[sixties-l] Washington's Color-Field Painters, Like the '60s, Are Back. Why? (fwd)

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Date: Tue Oct 08 2002 - 15:00:41 EDT

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    Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2002 19:44:23 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Washington's Color-Field Painters, Like the '60s, Are Back. Why?


      Sunday, September 29, 2002; Page G01

            Living Colors

            Washington's Color-Field Painters, Like the '60s, Are Back. Why?

            There's No Black-and-White Answer.

            By Blake Gopnik
            Washington Post Staff Writer

      A painting stained from edge to edge with dabs of glowing crimson.
      Buzzing dots in blue and red waltzing around a canvas, or bright
      stripes line-dancing across it. Watery veils of mauve, cerulean and
      burnt sienna pouring down the picture plane. The hallmarks of
      Washington's glory days as an art town, back in the 1960s.

      This city's artists were pioneers in rejecting the idea that a picture
      had to be a record of the world, or even of its maker's emotions,
      worldview or brush skills. By staining washes of paint right into their
      canvases, they insisted that color and composition could stand tall all
      by themselves.

      Since then, however, local heroes like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland,
      let alone lesser lights like Howard Mehring (the crimson paint dabber)
      and Thomas Downing (painter of the dancing circles), haven't always
      done so well, at home or in the wider world of art. They were early
      casualties of the 1980s putsch against abstraction. For years,
      figurative art with evident content -- political, social, conceptual,
      even just personal -- pushed pure color and form right out of sight.

      It turns out that abstraction wasn't so easy to kill off. The biggest
      names in American abstraction -- Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and
      others -- have all had hugely successful museum retrospectives in recent
      years. And now it seems time for the second tier of abstract masters,
      including Washington's former finest, to follow them back into the
      limelight. But with these lesser masters, there may be more to it than
      the usual story of neglected greatness rediscovered. Warts, weaknesses
      and all, they fill specific needs and tastes in current creativity.

      There's no doubt that old-time Washington abstraction is back in vogue:

      * A new documentary about Louis has just had its premiere at the
      Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum. His innovative stained veils of pigment
      made him the most famous of the Washington Color painters right off,
      and the one to suffer the least neglect since then. His early death in
      1962 made him a canonical Dead White Male before his time. According to
      the dealer for the Louis estate, in the last five years or so there's
      been a massive upsurge of interest in his work, which had taken a hit
      "big-time" in the 1980s.

      * Mehring, from the generation of Louis's students, is now getting a
      retrospective at Catholic University, his alma mater. It's a modest
      show of his mostly mild-mannered works: Canvases stained with gently
      fluttering solid tones, sometimes then cut up and reassembled. But it's
      also the first solo of any kind for Mehring since his death in 1978.

      * Downing, Mehring's flashier colleague and contemporary, who died in
      1985, is receiving commercial shows at Washington galleries Signal 66
      and Conner Contemporary Art. Some of these trademark canvases from the
      1960s, stained with colored dots arrayed in grids or circles across the
      picture plane, have only now been put on stretchers for the world to
      see. Downing dealer Leigh Conner, who also had a hand in the Mehring
      event, has taken to showing defunct Washington Color painters alongside
      the contemporary artists in her stable.

      * Georgetown gallery owner George Hemphill has just opened his fourth
      show of abstract works by the late Jacob Kainen, another D.C. color
      guy -- though more a father figure to the local school than a paid-up

      And this local rebirth fits into the larger context of a worldwide
      renaissance of 1960s abstraction, especially in its less celebrated
      aspects. At prestigious institutions all over, long-neglected
      abstractionists -- Op artist Bridget Riley, her more minimal
      contemporaries Jo Baer, Ellsworth Kelly and others -- have been getting
      new respect.

      You could say that this revival is par for the art-world course. Almost
      every artistic movement goes through a period of rejection right after
      its first big success. It takes about a generation, and then the
      grandkids discover that the old folks had talent after all.

      When it comes to the less obvious stars of abstract art, however, there
      may be more to their revival than a simple recognition of neglected
      greatness. The lesser figures may be riding the coattails of the big
      names: With Rothko priced way out of reach, dealers say that
      more-modest collectors, museums and corporations are turning to figures
      such as Mehring and Downing, who cost one-hundredth as much and can
      sometimes be almost as good. But they also have a very special place in
      today's art world that is theirs alone.

