Post-Impressionism was the thing to build on and to react against. In addition he had that rare gift of understanding his own temperament, and he began his work with the idea that his emotion, the feeling that he experienced when looking at the world should lead to a reality through color and value.

In Matisse’s painting above nothing is expected and yet everything is deliberate. The flatness, the design, the color, the value and even the mark making are there to push your ideas of how color can work and provide a new foundation for expression and painterly touch. For instance the brush work in the green areas creates value and tension in the materiality of the color – those  grounds flow and surround the figures rather than open and recede. They flatten right against the picture plane. In this world everything is at stake, everything is foregrounded. The blue overlays the green, translucent in parts, creating a smart play between the secondary and tertiary hues, flattened values and the materiality of the workmanship. Finally the starkness of the figures is made more so by the fact that they emerge in slabs against and in spite of the flat ground. The menace is palpable in the space between the figures and in the way the figures have been painted. The Satyr is heated and the Venus has been cooled – except for the hard reds and pinks delineating her sex and the source of his desire. There is no promise of a fecund communion in this painting only the reality of an acidy green world that opens itself to this sort of drama. Passion over desire.

Today our color, light and space has little of either the cool allegory or the heated emotion. We have a media color – it is intense and high keyed in value. It isn’t designed for contemplation, but it’s designed for maximum optical impact. Above is the trailer for Speed Racer a movie that I recently caught on one of the subscription cable channels. I wasn’t expecting much – a bit of nostalgia from my childhood, but I was immediately taken with the stunning use of color. In fact the movie is nothing but color. Part of this has to do with the fact that the imagery is fast. In fact it’s so fast that the only way to register the imagery is through the color and the light. There isn’t a subtle use of value like in Matisse’s color or an all over value like in Bouguereau’s work or even a direct value like that used in Caravaggio’s work. No, this is a world of color stripped of visual value and intensified into a kind of overall kinetic optical velocity. Yes, I realize that the movie is called Speed Racer and what the fuck was I thinking, but the Wachowski Brothers, the same of Matrix fame, have taken color to a new and different level of intensity. First, they simplify the thematic color schemes. Speed and his family remain in the primaries – red, blue and yellow, along with white and black. For the rest of the world, particularly the evil doers, life is a melange of secondary and tertiary colors highly keyed and deeply valued against black grounds and sheets of intense, optical hue. Light is everywhere in the movie but it isn’t reflected light like we see in the real world, it is the light of projection – light that emanates from flat screens and electronic billboards. This is a kind of hyper-color that is the real first character in the movie. Nothing in these kind of hues achieves the optical stasis that we saw in Yuskavage’s Venus. But there is a menace in the color like Matisse’s Satyr. Color is both fearful and exhilarating in this world. This is the kind of color we are coming to expect from our culture. It is so unreal that it remains beyond our actual reach in the physical Postmodern world. POMO painters in an attempt to confront this type of hue have relied exclusively on the static optical mind games like we see in Bouguereau, or for an example of a more contemporary painter, Eric Fischl. What they miss is the eye. They rely on the lens to translate the color, light and space when in actuality it should be the emotional impact of the color that comes through. This is the difference between mind and body, desire and passion. This is the lesson of Matisse, that we can feel this hyper-color and find new ways to experience what it can do for our painting.

Color will continue…

Color: 16th Century


Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

Shakespeare Sonnet 76

This is Venetian Mannerism. For painters Michelangelo had changed the game, Titian had livened the color, and oil painting, so disparaged by Michele and loved by the Venetians, was ramping up into something truly exciting. Tintoretto understood what was at stake when he formulated his attack – the drawing  of Michelangelo, the color and drama of Venice. When I first saw this painting in Chiesa di San Rocco I was struck by its visual innovations. Tintoretto basically has composed a wide screen Technicolor drama. He laid out various vignettes across and within the larger composition. Maybe Tintoretto actually experienced sights like this in the 1540s of Venice. Plagues came and ravaged the population over and over. There were “hospitals” all across the city that acted as little more than cemetary anterooms for the sick and dying. San Rocco was built to provide a refuge for those who contracted these plagues. But in truth there were no cures. If you wound up here your number was up and divine intervention was your last and only hope. For Tintoretto this painting is about death, life and redemption, and if we take it further, it is about the saving grace of painting itself.

