Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York City
212 708 9400
March 2–May 12, 2008
The elaborate group exhibition Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Todayinvestigates artworks in which color decisions have been made according to chance, through readymade sources, or by means of an arbitrary system developed by the artist. The exhibition, organized by Ann Temkin, revolves around the significant changes that occurred in the late 19th Century and found its wide acceptance half a century later, when color became a standardized, mass produced commodity – an item listed on a chart. An intelligent exhibition of international scope, Color Chart stresses that the effects of commercialized color on artists occurred simultaneously in the United States and Europe
This phenomenon, according to Temkin’s thesis, led a large group of artists, especially from the late 1950s onward, to approach color conceptually and to detach themselves from the emotional or even spiritual associations to which certain hues were traditionally bound. Their challenge was to use and employ color in its de-romanticized and de-mystified form. As Daniel Buren summed up his understanding of the matter in a recent symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, “Color is a pure thought.”
Andy Warhol’s “I want to be a machine” and Frank Stella’s “Straight out of the can; it can’t get better than that” express the spirit of the moment when color was accepted as a readymade. It was an approach that particularly contrasted the beliefs of the preceding generation of Abstract Expressionists, who viewed color as pure and transcendent emotion. This exhibition, which features works by forty-four artists in total, ranging from Ellsworth Kelly and Gerhard Richter to On Kawara and Damien Hirst, still focuses on color as experience, but in an aesthetic rather than emotional sense.
The exhibition opens with Marcel Duchamp’s last painting, Tu m’ (1918.) Now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, it was originally commissioned by Duchamp’s patron Katherine Dreier for her New York apartment. The title can be translated as You___me., leaving a blank for the verb that can be interpreted by the viewer. The painting juxtaposes images of Duchamp’s readymades, such as the Bicycle Wheel and Hat Rack with a sequence of color sample cards that was painted by Duchamp’s friend Yvonne Chastel. Decades before the discussion manifested in the art world, Tu m’ addressed the readymade nature of color. It is installed in close proximity to Rauschenberg’s Rebus (1955) which seems to pay direct homage to the Duchamp by having 117 cardboard paint samples line up horizontally in its center. But in Rauschenberg, there is more than the reference to the structural assessment of color. For the painted areas of this complex collage, Rauschenberg used paint from unlabeled surplus paint cans, which he was able to buy for a few cents a quart.
Another direction is the sequencing of color. Color Chart features three examples of André Cadere’s signature Barre de Bois Rond sculptures. The works of this Polish artist who died in Paris in 1978 while still in his thirties, are made up of rounded bars of wood that make up a stick. Cadere used to walk with these sticks throughout Paris and even carried one to the Congress of Conceptual Art in Brussels in 1973. While props for every day activities and in that sense performance pieces, Cadere’s works explore the notion of color sequencing. He limited his palette to eight colors – white, black, red, yellow, orange, purple, blue and green – and used a systemized variety of these for each work. However, he always deliberately included one mistake in the sequence, providing the works with a distinctly human touch.
The French artist François Morellet works with a sequencing structure as well. He was a member of “GRAV” (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel: 1960-1968), a group of Kinetic artists, who explored the possibilities of the visual arts in a scientific and experimental way. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Morellet began to approach the picture field as an infinite structure that could reach beyond the confines of the picture itself. More interested in the method than the finished painting, he based each work on principles and systems that he established in advance. The work exhibited here reveals its method in the title: Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory (1960). Working from left to right and from top to bottom, Morellet transcribed the random numbers of the phone directory, by noting each even digit in blue and each odd digit in red. From today’s point of view, the painting looks like a blown up, heavily pixellated detail of a larger digital image.
The idea of using code to derive an abstracted color image also describes Cory Arcangel’s Colors, 2006, a work inspired by Dennis Hopper’s film of the same title about Los Angeles street gangs. Arcangle wrote a program that plays the movie one horizontal line of pixels at the time. Each line is stretched to fill the screen, transforming the information into vertical color banners, hence veiling it in abstraction.
The neutralized recording of color provides another strain in this show. Ed Ruscha’s Stains (1969) is a portfolio of random droplets of every day liquids, ranging from blood and Los Angeles water to milk. In Synecdoche (1991-present) by Byron Kim each oil-and-wax panel was painted from life as a record of the sitter’s unique skin tone. Reflecting on his involvement with Josef Albers at Yale University in the early 1960s, Richard Serra documented his take of color on film. In Color Aid (1970-1971), Serra focuses on the 220 unique sheets that come in a box of Color-aid Paper and which were the key tool in Albers’ classes. We see Serra’s fingers placing and changing sheet by sheet, each accompanied with the amplified sound of a swipe that adds an overtly dramatic touch.
The show’s title, Color Chart is directly summoned by Gerhard Richter’s epic Ten Large Color Panels (1966-1971/72). Made of ten panels and measuring thirty-one feet in length, it is the largest of eighteen color chart paintings, which Richter began in 1966. As in his previous body of work based on found black and white photos, his color chart paintings employ color from random sources; from color charts found in paint and carpentry shops in Düsseldorf. While dogmatic in its conception, the work on display is one of the lushest explorations of color one finds in this exhibition and an exemplary study of nuance.
This show is full of rare surprises such as a group of paintings by John Chamberlain from the early sixties, painted with auto lacquer and named after pop music bands, to two of five existing Do It Yourself Paintings by Andy Warhol that were inspired by paint-by-number kits. As a concept-based show, Color Chart is highly informative. However, at the end it feels a bit cold, like a science project. Color in general, as well as the emotional and highly individual effects it has on us, is mysterious and personal, no matter how neutrally it is applied. Though the way color was derived in many of the artworks on display was either scientific or arbitrary, the works nevertheless reach the audience on an emotional level that lies beyond anyone’s control.
A curatorial theme as focused as this will always be a study rather than a survey. In fact, it will prompt many to look for the various obvious exclusions. It might have been more successful if it had focused on a narrower timeframe, such as the 1960s and 1970s when the commercialization of color was a radical phenomenon. Most of the works from the mid-1980s onward seem a far reach (with the exception of Damien Hirst’s color dot in part because a whole new set of technological achievements and discoveries have since infiltrated our lives.