A Colorful Return:
A Conversation between David Moos and Richard Armstrong
Probing the initial immense popularity and subsequent disappearance of Color Field painting as well as the deceptive goal of cultural relevance, David Moos, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, spoke with Richard Armstrong, curator of Color Fields and director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum, in August 2010.
||Richard Armstrong: I read your The Shape of Colour: Excursions in Colour Field Art, 1950–2005 (2005), in which you consider some newer artists through the Color Field lens. I began Color Fields slightly differently, with an admonition to younger artists that relevance can be a trap.
David Moos: That's an interesting point of departure. I like the proposition. My feeling is that many of these Color Field artists have been out of view for quite some time, since the seventies. How do you think their legacy has been sustained?
RA: One thing is in their favor. When these pictures were bought by private individuals or institutions like the Guggenheim Museum, lots of money changed hands. With that, there’s security that their work will be taken care of. One of the biggest charms of working in a museum is the privilege of seeing good evidence from the past to reconsider what various artistic movements mean. But I think the works have been buried, in large part, because of the obsession with theory, not Greenbergian theory, but the structuralist or post-structualist theory that superseded formalism.
DM: It's intriguing how most major museums, in the mid- to late sixties, felt a need to compete among each other to collect the movement’s most iconic examples. But subsequently, let's say, after 1980, few of those works actually hung on the walls. I reviewed the list of paintings in your exhibition and when they were last on view. For the most part, one has to go back to the eighties. A full generation has passed.
RA: I'm afraid that frequently our colleagues are in a kind of intellectual lockstep, and certain things become unthinkable. The result is that certain works become unknown, and then we go into the cycle of novelty and rediscovery.
DM: And recontextualization.
RA: That's a healthier way of thinking about what's going on.
DM: What is most fascinating to you at this moment to reposition and present these works?
RA: One is hypnotized by the ambition. Frequently the pictures are overscaled. Even the easel-scale ones have an alluring intensity of purpose and are deeply rewarding.
DM: I also think now is a moment when all of the repressed narrative possibilities can be put back on the table. Clement Greenberg’s interpretive matrix—and call to only analyze and judge painting through the medium’s characteristics such as flatness, support, or pigment—was so doctrinaire that these paintings suffered almost an injustice. People stopped looking at them because they got reduced to a formalist dictum. As another take, art historian Alexander Nemerov has cast Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Feeley as court painters of the John F. Kennedy era. He proposes that their paintings have a new kind of constraint, rationalism, and a clear boldness that Kennedy embodied.
When I think of the sixties and make associations with these paintings, I consider the yellow of Noland’s April Tune from 1969. How do you think about that painting and its moment in time?
RA: I think these artists’ motivation coming out of the fifties to reconfigure a different universe is allied to the political impetus, which was to let the fatigue after the Depression, World War II, the Surrealist response, and all the rest fade away in favor of a brave new world. There was a shift of generations. In New York, Toronto, and other industrial cities, you have a real influx of people into the art world, physically and psychologically. Out of that scale came these big pictures that became almost the new standard size. The Abstract Expressionists occasionally made large paintings, but it became standard for people like Noland and certainly Jules Olitski.
DM: I'm thinking about your selection, which includes the core Color Field artist Helen Frankenthaler, the hinge figure who gave rise to the thin pigment and aqueous possibility that Louis and Noland exploited so well. What about more peripheral figures? Alfred Jensen? Raymond Parker?
RA: That's why I thought it crucial to call the exhibition Color Fields to show that simultaneously there might have been multiple ways of dealing with chroma. Jensen was an outsider with a tremendous influence on younger artists because of his attraction to high color. The paintings have gone in and out of favor, but I think they quiver between an almost idiot-savant Conceptualism and unfettered optical exuberance. Parker seemed vital because, as you say, he seems an outsider. But he's perhaps the most unacknowledged heir to the Mark Rothko ambition, which was "How do you make the field so that one enters and stays in it physically and optically?" Others, such as Frank Stella, want a pragmatic and disconnected-from-the-landscape subject matter. Stella’s obsession with geometry evolved, so that he's one of the few people who can contravene Greenberg and go into deep baroque space with great ease.
DM: How about the emphasis on the unprimed, naked canvas?
RA: You might look at that whole moment, from about 1962 to 1968, and realize there were so many new ways of dealing with the material, including the introduction of acrylic paint, and plastics in sculpture. Resin becomes commonplace. Renewed tactility and even the physical aspects of making art become subjects of their own. The naked canvas is a demonstration of that. It's possibly related to a kind of quest for truthfulness that was endemic to that period and really underlies the first instance of an obsession with ecology.
DM: And maybe a belief that through technology, we can come closer to truth.
RA: Either through technology or through its expulsion. Both impulses are going on at the same time.
DM: Maybe that wild disparity is brought together in the technology of masking tape, [RA laughs] which has very common applications. If tape has the aura of the housepainter or commercial designer, after Barnett Newman’s valorization of tape, artists began using it to hide parts of the canvas before painting over with another color or to further play with geometry and surface. Noland peeled the tape off his canvas and Gene Davis did that. That gesture is so far removed from commonness...
RA: Yes, the masking tape is certainly a symbol of something. To me, it might be the new flexible ruler.
DM: That's a nice description of it. So speak a little bit about the works from the Guggenheim collection.
RA: The collection is relatively strong in this moment. One happy discovery in an institutional collection is finding its slant and richness. In the sixties, the Guggenheim had a real taste for European art. So its deepest connection is to Art Informel, Art Brut, and even CoBrA. American-based abstraction was a parallel but not completely fleshed-out activity.
DM: I consider Color Field as basically an American phenomenon—less international than Pop art—and I suppose the Guggenheim's Eurocentric collecting pattern reflects that reality. Are there European artists in the Guggenheim collection that you could have included in this exhibition? Yves Klein, for example?
RA: Yes, he also shows a deep attraction to chroma and the meaning of certain colors. The role of color is something that we are still coming to grips with. There's been a giant chromophobia in our lifetime, primarily because the doctrine that we have to look at most deeply, Conceptualism, doesn't accommodate real discussion of subjective color. I thought, precisely because of that, it would be interesting to reconsider color at different moments.
DM: Speak about the audience that you envision for this exhibition.
RA: I can imagine the informed, uninformed, indifferent, and deeply passionate all being involved. I had this evangelical impulse to remind people that art needn't be relevant, or at least connected with contemporary topics. That quickly dissolved as I reconsidered the work, because there's no way to extract art out of its social reality. The impulse toward reform that is probably the basis for a lot of creativity has different kinds of metabolism. For visual artists, it allows for reform over a long period of time. So instead of thinking to solve the problem, as a politician might, in a three-, four-, or five-year period, the picture-maker is not always sure of the immediate "problem." The artist doesn't know exactly what the reform should be, but will contribute to the new vocabulary that'll be acceptable 20, 30, 40, or even 100 years from now. So it goes back to our opening salvo about how wonderful it is that collections stay intact, and that people with different biases consider them, making up new and different arguments.