Gallery Highlights - Power of Color
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Color is a powerful tool that has many associations to specific feelings or ideas. Green, blue, yellow, and red can describe human actions or emotions. Blue has such powerful connotations that an entire genre of music is recognized by the color. Artists including Sam Gilliam, Thomas Downing, Richard Anuskiewicz, Roberto Matta, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Tom Nakashima, and Joseph Hughes utilized the power of color to create cohesion, evoke emotion, and challenge visual perception within their work. The relationship of color theory to the development of abstract and non-objective styles in the twentieth century was explored by artists including Vasily Kandinsky, Hans Hoffman, and Josef Albers. Each of these painters and theorists formulated specific ideas and techniques for the use of color within a composition. Kandinsky, a forerunner in the use of color as symbol in non-objective painting, felt that every color represented a specific idea or place. He saw blue as the color of the heavens and transcendent ideas, while yellow represented the earth. For Kandinsky each color represented an inner psychological sound, a concept many modern musicians have used within their compositions. Josef Albers was more interested in color and its impact on visual perception. His influential book Interaction of Color expanded on previous inquiries into color theory while presenting new ways to approach the combination of color within a composition. Albers used geometric forms of pure color in varying shapes and sizes to stimulate the optical sensation of a composition. His compositions reveal the unique perceptual changes that occur when different colors are juxtaposed. Hans Hofmann was also interested in the kinetic illusions created by color. Hofmann’s insistence on the “push-pull” tension created by abstraction and color would influence a generation of painters in America.
The power of color has been a source of debate throughout the history of art. During the Renaissance, artists began to debate whether design (the linear elements) or color was the most important element of art. This discussion was led by Italian artist Leon Battista Alberti, who felt that linear elements were of primary importance. Alberti’s De Pictura (1435) was the first treatise written on painting, in which he explained the application of linear perspective and espoused the importance of a line. It was during the late Renaissance and the following Baroque period that the paragone (the debate between the superiority of a particular medium or form) gained momentum and polarized artistic expression. During the seventeenth century painters became enamored with the contrasting styles of the French painter Nicolas Poussin and the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Poussin’s camp prized linear elements within a composition that created crisp focused images. Color was considered secondary to the composition. Ruben’s work emphasized color in a more expressive manner, while de-emphasizing linear elements.
By the nineteenth century the emphasis on light and color, as opposed to line, found a voice through the work of artists including J.M.W. Turner, Eugene Delacroix, and the Impressionists- led by Claude Monet. Turner’s interest in light and color was greatly influenced by the German writer Johann Von Goethe. Goethe saw color as symbolic of morality. Pure light, for Goethe, was the light of reason and heaven, while the presence of color in reality could assure us that “the light of God” actually exists. The French chemist Michel E. Chevreul’s important treatise Law of the Simultaneous Contrast of Colors (1834) was the result of time spend working at Goeblin’s, a tapestry manufacturer in France. The company was worried that the dyes used for their tapestries were being mixed improperly, resulting in dull colors. While studying the chemical make-up of the dyes, Chevreul discovered the proximity of one color to another could increase the vibrancy of the hues. His concentration on the interaction of complementary colors influenced artists for generations to come, in particular the Impressionists and the artists directly influenced by this movement. The Impressionist technique of broken color created the illusion of light reflected upon the landscape, and expressed the emotional content of the scene. Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne took this concept of planes of pure color a step further, breaking down his imagery into more abstract blocks of color and light. Pablo Picasso and George Braque, in turn, developed the Cubist approach toward subject matter, further intensifying the use of flat planes of color while consistently increasing the abstraction of the image. Post-Impressionism and Cubism brought the art world into the twentieth century, and continued the centuries of debate concerning the power of color in artistic composition.