To discover that redemption we’ll look at some of the fundamentals of this painting – how it’s made. On the left is a row of Figures, almost like statues, coming to life in the light that follows Rocco. He has passed by those figures already, and they are stirring, revealing the signs of their illnesses as they heal in the light. The woman in red and blue holds a bandage that won’t be used, the man on the bed has gotten to his feet, the blonde woman looks incredulously at Rocco as the man at her feet rolls on to his supporting arm. In the center a man raises his left leg to be healed in the light that flashes over him. Further right, those who are sick and dying, are lifted to see what is happening. What is wonderful is the use of chiaroscuro in the work – how the light is powerful, direct, a major character in this visual story. Tintoretto chooses what to illuminate and what to form – what exactly to heal with his color and value. Visually it feels real, and yet, it isn’t – nothing  really follows. Shadows don’t necessarily fall where they should, ambiguities of scale are in and out, and Tintoretto is intent on staying close to the basics, the primaries – red, blue and yellow. This is a hard realism based on earthy color, divine light and ambiguous space; warped and shaped to create a first person visual dialog about redemption.

For the Venetians color is molded and realized by value. Together they form the action, create the rising subject. In this hospital we are pressed against the “fourth wall” looking up into the room. The light is pouring in from above on our right – a window? Rich blacks and browns warmed by reds push the illuminated subjects forward. The light here is not cool, not clear or crisp. There is a heat in it and it sinks into the things it reveals. That heat tempers our connection with touch forging a hard visual reality within the scene. We feel the unwashed bed sheets, the weight of damp clothing and bandages, and the clear air that follows the light into the heavy room. We POMOs are used to the lite versions of this kind of painting. We keep looking for the irony in the color and light, but it’s not there. There is nothing outside of the painting, not even us. The only way out of this room is through that light.

As another example of this kind of value and hue think of that rich, thick red that Caravaggio would use in his dark paintings. How the heat in his light would ignite his reds – an incendiary light. Look at that fully evolved red of the drape overhead: it’s heavy, stiff and unwieldy. It pulls our vision across and down, but more than that, the red drape moves us, linking the space above to the figures below, crashing us into the sea of mourners, a blood red wave. Look how he’s painted it – the direct light forms the folds, the reflected light catches the underside and the dark blacks push us into the thickness of the material. We hold that curtain with our eyes, our fingertips itching at the sight of the fabric.

The virgin below is illuminated, but there is no shadow cast on her torso by the crying man standing over her. The light is slightly off. He falls into darkness as she rises into view. Again the light, the volume, and the space are heated and formed with primaries and valued with the warmed blacks and browns. Even the secondary green forming the standing man behind the virgin and the orange of the mourning woman are warmed with those darker values. These are the same tricks that Tintoretto had formulated in Venice, but with Caravaggio we move in much closer, tightening the visual touch, making it more personal. You’re not against Tintoretto’s wall any longer – you’re in the scene, a part of it, straight away.

This is the power of the emotional color of the Southern School. By forming the hues with warm values painting creates a visual physical involvement, an empathic connection to the rising subject. This visual contact with color is a foreign experience to us. How one “sees” touch and experiences that in paint can be a troubling thing, because most often we tend to get it wrong. When we want to appear serious about color we fall back on DeKooning’s witticism about oil paint and flesh and hope that gets it right. Or we rely totally on the lens to compose and transform our realities. But to paint emotion requires us to do more than rely on the material qualities of paint or the precision of the lens machine. Painters have to understand what’s at stake visually. We must rely on our physical memory, on our own touch. Caravaggio was able to create a feeling for the physical vulnerability of what he painted, and he was able to impart that visual connection to us. In many of his paintings he concentrates on the necklines of his subjects. Look at the neck and upper back of the woman collapsed into her own lap, and then, look at the neck of the Virgin. Both are painted in such a tender way that you feel the sway and roundness, vulnerability and softness of that flesh. The values in those painted colors create visual cues within us. How Caravaggio valued those colors makes those visions real.

