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Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

March 2 - May 12, 2008

"Spectrum colors arranged by chance 11" by Kelly

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance 11," by Ellsworth Kelly, cut and pasted color coated paper and pencil on four sheets of paper, 38 1/4 x 38 1/4, 1951


"I begin to hear the old sounds - the ones I had thought worn out, worn out by intellectualization - I begin to hear the old sounds as though they are not worn out. Obviously they are not worn out. They are just as audible as the new sounds. Thinking had worn them out. And if one stops thinking about them, suddenly they are fresh and new."

John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing."

By Michele Leight

Today, color is something we can all own - in a can, tube or jar - but well into the 19th century it was as rare and off limits to the general public as jewels or exotic spices.

"Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today" at The Museum of Modern Art in New York takes the commercial color chart - factory made, mass produced, standardized, available at any paint store on Main Street or the mall - and shows how it overturned subjective ideas of the spiritual and scientific powers of art embodied in "fine art's" color wheel, allowing anyone to embrace "paints" as an ordinary commodity.

"256 Colors" by Richter

"256 Colors," by Gerhard Richter, lacquer on canvas, 87 3/8 x 163 inches, right, The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection, 1974

The exhibition was organized by Ann Temkin, The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Curator of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, and includes 6 site specific installations created for this show, such as the stunning striped floor, "Zobop," (2006), by Jim Lambie, made of vinyl tape, on view in The Agnes Gund Garden Lobby.

Through the work of 44 artists this show demonstrates how art and life can blend together in a world where eliminating the "I made this," or Andy Warhol's "I want to be a machine" does not mean the end of art - or that Frank Stella could not create wonderful canvases "straight out of a can." In such a world the possibilities of creativity become endless: color is no longer just "art," but a concept. This is the first exhibition devoted to this transformation, and it is - not surprisingly - sponsored by Benjamin Moore Paints.

"Color Chart" is arranged chronologically, and begins with a painting by Marcel Duchamp, "Tu m'" created in 1918 - the artist's last - commissioned to fit over the bookshelf in patron Katherine Dreier's library in New York. It is an unexpected revelation of a renegade genius best known for his readymade "urinals," hat racks, bicycle wheels and "found objects." This "painting" is inspired not by some romantic vista or experience, but by a paint manufacturer's catalogue, which in turn inspired the lozenge shaped color samples that were painted by Duchamp's friend Yvonne Chastel. After Duchamp turned ordinary objects into "art," it was a no-brainer for him to think of color itself as a "readymade, a concept that was interpreted in a variety of ways by the artists represented in this show.

All 90 artworks in this show explore two basic themes: store bought color, (paints that are not mixed by hand), and color "found" in daily life, like car paints, computer color and glowing fluorescent light bulbs, neither of which require the input of the artist's subjective tastes or decisions. Ms.Tempkin explains:

"The color chart sensibility that began to spread among artists in the middle of the twentieth century was very much tied to a rhetoric that favored the democratization of the realm of fine art. The reference points for these artists was to be ordinary life, industrial or consumer culture, rather than a transcendent realm apart. They positioned themselves and their work not as an elite fraternity but as a part of the real world - as exemplified by the blunt utilitarianism of the housepainter's color chart."

"Ten Large Color Panels" by Richter

"Ten Large Color Panels," by Gerhard Richter, lacquer on white primed canvas, 10 panels, each 98 7/16 x 37 3/8, overall 98 7/16 x 374 inches, 1966-1972

Occupying an entire gallery wall, Gerhard Richter's "Ten Large Color Panels" (1966-71/2) is reminiscent of magnified color charts available in any paint store, reflecting his interest in "readymade" source material, like the black and white photograph from which he has created monochromatic, impersonal paintings for several years. Like Kelly's large scale "Colors Arranged by Chance" and "Colors for a Large Wall," (also 1951), this life size, monumental work thirty-one-feet long reflects a preoccupation with architecture, which continues. It has never been exhibited in the United States till this show.

"Rebus" by Rauschenberg

"Rebus," 1955, by Robert Rauschenberg, Oil, synthetic polymer paint, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut and pasted printed and painted papers, and fabric on canvas mounted and stapled to fabric, three panels 8 x 10 x 11 1/8 inches

Right beside Marcel Duchamp's bottle brush/safety pins/bolt assemblage is a superb Rauchenberg, entitled "Rebus," painted in 1955, that incorporates every possible medium in an artists repertoire - oil, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut and pasted printed and painted papers, synthetic polymer paint, and fabric on canvas mounted and stapled to fabric. The center of "Rebus" is lined with 117 cardboard paint samples, echoing the painted samples of Duchamp's "Tu m" which he had seen in 1953.