Chilean born Roberto Matta began his art career in 1938 as an architecture student in Paris. He soon left the field of architecture to pursue his interest in painting and drawing. Influenced by the Surrealist artists surrounding him, including Andre Breton and Salvador Dalí, Matta produced images of movement and metamorphosis according to surrealist ideology. During World War II, Matta relocated to New York and became an important influence upon the bourgeoning Abstract Expressionist community. His inclusion in a 1940 exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York offered the art scene a style unlike any they had yet encountered. Matta would be the last young painter, along with Arshile Gorky, to be officially accepted by Breton as a member of the Surrealist movement. It was the previous movement of Dada in New York and Europe that had set the stage for Surrealism. The Dadaist creation of the “ready-made,” most notoriously represented by Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain (a urinal purchased, turned on its side, signed, dated, and then placed in a gallery) opened the debate over the nature of art. The Dadaists wanted to create an art form more cerebral than visual – one that questioned the role of mass production, consumerism, and tradition in the visual arts. Andre Breton applied a specific philosophy to this re-evaluation of the appropriate subject matter for art. Breton focused on the ideas of subconscious thought, automatism and the irrational, first introduced by the Dadaists, and with Freudian psychology and Marxist ideology. Matta’s imagery intertwined jewel-like color and texture. With blurred lines and shapes as seen in Tentation sans Visage (Temptation without a Face, 1958) his paintings depict the landscape of interior psychological states that his contemporaries termed “inscapes.” The splashes of vibrant colors create tension within the composition. Matta’s mystical imagery inspired American artists, who were interested in the power of color in their work.
Thomas Downing, Paul Reed, and Sam Gilliam were members of the influential Washington Color School from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. These artists became interested in the use of pure color and color staining techniques in order to explore the role of color in optics and expression. Artists including Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski associated with Color-Field painting and Post-Painterly Abstraction, used of form as content, and it was from this pioneering group that the Washington, D.C. abstraction movement took shape. Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, along with Thomas Downing and Paul Reed, formed this abstract community which emphasized the raw materials of the act of painting, the interaction of color and space within the picture plane, and the use of the non-objective subject matter. Washington Color School painters felt that color was a primary means of expression. Kenneth Noland stressed the idea that a painting was exclusively about color and surface. The objective was to apply color to the thinnest possible support in order to create the illusion of pure color floating in space. It was on a trip to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953 that Louis and Noland witnessed her technique of “poured painting” on an unprimed canvas. Her 1952 image, Mountains and Sea, was a breakthrough work with using this approach. This encounter shaped the formal and expressive concerns of Louis and Noland, as well as the rest of the Washington School. Louis wholeheartedly adapted Frankenthaler’s loose, spilled paint technique, while Kenneth Noland moved toward a hard-edged style of painting, like Frank Stella and the Optical artists. Noland‘s chevron and target paintings, Stella’s use of the protractor form and Barnett Newman’s thin, vertical “zip” upon a field of color explored the power of color.
Thomas Downing explored the use of color “dots” using pure acrylic paints to produce fields of optically mixable color within his paintings. His pure color dots “mixed” by the eye are reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Seurat’s technique of Pointillism achieved great fame during the late nineteenth century in France. His most well-known work using this technique is the large-scale genre scene Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte (1884-86). This image of the Parisian upper class on a leisurely Sunday afternoon was painstakingly crafted by the application of minute dots of pure color. Downing adapts this pointillist technique to the non-objective form of representation. His dots are hard-edged shapes in a grid like pattern that produce the sense of movement. In Untitled (1967-68) he incorporated clean lines and forms with a multitude of focal points, to create a strong sense of rhythm and movement. The blue and gray dots recede into the background, while the warm yellow dots seem to move into the foreground.
Paul Reed was another important member of the Washington Color School. His methodical approach was drawn from his strong background in graphics and drawing, which he used in preparation for his hard-edged imagery. Reed’s shaped canvases and vibrant planes of color create illusions of depth on a flat picture plane. In Safid V (1968) he used a complementary color scheme to intensify the vibrancy of each color contrast. The title Safid V could be a reference to the Safid River in northern Iran. This river’s delta empties into the Caspian Sea, and through time has created an impressive twenty-three mile gorge through the Elburz mountain range. The form of the plus sign emerges into the foreground through the vibrant pink contrasting with the darker shades of red and green. The form itself might mimic the idea of the many tributaries flowing into the river, and eventually forming the massive delta. Reed’s plus sign directly references the idea of addition, whether that comes in the form of the addition of color to a form to create an illusion of depth or the addition of planes in a perspective space to create the same effect.
