Where color in art is freed from describing the objective world or telling a story, the experience of color itself becomes the subject. As an adjunct to MMoCA’s exhibition of prints by the great colorist Ellsworth Kelly, The Force of Color addresses the role of strong color in the abstraction of the 1960s, the decade that witnessed the recognition of Kelly as a major artist. The exhibition, which features 26 works by 23 artists, will be on view from January 19 to March 31, 2013, in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s State Street Gallery.
The term “colorist” is used by scholars of western painting to mean an artist who makes vibrant color a critical element of the work of art. From the High Baroque paintings of Peter-Paul Rubens to the Impressionist canvases of Claude Monet, certain painters have done just that—but not always with official sanction. In European art academies, from the seventeenth century on, color was dismissed as secondary to line in delineating subject matter: the former a matter of emotion, the latter of logic. A fine painting was essentially a drawing filled-in with color. Academic theory claimed that an overemphasis on color distracted the mind and confused the senses, while the precision of line was a product of the intellect.
With the Post-Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century, most especially Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, the use of color to emotionalize subject matter was of paramount concern. It continued to be so for many artists in the history of modern art, including, notably, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Joan Miró. In the 1960s, toward the end of the modern tradition, emphatic color in painting shifted dramatically from figuration to abstraction, most especially in the color-drenched paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Frank Stella.
It is this moment in the history of modern art that The Force of Color addresses. During this period, artists’ interest in bold color was discernible through both spontaneous forms and geometric shapes. In Sam Gilliam’s Meeker’s Press (1976), splashes of robust color create an Impressionist-like pattern, while in contrast, the geometric abstraction that had taken hold during the 1960s was manifested in a different manner. With its simple shapes and flat color, this direction was variously called color-field painting, post-painterly abstraction, and hard-edge painting. Its assertive engagement of the viewer’s eye and playful opticality of color and form also prompted the name Op art. The vertical color bars of Gene Davis’s Apricot Ripple (1968), for example, keep the eye in constant motion. Fittingly, the exhibition that enshrined Op art in the public’s mind was presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965 and was titled The Responsive Eye. With the emergence of an American and European print renaissance in the 1960s, established painters were also able to explore color in the realm of print media.
The Force of Color presents paintings and prints from the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Although the works of art on view date from 1968 to 2009, the majority of artists represented in the exhibition came to the fore during the 1960s, including, among others, Gene Davis, Sol Le Witt, Robert Mangold, Jules Olitski, Ray Parker, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, and Victor Vasarely.
The 1960s brought the sensuous and declarative use of color to its apogee. The onset of contemporary art in the following decade saw the diminishing importance of painting and abstraction in favor of other media and formats, including conceptual art, installation art, and digitized photography, film, and video art. The association of color with beauty has not been a prominent factor in contemporary art, where color tends to be used conceptually to make political and social points. But this was not the case in modern art, where color was championed as a central pleasure.