“It’s All About Color”: Siri Berg at the Fiterman
Siri Berg: In Color at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center
November 17, 2016 to February 4, 2017
81 Barclay Street (at West Broadway)
New York, 212 220 8020
For over 50 years, Siri Berg has kept faith with abstract painting, creating a body of work of rigorous and lyrical beauty. The outlines of the oeuvre of this 95 year-old artist are traced in a retrospective of thirty-three paintings, drawings, and assemblages currently at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center.
Berg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, studied at the Institute of Art and Architecture at the University of Brussels, and has lived in the U.S. since 1940. The earliest work in the exhibition is Cycle of Life, a painting from 1967, with curvilinear forms that glow and morph in a swimming mass. It is distinctive among all the paintings for its sense of biomorphic animation. But it has qualities found throughout Berg’s work: form as an expressive, poetic medium, and color as a sensuous experience.
The circular forms of Cycle of Life recur in many of the works from the 1970s, including Progressions #3, with rows of circles that wax and wane like phases of the moon. This same sequence moves within the large painting Diptych (phase 22), with a similar palette of gray discs that become orange in five steps. In the smaller, intense La Ronde, figure and ground change from red-purple, brown, and red, to ochre, deep yellow, and lemon.
The sense of cosmic mysteries and the music of the spheres, found in many works from the 1970s, is most strongly present in the nocturnal Bottom Circle, in which a small dark disc partially eclipses a larger paler sphere, extracting from geometry a kind of mythic drama. This sense of the abstract at the service of an inner necessity is a living reality in Berg’s work, through a shifting series of modes and motifs, all inflected by both the lessons of the Bauhaus and the minimalism of the 1960s.
The title of the exhibition, Siri Berg: In Color, reflects the choice of curator Peter Hionas to focus on works in which color plays a significant role. There are whole series and decades of powerful paintings in black and white, represented by just a few examples, which can be seen in the small office gallery. But it is color that energizes this exhibition, with varying degrees of exuberance and restraint. Two large-scale paintings from 2011-13, both with the phrase “It’s all about color” in their titles, allow color to stand on its own, with progressions of pure hues. Individual canvases each have their own color, and Berg lays them out like keys of pure sensation, ready to be played. In these works, color becomes form, an object-like presence in our own space.
This approach – in which the optical takes on a sculptural reality – runs through Berg’s work. It can be found in many forms, including serial assemblages of found objects, such as the reflective CDs arrayed in rows in Sexy, from 2001-02. In the triptych Straight Line 1-3, an upper strip of colors tops fields of paint that move from flat to highly textured brush strokes as the tonality deepens.
Even when there is no explicit relief, abstract form takes on a kind of virtual physicality through the fineness of form and the force of color. Two paintings from 1996, Straight Lines and Bars, in their own way make the visual real. A progression of intense hues in blocks is flanked above and below by brown and gray rectangles that move in parallel. The effect is of a double-consciousness, negotiating two systems of perception simultaneously.
This notion of consciousness made visible is a subtle, persistent realization that comes with spending time with Berg’s work. She is a meticulous explorer, patiently entering into specific territories of formal relationships, finding a way there into the self. It may be easy to mistake her work for a kind of objectified abstraction, but the work is actually both more challenging and more giving than that would imply.
There are certain works that particularly demonstrate this paradox, including Phase of Grace, a large painting of two gray circles, one wholly and the other partially embedded in a field of blue, a simple arrangement of forms that is unaccountably touching. Stormy Weather is a diptych in nameless, depressive colors: the first panel is like an expanse of darkening sky, while the other, in the same hues with choppy brush strokes, captures a sense of inner turmoil.
A pair of collages, Work on Paper – Grid series II, III uses the simplest of means: a field of fluid watercolor captured by an overlaid grid of circles cut into a thin sheet of blue plastic. The effect is to fix the fugitive and the emotive, at least for the moment, in the bonds of form.
As in much of her oeuvre, over many years of assiduous practice, Siri Berg distills an austere, cerebral, and moving music that lets us see what Buddhists call “heart-mind” at work.