Sam Gilliam was a third generation member of the Washington Color School, who studied under Thomas Downing. Gilliam’s early work applied the hard-edged style of Noland and Reed in images such as Lance (1965). Upon meeting Downing in 1963 Gilliam turned toward the non-objective style of the Color Field painters. Then around 1965 Gilliam became the first painter to use an unsupported canvas. His draped paintings on unprimed canvas began to blur the lines between painting and sculptural installation. At the height of his popularity Gilliam abruptly halted his drape paintings and turned toward mixed media collages, inspired by his African American heritage. The jazz compositions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane influenced Gilliam’s change in subject matter and form. In Ghia #5 (1994) Gilliam incorporated monoprint, acrylic paint and collage elements on paper to create a composition that is reminiscent of the haphazard design of African American “crazy quilts” that Gilliam remembered from his childhood.
Jules Olitski and Joseph Hughes approached the non-objective style of color field painting in an extremely minimalist manner. Olitski’s work has often been compared to layers of colored mist that seemingly float upon the surface of the canvas. The same could be said of Joseph Hughes paintings. Around 1963 the Russian born Olitski began pouring and rolling layers of liquid paint upon his large rectangular canvases. Olitski shared the Color Field painter’s fascination with the canvas edge as opposed to the traditional centralized composition. This focus on the horizontal picture plane is similar to the movement toward this same compositional format in sculpture. Olitski commented that his goal in painting was to create an ethereal surface on which the paint appeared to float within a slice of atmosphere. The concept behind Olitski’s technique emerged during a 1960s conversation with the British sculptor Anthony Caro. Caro was commenting upon the use of color within his abstract steel sculptures, noting that he wanted the color to convey the density of his chosen material. Olitski promptly realized that the goal of his painting was the opposite. He was seeking the essence of color suspended in air, and the day after his conversation with Caro he bought an airbrush. In But Suddenly- 6 (1982) Olitski began with thick swaths of paint, followed by layers of sprayed paint that together create a jeweled surface that conveys a sense of solidity within a diaphanous atmosphere. Upon the floating layers of color he applied a gestural, painterly mark. This reference to the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists upon the surface of this Color Field painting appears to be a comment upon these two contemporaneous and mutually influential movements.
In Great Spirit (1972) West Virginia born artist Joseph Hughes approaches color in a similar physical and psychological manner. Moving to San Francisco in 1967 Hughes became a member of the West Coast color painters, who emphasized a process of painting that differentiated their work from the East Coast Color Field painters. Layers of coloring create a vast field of atmospheric color. His work is reminiscent of the style used by the Color Field painter Mark Rothko. Like Rothko, Hughes uses several layers of color to create an image that at first glance seems monochromatic. Hughes often brushes or paint rollers up to sixteen layers of complementary color glazes, utilizing the interaction of these hues to suggest a sense of movement in time and space.
Richard Anuskiewicz also employed a hard-edged style using basic geometric forms and varying color combinations. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Anuskiewicz was educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Yale University, and Kent State University. While a student of Josef Albers, Anuskiewicz found the basis for his use of color within composition, sharing his intense fascination with shapes and their relationship to color. Anuskiewicz is known as one of the most important contributors to the Optical Art movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s. He created compositions with kinetic illusions which occur when different colors are placed within the same geometric patterns. His subject matter was perception itself, stating: “Color function becomes my subject matter and its performance is my painting.” Primarily a printmaker, Anuskiewicz’s Untitled (1970) silkscreen uses vibrant reds and dull grays in varying widths of line creating eight triangular shapes that appear to vibrate within the picture plane. Anuskiewicz takes Albers observations and creates images of movement into and out of the picture plane through simple combinations of color and shape. By varying the proximity between color and line, and using a green-gray which contrasting with its complement, red, this silkscreen embodies the basic techniques of Op Art.
James Twitty’s Points of View (1973) combines principles of color and line used in Op Art with the painterly approach of the Abstract Expressionists. After retiring from the Air Force as a colonel, Twitty studied at the Art Students League in New York. The acrylic painting Points of View presents five rows and five columns of thumbnail landscapes framed by blue boxes in linear perspective. The perspective applied to the boxes increases the distance between the viewer and each framed landscape, each seascape and landscape being approached from a differing viewpoint.