Ellsworth Kelly said he was never interested in painterliness: "I want to eliminate the 'I made this' from my work,'" he said. "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance 11," (1951), illustrated at the top of this article, was a radical departure from painting as we know it. The arrangements of the squares are random, and the squares themselves are not painted. Instead, this stunning collage was created by randomly giving numbers to colors that were then placed on a preassigned penciled grid. The colored squares were cut from commerical adhesive-backed colored papers, and pasted down. While it looks as though a great deal of planning went into it, Kelly's approach is founded on pure chance. He made these minimal paintings at a time when giants of Abstract Expressionism like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were loading their canvases with as much "personal" information and emotion as possible. Kelly was neither an Abstract Expressionist, nor a Minimalist; he created these ground-breaking artworks while living in Paris, separated from mainstream New York art movments. He believed that "the work of an ordinary bricklayer is more valid that the artwork of all but a very few artists."

Andy Warhol's humorous "Do It Yourself" Paintings" (1962), based on "paint by numbers" kits with which we are all familiar from our childhood, were in fact the last he painted by hand,. His quest to democratize art so that it could be made by anyone - regardless of talent - led him to the mechanical process of silk screening. A few months after Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, Warhol created the six superb works at this show sometimes known collectively as "Marilyn/Flavors" - Cherry Marilyn, Green, Marilyn, Mint Marilyn, Lemon Marilyn, Blue Marilyn and Liquorice Marilyn (painted in 1962). The background colors corresponded to the relevant flavor and were silkscreened using Liquitex paint applied directly from the tube.

Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst - separated by almost 25 years- routinely handed the reins of "painting" or silk-screening of their artworks over to a stream of studio assistants in a "production line" of art designed to please the masses, like soup cans or brillo boxes off supermarket shelves. Damien Hirst's famous "spot" paintings (from paint taken straight out of cans), are still randomly applied by teams of assistants along grids in which the size of the spots must equal the size of the spots themselves. The only requirement is that no color may appear more than once in a painting.

Since 1988, when Hirst created his first iconic "spot" painting directly on the wall at Goldsmith's College in London, 600 such paintings have been produced by studio assistants. The "spots" at this show, "John John," are site specific, and applied directly to the gallery wall.

The colors used by artists whose work is represented at this show are the antithesis of the Renaissance masters, or even much later schools and art movements, that invested an enormous amount of time mixing paints by hand. Lofty Renaissance patrons were particular about which paints were to be used, and this was specified in their contracts. Artists were bound by them, or they risked facing stiff penalties by artists guilds for using low quality paints. Many pigments were imported, and therefore expensive. Color was status back then, but soon the invention of oil paints opened up more possibilities because they could be mixed to create new colors, separating a particular color from its natural source.

"Blue Black Boy," 1987-1988, "Golden Yella Girl," 1987-1988, "Low Brown Boy," 1987-1988, (Whitney Museum of American Art); "Moody Blue Girl," (1988, Hort Family Collection); "Red Bone Boy," 1990, (Collection of Ninah and Michael Lynn); "Magenta Colored Girl," 1988, (George Eastman House, by Carrie May Weems, (Purchased with funds from the Charina Foundation). All, three toned gelatin silver prints with Prestype and frame, overall 16 x 48 inches

The catalog accompanying this show offers insights into the evolution of paints from their hand wrought, eliteist beginnings to the tubes and cans we are accustomed to today. In the mid-1800s, the synthetic production of paint helped create an entirely "new look" for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist canvases, as these innovative young geniuses mixed old and new paints together. Among other artist supply companies, Windsor and Newton was established in London in 1832, and by 1841 the American portrait painter John Rand invented the tin tube for packaging oil paint - replacing animal bladders filled with paint that were then punctured by the artist before use. However, artists still relied on a "color man" for pure, durable paints, and Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne and van Gogh bought paints for their superb canvases from "Pere" (father) Julien Tanguy, who opened his shop in Montmartre in 1874.

Josph Albers, best known for his series "Homage to the Square" had a profound influence on the generation of artists represented at this show - if only in their rejection of his color theories. His exacting "Interaction of Color" (published in 1963) was the definitive color textbook, and his color wheel/color theory was used to teach generations of American students color relations at Black Mountain College, and later at Yale. One of his students was Robert Rauschenberg, who caught the masters attention - negatively - with one of his early color chart inspired paintings, which Albers said was the "stupidist thing" he ever saw. In fact, it was the antithesis of everything Albers held sacred in art. Albers "Homage to the Square" (created between 1950-1976), proposed that the perception of color depends entirely on adjacencies, or, that color is the most relative medium in art.

