Criticism
Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Developing an Eye for Color: Albers, Judd and Oursler


Developing an Eye for Color: Albers, Judd and Oursler
Josef Albers/Donald Judd: Form and Color
Pace Wildenstein Gallery
32 E. 57 Street, 2nd floor
New York City

January 26 — February 24, 2007

Tony Oursler
Lehmann Maupin
540 West 26th Street
New York City

February 17 — March 24, 2007

from left to right: Donald JuddUntitled, 1985, enamel on aluminum, 11-3/4 x 59 x 11-3/4 inches; Josef AlbersHomage to the Square: Arrival 1963, oil on masonite, 40 x 40 inches; Josef Albers Variation on Homage to the Square 1961, oil on aluminum. 20 x 20 inches Photo by Ellen Labenski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

Developing an eye for color as it is inextricably tied to form is a dominant theme in exhibitions at Pace Wildenstein and Lehmann Maupin. Although on the face of it, the Pace exhibition with its exquisite pairing of Josef Albers and Donald Judd would appear to be on a different planet from Oursler’s moaning, colored aluminum splatters, we propose that the interplay between color and form in the Pace exhibition can be understood at a deeper level if we consider aspects of Oursler’s project. But, first things first.

Pace Wildenstein’s Albers/Judd: Form and Color might just be the most ravishingly beautiful exhibition that the art scene has provided in many years. The show uses color as its organizing principle, e.g., a red and blue Albers hangs next to a red Judd and a blue Judd. Each of Albers’ works, painted with oil on masonite is juxtaposed with one of Judd’s objects made of brass, Douglas fir plywood, or anodized aluminum and plexiglass. The particular works selected not only sing in their own right but also take on a heightened aura when paired in this show. Given that these are at one level dry, highly intellectually designed creations, the chromatic effects they achieve are both a tribute to the works themselves and to the combinations, be they between Albers variants or homages to the square and Judd’s boxes (floor pieces and wall pieces) or his last series of carefully orchestrated colored metal rectangles, grid-like forms that are structurally closest to Albers’ variants. As pairings, they exemplify Smithson’s apt description of Judd’s achievement—“uncanny materiality”. Indeed, some of the combinations are so strong that one experiences a “meta-work”— a kind of hypothetical Albers-Judd collaboration. A particularly interesting example of this phenomenon is the wall with three Albers paintings (a variant and two homages to the square) and a late Judd metallic wall piece with 8 interlocking rectangular units—all in combinations of yellows and browns. In such instances, the installation itself creates a new work of art. The people who designed these groupings are the unsung heroes of this exhibition, a fact dramatically captured in the layout of the excellent catalogue that accompanies the show.

Another dividend of this exhibition is the viewer’s greater exposure to Albers’ variants that are often treated as less well-developed demonstrations of his context effects compared to his homages to the square. The variants are particularly interesting because not only are they splendid chromatically, but because they reveal a more complex geometry. They are more architectural, with some works being titled, Study for an Adobe (1949) or Adobe Yellow Front (1959). This is not to say that at times the homages do not give us a sublime color experience as in the pair consisting of Albers painting with 3 reds (Homage to the Square: Soft Sign, 1957) and Judd’s Menziken box of clear and black anodized aluminum with transparent blue over red plexiglass (Untitled, 1991). The room to the left as you enter the gallery is both conceptually compelling and a visual knockout with four works in browns, cordovan, and black—an homage and a variant by Albers and Judd’s series of six Cor-ten steel rectangles with black plexiglass arranged vertically, facing a large wooden floor piece. We do, however, offer one caveat. At times, the pairings can move from “uncanny” to “canny materiality” as they border on the decorative, providing the balm for the eyes of a tired businessman that Matisse alluded to but never really painted (best illustrated by Albers’ 1947 Variant: 4 Grays and 2 Violets and Judd’s Untitled 1977 stainless steel box with purple plexiglass). Thus, an interesting challenge for the viewer is recognizing when this happens and why. Is it purely a function of the colors used or is there more going on?

aluminum, acrylic, LCD screen, DVD player, 92 x 42 inches Courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Being decorative is less a problem with Oursler’s monochromatic splatters—their dynamic grotesqueness usually protects them, albeit even with Oursler there is one purple piece that perhaps borders on being too pretty chromatically. More interestingly, we think there is a clue in Oursler’s work that provides us with a deeper insight into the nature of the relationship involved in the Albers-Judd pairings. This is a rather surprising state of affairs given that Oursler’s grotesque sculptures are hardly known for their imaginative use of color.

All four walls of Lehmann Maupin’s large center room contain one or two brightly colored laser-cut aluminum shapes that hover between painting and sculpture. Within each of the seven large amoeboid shapes is one or two rhyming orifice(s) containing a DVD player and an LCD screen whose images (and muffled sounds from three of the works) project outward from the wall completely filling the cut out space. The colors and shapes in the small video mimic those of the larger static background mother splat and allow for a dynamic interplay between the ever shifting content containing eyes, mouths, teeth, and fingers. What is so intriguing about this work is that we are observing a process of chromatic morphogenesis — eyes morph into mouths and teeth into fingers, all beautifully tinted in colors that both enhance and are enhanced by the context color of the encompassing splatter forms.

And what does this add up to if not “uncanny materiality”, uncanny beyond that which one could ever imagine in Albers or Judd? We suggest that the shape shifting in Oursler’s creative exhibition offers a new way to frame the Albers-Judd relationship. As discussed earlier, one reason why the Albers-Judd pairings are so visually effective is that, at times they seem to imply an emergent new work. Particularly in the case of the variants, we can experience the morphing of Albers’ paintings into Judd’s objects or we can see a Judd as having been lifted out of an Albers variant. Viewed this way, there is a higher-order isomorphism that ties together the two exhibitions — they both deal with chromatic morphogenesis — one organic in the case of Oursler where the morphing is almost stem-cell-like, the other a geometric-architectural transformation that carries a similar color relationship from two to three dimensions. Most importantly, what the Oursler works do is to make us go beyond experiencing color as form to experiencing color as becoming. This treatment of color as process, in turn, provides a higher-order invariant that cuts across both exhibitions. Viewed thusly, color is not merely contained by form; color becomes an active marker for changes in form be it a shift from eyes to mouth in Oursler or in the case of Judd and Albers, where color organizes space rather than merely filling it.


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