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…

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