George Snyder’s painting and sculpture works with the tension created by opposing ideas of flatness and volume. This opposition within both areas of his work creates the tension that takes his imagery beyond the merely decorative. The acrylic on canvas painting Coil No. 1 (1975) takes this sense of contrast to a highly intricate level. Snyder’s imagery is influenced by the principles of Optical Art and a hard-edged style, while retaining a sense of volumetric space and form. In his sculpture Snyder wraps PVC pipe with strips of painted canvas. These images in turn inspire paintings like Coil No. 1. However, within his sculpture the tubular pipe becomes flattened, often by the patterned color. Within this two-dimensional plane the colored pipe twists, bends, and moves into deep space interlacing along the way. This sense of interlace and the form of the coil is reminiscent of painted borders within medieval illuminated manuscripts, particularly manuscripts from the British Isles. These interlacing patterns often took on the form of a snake, formally associated with the cylindrical shape of the pipe. Snyder often credits his immediate environment with his interest in the oppositions of color and shape. He lives on the Atlantic Coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, and claims that his work elicits a synthesis of tropical Florida and rocket propulsion systems. His work has been called a series of binary oppositions: spontaneity vs. control, hot vs. cool, depth vs. flatness, and the organic vs. the geometric. Coil No. 1 exhibits this play between warm and cool colors, while the single, thin orange stripe reiterates the play between the flat surface of the support and the illusion of depth.
West Virginia native, Harold Edwards also explores sculptural forms and the use of vibrant patterns of color. He creates mixed media sculptures inspired by number systems, totems, geometric shapes, and ancient Celtic art. His work is iconic yet eclectic. It is a combination of influences from his everyday life as well as his fascination with mathematics. From his childhood in West Virginia, Edwards incorporates the common act of using paint as a decorative addition to an object, like a birdhouse for example. He takes this everyday concept of surface decoration and, like the Celtic artists who influenced him, adds it to his assembled sculptures synthesizing the utilitarian with the aesthetic. Many of his sculptures are also inspired by the numerical system developed by the 12th century mathematician and priest Leonard de Pisa. The first ten numbers of this sequence are: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and 55. Each successive number in the sequence is obtained by adding the previous two numbers. The tradition of incorporating numerical systems into works of art, architecture, and particularly music has been common since the late middle ages and reached its early pinnacle during the Renaissance. Edward’s totem-like sculpture Guardian of Radical Truth (1998) was the first in series of free-standing constructions, and utilized the form of the triangle within its composition. The body of this iconic form takes on the shape of an elongated triangle while the painted patterns also use this shape upon the surface of the work. Guardian of Radical Truth’s abstract composition is reminiscent of an Ancient Cycladic votive figure. The basic geometric shapes come together to form a highly abstracted image of a standing figure. The “Guardian” holds within his form knowledge and power of the “truth” through an understanding of geometric relationships, mathematical systems, and color relationships. Edwards’s mixed media sculpture The Giver of Second Chances (2002) utilizes several of the same concepts linked to geometry and mathematical proportion. This serpentine wall-mounted construction incorporates the geometric patterns seen in Guardian of Radical Truth, in particular patterns created by the triangle and the sphere. The organic nature of The Giver of Second Chances separates it from Guardian of Radical Truth. This organic movement seems to reference the concept of regeneration and growth, a “second chance” at a new life.
Born to a Japanese-American father and an Irish-Canadian mother, Tom Nakashima imbues the content of his artwork with diverse cultural influences including traditional Japanese art and modern European masters. As a child Nakashima experienced the internment of many Japanese-Americans during World War II. Many of his extended family members were confined to these camps. This and other injustices suffered by Japanese descendents in America during the War would forever influence the subject matter and content of his imagery. Nakashima is known for his layering of allegorical and contextual references. In Samurai (1977), floral stripes reflect traditional Japanese fabrics and kimonos. These patterns are then separated by white stripes, which at once reference the bars of a cage and the “zip” lines of Barnett Newman’s Color Field paintings of the 1960s. The curved white slices throughout the composition remind the viewer of the samurai’s sword as it carves through its target. Nakashima combines texture, images, powerful color and mythology creating allegorical compositions that are open to interpretation.