Can our Postmodern painting do this? It’s difficult because we use hue and value in a different way. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Modernism took color out of the mix – released it from visual experience in favor of optical inference. In Postmodern painting one doesn’t feel color through one’s eyes, one recognizes its context. For example, in Lisa Yuskavage’s painting the color is heightened, it is a kind of color that we don’t see in life, not reflected in the things around us. Intead these are hyperactivated colors of projected light flashing from our flat screens and printed on our consumer products. For instance the secondary and tertiary colors are lit up from within, cool and impersonal. They are the light source in this painting. But unlike the “warm” light in Venice this light doesn’t play across the figure, it doesn’t illuminate or color the flesh. Instead it eminates like a neon sign and forms a context for the sex of the figure. Yuskavage has also wrapped the figure’s legs in the yellow-green of the grass and the yellow-orange of the pubic hair. The context for the color is self referential – the light bursting through the grass doubles for the sex revealed in her bush – so to speak. In the background is the green shadow of a fecund promise, a darkly valued rug rat. These colored allusions comment on optical desire and the distance that must be maintained to hold that desire. It is the difference between looking and touching.

The patterning of the composition is complete, and like a Josef Albers painting, we move from color band to color band. It is a witty play of image, slang and hue, light and value all of which are designed to play with the recent history of painting, photography, pop culture and pornography. Yuskavage is not interested in any emotional involvement in what we’re seeing. It is about the program, about hyperactivating our common understanding of “contemporary culture” and reclaiming a feminist critique by appropriating  post-feminist imagery. She is sending us up by hyping us up with color while enervating her composition with “casual” sex. It’s done with the same kind of sign language we experience almost daily in magazine illustrations or advertising campaigns –  a combination of Rockwell, Hefner, Albers, Saatchi & Saatchi and Foucault.

Irony plays strongly today in every aspect of painting. Even those painters who claim they are not being ironic use the tools of irony to make their works. In truth nearly every method and practice of painting has been compromised. The paint strokes, the drips, the imagery, the replication, the reproduction, the so-called “reality” of the photograph – Christ the list goes on and on. We painters find that we must practice through these last 40 years with every action we take because we refuse to reformulate our practices, we refuse to rebel. That sort of pressure in our studios has created the Provisional Painting that we see nearly everywhere we go these days. This is the reason that we no longer understand what’s going on in Tintoretto’s Room. We don’t think that color, light or space can be personal or real. Hue is simply done for us, outside of us – “always already” for our use. The painter David Reed often talked of artists developing a personal color, a color connected to things and honed by value and tone. But that idea of color is now programmed by the rhetoric of commerce and the institutions that create that commerce. Colors and Values in our media world are now called Tints and Shades. It’s nothing personal…

In Tintoretto’s healing hospital or Caravaggio’s mourning room color and value have a stake in our physical experience – we are complicit in those visions. In the ironic world we replicate the references and contexts of the reproduction – we comment rather than create. The action is always outside of the picture and that keeps us entertained rather than involved. As Postmoderns we prefer to frolic in Yuskavage’s glade of optical calculation because it assures us that we are the center of its attention, that the image is all about us. For the POMO painter nothing should be personal, nothing should be at stake and EVERYTHING is open for business – the business of culture, the business of rhetoric and the business of art. We keep expecting that our ironic histories will reveal something deeper about who we are. We keep plying the same theoretical practices in bigger and brighter upgraded packaging substituting optical slickness for visual heft. There is no longer any irony in our irony – so we believe we must actually be sincere. We can imagine ourselves staring at the middle distances between the green and the gold, between the secondary colors of commerce, and we believe that our eyes will open to some unsettling pinkish truth – that this surface of things may actually be our visual salvation, our L’Origine du monde. Yet we only have to look to the color, space and light of Tintoretto or Caravaggio to know something is amiss with our reasoning – that we haven’t considered all the possibilities.