Which generation of artists has not sought to surpass their teachers? What followed was inevitable - Alber's brilliant students rejected his "theories" - but his influence on them was enormous and can be felt throughout this show.

John Cage, the legendary musician/composer/artist, also taught art at Black Mountain College, (where he met Rauschenberg), and later at The New School in New York, and was also an important influence on the artists of his generation, particularly Rauschenberg and Richter, whose "alternative" role models often did not come from the art world. Cage was a prolific lecturer, particularly in New York City, and his famous "Lecture on Nothing" (1949) advocated "nonintention" on the part of artists, and a receptiveness to and acceptance of ordinary life in the previously "hallowed" halls of the fine art world. This contributed to a pivotal shift away from Abstract Expressionism and geometric abstraction - in sound (music) and color (in art).

In a chapter entitled "Color Shift," in the exhibition catalog Anne Tempkin writes:

"Cage inspired artists as various as Rauschenberg and Kelly, whom he befriended in Paris in 1949, to approach their art without preconceived ideas. Like Duchamp, he gave license to a contemporary form of iconoclasm that gently but swiftly toppled long-heralded heroes and ideals. Cage's presence and influence were transatlantic, and his thinking had as much resonance for the American Minimalists as for Richter or Daniel Buren."

detail from "Six Colorful Inside Jobs" by Baldessari

Detail from "Six Colorful Inside Jobs," by John Baldessari, 16 mm color film transferred to video (color, silent) 30 minutes, 1977. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Exhibition copy courtesy Baeldessari Studio

This show resonates with all age groups and cultures - it was overrun with foreigners and Americans alike when I returned to see it after the press preview, which is something I always like to do, to get a sense of how the general public is reacting to any art show. A group of visitors stood with heads craned upwards to view John Baldessari's witty "Six Colorful Inside Jobs," a silent, 30 minute video of an artist paiinting himself - literallly - into a corner. We all burst into laughter as if we were watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy.

Detail of "Untitled (to Don Judd colorist)" by Flavin

Detail of "Untitled (to Don Judd colorist) 1-5, by Dan Flavin, pink, red, yellow, blue and green fluorescent light, Five parts, each 48 x 48 x 6 inches, 1987

Dan Flavin's "Untitled (to Don Judd, colorist), 1-5", created in 1987, was an outright show-stealer. It is an extraordinay experience - akin to being in a beautiful cathedral with sunlight filtering through stained glass windows - to stand in the otherworldly glow of ten standardized fluorescent bulb colors, transformed into a luscious, sensuous paradise by one of the world's leading Minimal artists.

"Untitled" by Judd

"Untitled," by Donald Judd, painted aluminum, 59 x 24 x 7 1/4 inches, 1989

Flavin dedicated this gorgous work to his friend and fellow artist, Donald Judd, whose "Untitled," (1989), injects a jolt of primary color into the spare atrium gallery on the sixth floor of the museum, contrasting with the towering megaliths of midtown Manhattan, visible through the atrium roof above. While both these legendary "minimalist" artists may reject anything but standardized colors, the juxtapositions they utilize create what can only be described as a romantic, mood elevating sensation in the viewer. "Minimal" does not necessarily mean devoid of emotion in the work of these contemporary artists.

Prints by The Atlas Group/Walid Raad

"Let's Be Honest, the Weather Helped; From left to right Israel, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and China," by The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, archival color inkjet print, Seventeen prints, each 18 1/4 x 28 1/4, 1984-2007, Couirtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

"Race" as subject matter is cleverly represented in Carrie May Weems "Eight Paintings with Eight Colors," (1987-1990), from her "Colored People" series, that literalize the verbal expression "color" by using standardized colors to hand-dye black-and-white photographs in "gumdrop" colors, seducing viewers into "the complicated discussion about race that I want to have with the audience and myself," says the artist. Weems chose models at an age when "issues of race really begin to affect you, at the point of an innocence beginning to be disrupted."

"Synechdoche" by Kim

"Synechdoche," by Byron Kim, 1991-present, Oil and wax on canvas, 265 panels, each 10 x 8," Courtesy of the artist andMax Protetch Gallery, New York.

The rectangles continue through the decades with Byron Kim's "Synecdoche," 1991-present," a series of painted oil and wax panels each based on the skin tone of a single model that are reminiscent of Richter's color charts, and, coincidentally this is comprised of 265 panels; Mike Kelly "Missing Time Color Exercise (Reversed) No.2," (2002), a marvellous assemblage of magazines, wood, plexiglass and acrylic on wood panels is based on his partially complete set of the magazines "Sex to Sixty," which he was drawn to as a teenager. The magazines are arranged chronologically, in grids, with a painted panel representing each missing. issue. This is Kelly's tongue in cheek parody of art school "color assignments" (probably related to Albers "Interaction of Color"), in which he extracts a shade or tone of a neighboring magazine and applies it to the colored panels.

