Matthew Metzger’s paintings in “Nocturne” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, mark the beginning of his highly ambitious, perhaps quixotic, project. Metzger aims at nothing less than answering the question, posed by the artist himself during his gallery talk on May 10th, “What is the form of color?”
Metzger also identified three traits of color during his discussion: “Expansion and contraction within a limit,” malleability and affect on the senses, and resistance to language. It would seem that the three works from Metzger on view enact these traits of color that he identified.
Installation view of Matthew Metzger's "Nocturne" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. 2011. Image courtesy of Tony Wight Gallery and the artist.
On the left wall as you enter the gallery is The Nature of Color (all works 2011). In the center of a medium density fiberboard panel (MDF) a rubber band lying on edge is depicted with a high degree of realism.
Conceptually this piece relates to Marcel Duchamp and his 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913-14, in which Duchamp thrice took a thread one meter long and dropped it from a height of one meter onto a canvas where it was adhered to preserve the random curves. Likewise Metzger allows chance to form the limits of his work, as the dimensions of the panel were determined by the length a rubber band could stretch to before breaking.
Detail of Matthew Metzger's The Nature of Color. 2011. Oil on MDF panel. Image courtesy of Tony Wight Gallery and the artist.
Intriguingly, this piece is arguably the least colorful in the exhibition; with the MDF board left in its raw state the piece is mainly in tones of brown and tan. Metzger mentioned that this work also relates to the colorful concentric circles of Kenneth Noland and Michael Fried’s analysis of Noland’s color. Metzger seems to rebut some of Fried’s claims made in his 1969 essay “Recent Work by Kenneth Noland,” that Noland presents color as “a radically abstract entity”; here Metzger reminds us that colors always look like something else, a point he made in his talk. In this sense it is significant that Fried described Noland’s ocher tones at length, as Metzger presents a painting in a similar color.
Unarguably, the most colorful painting in the exhibition is Spectrum, which occupies the center wall of the gallery. One is immediately reminded of Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Yellow Blue White and Black, 1953, a band of seven canvases in the titular colors that is almost always on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. Even as the allusion is recognized, one also understands that Metzger is moving in a different direction. The colors are not as bold, and they are “impure,” with brown, purple, green, orange, and pink appearing here.
Matthew Metzger. Spectrum. 2011. Oil on MDF panel. Image courtesy of Tony Wight Gallery and the artist.
Kelly reference aside, the presentation seems familiar still for some reason and by reading the gallery text one learns why. Metzger’s source here are the colors in commercial construction-paper packets, ordering the colors exactly as they are stacked within the packet and at the same size. Construction paper will most likely bring up a host of associations for the viewer: memories of arts and crafts projects from long ago, cutting into the sheets of color to build something else that you were told would be “art.” Metzger wants to evoke that, in his words, the “innocence” of children making art. For a child, the form of color is reified in construction paper, which relates to his second point about the form of color, that of its malleability and affect, while simultaneously nodding to High Modernism.
Lifted from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Colour,” the third and final painting is titled: 43. In philosophy, it is not enough to learn in every case what is to be said about a subject, but also how one must speak about it. We are always having to begin by learning the method of tackling it.
The painting itself is a photorealistic depiction of a 1986 self-titled album from the R&B group Surface, in the exact same dimensions as the record album itself. Both titles (of the painting and the record) hint at the third trait of color that Metzger identified, its resistance to language. Wittgenstein’s essay details some of the problematics of describing color, “25. Why isn’t a saturated color simply: this, or this, or this, or this? –Because we recognize it or determine it in a different way.” The record album seems to pun on language only scratching the surface of art.
At the end of his essay “Three American Painters,” Michael Fried notes that “the formal critic of modern painting . . . [will] distinguish between this and work that does not attempt to challenge or to go beyond the achievements of prior modernists.” In that spirit it is clear that Metzger is both challenging and attempting to move past the artists he clearly admires, and it is refreshing to see an artist so clearly engaged with recent art history to move forward, especially within painting. While the results of his project here do not form a complete answer to the question he has posed, they are an interesting and ambitious start for the artist.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant: Chicago