Gerhard 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…