      In these days of acid-wash bell-bottoms and shagadelic movie spies,
      Downing's spinning dots look ever groovy, baby. Looking at her newly
      mounted Downing show, Conner laughed and said, "This art kind of
      reminds me of 'The Valley of the Dolls' . . . of amphetamines and

      Jamie Smith, the art historian who curated the Mehring show at Catholic
      University, asked students in her class on color-field abstraction --
      significantly, one of the first such classes ever to be taught -- why
      they had taken it, since most of them were not registered in art: "They
      said that it was because they were interested in the '60s era."

      Even a living room that aims to feel contemporary now comes decorated
      with chairs of molded fiberglass and orange plastic lamps, often newly
      made by celebrity designers who've achieved success by rehashing the
      old. As Georgetown dealer Hemphill points out, pictures that suit these
      newly sleek decors are getting more attention than ever, and works by
      the Washington Color School fit the bill perfectly.

      This retro trend may especially favor abstraction's less substantial
      schools and figures. A Newman is officially important art -- perhaps
      because it really has a special, innovative excellence -- and so we
      know to give it a more-than-casual look. A work by an abstract artist
      that you've barely heard of, on the other hand, is easier to treat (or
      mistreat) as attractive period scene-setting, interchangeable with
      works by any number of his peers. There can be something comfortably
      generic about some of the works of Mehring and Downing, even of Gene
      Davis -- celebrated D.C. painter of hard-edged colored stripes -- that
      you don't quite get with celebrated textbook masterpieces.

      Imagine putting together the music for a '60s-themed dance party. You
      might have more luck establishing your mood with the Monkees' 1966 hit
      "Last Train to Clarksville" -- or it could as easily be the Troggs and
      "Wild Thing" -- than with a timeless Beatles number like "Eleanor
      Rigby," let alone with something that John Cage also composed that year.

      In the world of more radical contemporary art, however, there are
      reasons for choosing unknown vintage art other than just achieving a
      retro feel. By deliberately favoring artists who have faded away,
      you're also staking out a position against the whole idea of an
      official, timeless canon set to last forever.

      There's a real desire to overturn old notions about what's worth
      looking at. Unpretentious, unambitious, maybe even weak abstraction,
      deeply set in its own time, becomes a kind of antidote to the grand
      claims of timeless excellence and high seriousness that used to

      In 1917, Marcel Duchamp turned the art world upside down by showing a
      urinal and claiming it was art; in 2002, you can get some of the same
      effect by looking at officially "minor" abstract pictures and insisting
      that you like them best. Brought up in a relativist world where taste
      and standards are definitively up for grabs, we can now decide to favor
      the strange, the offbeat, the seemingly out-of-date: Downing's
      psychedelic '60s dots may suit us better than Louis's epochal veils;
      halting attempts are chosen over celebrated achievements. If someone
      says that some abstraction risks becoming wallpaper, why not answer
      that you like wallpaper?

      Even in the 1960s, there was a keen concern that abstraction that
      wasn't of the very highest order could become empty decoration, a mere
      design object. On today's artistic vanguard, however, there's a desire
      to rethink such modernist bugaboos, by asserting, for instance, that
      abstract decoration isn't necessarily empty and that design is never
      merely "mere."

      Los Angeles artist Jorge Pardo is one of the most eagerly watched
      figures of the younger generation. His work consists of making
      household objects and decors that look as though they came straight out
      of the archetypal "modern" home, circa 1960 -- and insisting that they
      must be counted as high art. (So far, his most prestigious
      "installation" has been the retiling, in vintage kitchen colors, of the
      entrance and bookstore of New York's Dia Center for the Arts -- just
      downstairs, that is, from the galleries where Dia has been busy
      reviving some neglected figures of vintage abstraction.)

      Pardo and some of his West Coast peers look at abstraction from the
      '60s as a source of inspiration. Other contemporary artists, however,
      look at it as a target for satire.