Color will continue…

Willful Optimism

Right now there are a number of art publicists trying to cheerlead the art world out of the current market collapse. Jerry Saltz is the number one cheerleader asking us why we aren’t enjoying ourselves while he’s having so much fun.

“All of this is to say that the demise of the art world has been greatly exaggerated, including by me. It’s as if a bunch of spotlights went out when the market crashed last October, and now, as they flicker back on, we’re able to see new green shoots busting out of the establishment’s cracks. The plug was pulled, but life went on—invigorating life. There might not be a new movement, per se, but there are radically adjusted mind-sets. Fear of form, color, and physicality are diminishing. Previously forbidden methodologies are reemerging: pours, patterns, laminations, complex (even mystical) counting systems, obsessive mark-making and surface manipulation, suggestions of still life, digital motifs, even trompe l’oeil. Artists are—hallelujah!—finally tiring of recycling Warhol and Richter and are instead investigating the handmade, and how irony and sincerity can coexist.”

The problem remains with Jerry’s list of methodologies because these turn out to be nothing but a run down of academic Postmodern studio practices. These are the kinds of things that formed his critique and his aesthetic in the first place. Yes, WE ARE TIRED of Warhol and Richter. Some of us are also tired of Nauman, the 70s, the 80s, Jeff Koons, network television, anything with an “i” in front of it, hipster vampires and legions of other alt-culture, post punk experiences. It’s like we have to remember to forget, or maybe, forget to remember in order to play along. Crickey, most of us barely remember the Bush presidency – let alone the 1990s (sadly this is not because of sex, drugs and rock & roll, but because our brains disconnected in front of our flatscreens) Our Posthistorical memory synapses overload if taxed to produce a real memory of anything that happened even 5 years ago. And  you can forget all about Dave Hickey’s recent invocation of Rauschenberg’s 40 year rule.  Oops, we probably already did… As for the coexistence of irony and sincerity – I saw a guy at the gym the other day bench pressing 250 pounds while wearing a Care Bears t-shirt. Dropping a puddle in the middle of unprimed Belgian linen can hardly compete.

(What is interesting in the above quote is this sentence – “Fear of form, color, and physicality are diminishing.” And we here at Henri have been leading this charge for a while now. We have no fear of form, we definitely use color and we are mad for physicality. Check our recent Rough Trade posts if you’re so inclined.)

Also there has been a heated discussion by the pundits (oh irony – this bit too is punditry!) of the New Museum’s upcoming collaboration with the mega-collector Dakis Joannou. Jeff Koons will curate the exhibition for his benefactor and collector. Many of us are still amazed that the New Museum has now openly declared that it is open for business in such a bald faced way. But really, what did we expect? That new building and expansive staff required a lot of mortgage backed securities and private investment funds. Someone’s got to get paid and admissions and memberships can’t raise anywhere near that sort of TARP fund capital.  Just go to the source and drink deep the cool clear waters of  the HCP – Huge Capital Patronage. And if the museum has to whip up a bit of froth for its venti lotta money – who cares? It’s a win-win for institutional corporate art. Just remember to wear your ironic t-shirt.

Finally, I wanted to comment that I’ve come across a lot of dissatisfaction on the web and in print with the current Postmodern world. I believe this is a fantastic development for advancing beyond the academic universe we find ourselves in, but I must say that we have to guard against the reactionary. What we need are new ideas. Now these new ideas may have the flavor of older ones, but they MUST be formed for this new time. They must also UNDERSTAND  the recent history that developed our current situation. And dare I say it – they must break with Modernism altogether – both the original versions and the post ones as well. Nay-saying  and positing worn out thought or dustbin concepts won’t bring us anywhere. We can not just customize or re-do – we must innovate. The 40 year rule is not enough – we’ve been redoing the last 40 years for the last 30 of them.  We’ve just made them bigger and more expensive. That’s not innovation, that’s commerce. Art must become Art once again – even if it’s for an extremely small number of very sharp individuals willing to risk their “careers.”  The rest will have to catch up.