"Missing Time Color Exercise (Reversed) No. 2" by Kelly

"Missing Time Color Exercise (Reversed) No. 2," by Mike Kelly, acrylic on wood panels, magazines, wood and plexiglass, 47 3/4 x 92 1/4, 2002, Glan Enzo Sperone, New York

Anne Tempkin writes in the chapter "Color Shift" that some "artsit-thinkers," like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, had a huge influence on the slightly younger genreation of artists like Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin through their rejection of color, because they equated it with excessive melodrama. In the early to mid 60s black and bland became "de rigeur," as canvases composed entirely of one color or variations of one color covered exhibition and gallery walls, and color itself was suppressed, leading to what we now know as "Conceptual Art."

Sol Lewitt wrote this in "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," published in Artforum in 1967:

"Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of th viewer rather than his eye or emotions. The physicality of a three-dimensional object then becomes a contradiction to its nonemotive intent. Color, surface, texture, and shape only emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the viewer in this physicality is a deterrant to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive device."

As this show demonstrates, however, "color turned out to be ideally suited to the Conceptualist methodologies of seriality and system, in the sense that the placement of objective parameters on the use of color provided a perfect vehicle for demonstrating - even calling attention to - the objectivity of the artists. The Conceptual artists' preference for obtaining and using color designed for the general, nonspecialized customer would also underscore their desire for independence from the history of several centuries of bourgeois painting." (Anne Tempkin, "Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today.")

Decades earlier, Pablo Picasso used commercial paint in his Cubist paintings, and Georges Braque - who started out as a commercial house painter - used "found" wallpaper as well as paint from cans in his famous Cubist compositions. James Rosenquist used discarded commercial paint from his job as a billboard painter to create his famously "wrong colored" paintings - and decades earlier Fernand Leger and Siquerios relied on Ripolin and enamel paint respectively for their murals - the latter taught workshops on how to use enamel paint to Jackson Pollock, among other New York artists.

detail from "Let's Be Honest, The Weather Helped" detail from "Let's Be Honest...."

Details from "Let's Be Honest, the Weather Helped," by The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, 1984-2007

Cost played a factor - especially in large scale works - and commerical paints were far cheaper than art store paints - while they also reflected the edgy, bohemian lifestyle of artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Franz Kline. Discarding the eliteist medium of fine art painting enhanced their revolutionary aura, and the "depersonalized" texture they produced - they did not show brushmarks - suited the "look" they wanted to achieve. De Kooning kept the first five gallon cans of zinc white and black enamel paint he boutht on the Bowery in New York with Franz Kline his entire life. "It was an important part of their self-image" writes Ann Temkin.

If color is irrelevant, then why canvas? It did not take long for Sol Lewitt, Blinky Palermo and succeeding generations of artists to work directly on the wall, or make cloth paintings, or, in Ed Ruscha's case, prints using organic colors, as in "News, Mews, Pews, Stews & Dues," (1970). These food prints were created using a mortar and pestle, which crushed baked beans, mango chutney, tulips and other things British to formulate organic "inks."

Cory Arcangel's projection from a digital source "Colors," (2005), references Dennis Hopper's 1988 film of the same name about violence between the Crip and the Bloods street gangs in Los Angeles. Staring at it for a sustained period produces the most unsettling sensation, a cross between falling from a great height and being spun around at high speed - downright scary. Arcangel wrote a computer program that plays the movie one horizontal lineof pixels at a time, top to bottom, and each line is stretched to fill the screen, resulting in animated bands of color.

Glenn Lowry


Glenn Lowry speaks with press in front of "Imprints of a No. 50 brush repeated at regular intervals of 30 cm," by Niele Toroni, installation commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, courtesy the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

Concentric stripes continue in Jim Lambie's "ZOBOP!" illustrated at the top of the story, made from lengths of industrial vinyl that produce an equally unsettling, although pleasurable, sensation. Negotiating steps in this dizzy jungle of eye popping "flooring" requires extra "awareness," but the sculpture garden stabilizes the scene with its serene familiarity. Indifferent to making marks with his own hand, the artist says: "The system makes the work."

Although we may never make paints out of our salad greens, a vinyl tape floor carpet, or star in our own video where we paint ourselves into a corner, the sense of possibility this show inspires is mood elevating and thought provoking.

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