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…

2 thoughts on “Color: Chromophobia

  1. It’s also pure fantasy, you can not hold a horse like this and kill it like shown here, that is impossible.

    Actually I find the work quite ugly, brutal but not convincing. He convinces me more in the simpler works. Here in this work it is not far enough going with invention of blood and murder, but rather as a Salon painting, just a little bit brutal, but please not too much. It is very POMO in the intention to stay a salable piece. It is more theater than art and not as complex as a good Pollock, although I agree with a certain freedom of composition, but of good convincing invention are few. “I believe this sort of picture scares the living daylights out of most artists today.” – I think rather that work here scares nobody, because that craftsmanship and artistery here could be trained and learned, but does not make a need for most contemporary artists.

    I love this series !

    A nice work of handling color and night is here
    http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/student_orgs/arthurian_legend/hunt/bruegel.jpg

    Best regards, Hans

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