      New Yorker Peter Halley is the past master of the ironic take on
      classical abstraction. He has long been making pictures that look more
      like the supergraphic stripes painted on 1960s vans than like
      high-minded attempts to get at the essence of good painting. When a
      Halley canvas includes a square of dimpled stucco, as used on rec-room
      ceilings in the 1970s, you know that it can't quite take itself
      seriously. And once you've admired a Halley, it's not hard to read
      Downing's "Maroon With White Stripe," a late painting of his that also
      evokes a surfer's groovy van, in the same light. You can see it as
      lighthearted, almost comic abstract play with form and color, rather
      than as a sober-minded attempt to live up to the highest ideals for
      art. For some of today's viewers, looking at it as a charming vintage
      product, it can evoke a so-bad-it's-good frisson that a Newman almost
      never does.

      Damien Hirst, the best of the famous 1990s crop of young British
      artists, has made distinctly Downing-like fields of colored dots that
      look at first like a straightforward homage to hard-edged abstraction.
      But rather than demonstrating some ambitious program for how color
      should be used in art, their hues are, in fact, arrived at essentially
      by happenstance: The only rule for choosing them is that no two colors
      can repeat.

      Such abstraction is deliberately, polemically tied to the mundane,
      rather than attempting to soar above it into high aesthetics and
      philosophy, as abstraction used to claim to do. It can seem goofy, even
      dumb, and in the process seems to suggest that older abstraction, which
      it looks so much like, may not have been much smarter.

      Of course, the goofiness of a Halley or a Hirst is really just a pose:
      Their work is a knowing response to what came before it. Much other
      contemporary abstraction, however, is more genuine in its naivete.

      After the 1980s and 1990s, decades when high theory and deadly
      political seriousness ruled the art world and its schools, a new
      generation of artists have come along who insist that they don't want
      to do too much reading or hard thinking, either about their own art or
      about its antecedents. They make what you could call slacker
      abstraction: In strong contrast to the philosophically ambitious
      abstract artists of the '50s and '60s, they're just kids having fun
      with paint.

      Abstract art in the 1960s was built around complex ideas about the
      different things that art could be. Supporters of such varied movements
      as op art, minimalism and finish fetish, color field abstraction and
      hard-edge painting felt that each one had different, even incompatible,
      missions and mandates. There were barroom brawls about them. The
      artists who work in similar styles today don't care about such subtle
      old ideas and the strong distinctions that they drew. So long as it's
      attractive, one contemporary abstract picture can seem just as good as
      any other, very different bit of pretty patterning.

      At District Fine Arts in Georgetown, a current group exhibition called
      "Poetic Minimalism" (the title alone would once have been an oxymoron)
      includes many different, incongruous versions of this new Abstraction
      Lite, from wooden shoe boxes hung on the wall to art deco-style
      compositions. The sheer variety of works on view makes it clear that
      different approaches to abstract picture-making don't come freighted
      with the load they used to bear. In today's abstraction, anything goes,
      because nothing matters all that much.

      Last year, a talented Washington painter named Jason Gubbiotti, 27, got
      his hands on some of the obsolete Magna paints once used by Color
      Schoolers to rethink the boundaries of their medium. He's got their
      paint and knows their work -- he was once Kainen's assistant -- but he
      admits to rejecting their high ideal that abstract art should have a
      rigorous intellectual backbone. He's "into the ephemeral, the pure
      experience" of a good pop song, he said, and is achieving it in
      avowedly retro works that are more pleasantly intriguing than deeply

      Especially in New York, and mostly on the commercial scene, this
      lighthearted "new abstraction" is a major recent movement, and a very
      sellable one. And a lot of it inevitably consists of riffs and cover
      versions of abstraction from the 1960s. If only because, during that
      fruitful and experimental decade, most every abstract painting that
      could be painted, was. Without any very different current trend in
      painting to act as competition, it's only natural that the abstraction
      of an earlier era -- at its very best but also when it's only pretty
      good -- should find an easy welcome.

      Dealer Leigh Conner decided to mount shows of the original Washington
      Color School after seeing similar contemporary work that didn't seem to
      understand its ancestry.

      "You see what these younger people are doing, and you ask, 'Where does
      it come from?' "

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