Washington Color and Light at The Corcoran Gallery
The Corcoran Gallery of Art has long supported DC-based artists interested in light and color, having shown their work in the past (“Washington Color Painters”, 1965) and having hired several of them as teachers. This exhibition demonstrates that allegiance while providing a historical context for the paintings. The question is, why this exhibition now and does this body of work as presented give the viewer adequate information about the artists’ inspiration, intent, sources, and motivation?
While the show is supposedly thematically arranged, some galleries are mini-solo shows that interrupted my ability to sustain an approach based on theme and therefore my train of thought. “Soak and Stain Painting”, the theme of the first room, includes work by artists working in the 50s along with their followers. Oddly, while most of the paintings demonstrate the theme of soaking and staining by exhibiting just that, the two at the entry to this room—by Alma Thomas and Jacob Kainen—are paintings that are not stained but obviously painted onto their surfaces with a reasonable amount of thickness. (I suspect these were an afterthought when the two small entry walls had nothing on them.)
The text discussing Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland’s visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio and their learning her staining technique is an excellent educational tool and introduction to this section, but we could have used more information. Were there documents supporting these visits—letters, photographs, for example, that would emphasize more this very important interchange? Was it just the process they imitated or was there a more conceptual motivation behind the staining technique? If you were a viewer interested in the process, for artists and non-artists alike, the discussion of the artists’ using Magma (a fast-drying acrylic invented in 1947) mixed with turpentine or spirits, opened eyes to its staining potential. The text also highlighted some artists’ twisted and tilted canvases to achieve certain effects. We see this in Louis’s striped painting and Sam Gilliam’s unframed draped canvas. The stripes in the Louis piece demonstrate pronounced visual vibrations that one might expect in an Albers piece. It is a pleasant surprise here. Another potent observation is engendered by Sam Gilliam’s framed piece. Folded and incorporating noticeably dragged paint, it implies a non-conscious anticipation of an artist like Gerhard Richter who is known for his dragged-paint abstract paintings. It would have been valuable for the curator(s) to draw some parallels to more recent art early in the show. Ed McGowin’s two more contemporary pieces in this gallery have little or nothing to do with soaking or staining. His bi-level Plexiglas-over-wood paintings make patterns that change as the viewer moves from side to side in front of them. Probably more than any other works in the show, they introduce an element of implied kinetics, so they could have been placed closer to Davis or even Truitt, where colors visually vibrate.
The second room, entitled “Hard Edge – Pure Reduction” includes such notables as Kenneth Noland (considered one of the founders of the Washington Color School), Mehring, Rockne Krebs, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and Anne Truitt (whose work was recently featured in a solo show at the Hirschhorn Museum).
The text next to one of Noland’s is a strange Greenbergian statement (which I cannot agree to) that reads, “Evidence of the artist’s hand is almost entirely eliminated”). Is evidence of the artist’s hand ever eliminated? Even Judd’s boxes are only Judd’s boxes, made by Judd. Anne Truitt’s colored, large distilled 3-D towers are put next to an early Agnes Martin-esque pencil and acrylic drawing on canvas and this visual association is a juxtaposition that provokes thinking about the evolution of her work. One wonders why more of these associations weren’t made and elucidated in wall texts for other artists whose early and later works were both exhibited. Speaking of texts, this room has texts about the artists’ attendance at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, its role as a substitute for the Bauhaus and particularly Noland’s relationship with Josef Albers. I question why the Albers painting did not appear here and only much later in the show. Rockne Krebs’s 3-D Plexiglas and painted structure adds only a bit of interest in relation to the other works in the gallery. On the other hand, Paul Reed’s “In and Out B” shows overlapping stripes to create interesting visual disjunctions and color that is both attractive and jarring at the same time.
The next room, which has no theme, is devoted to Gene Davis’s work and it is fascinating to see his evolution from an abstract expressionist painter to one that worked so exclusively in painted stripes. This time the curator got it right. And including the artist’s quote with instructions is another good idea. Davis said. ”Enter my paintings by looking at one color and see how it operates in the work”. This reminded me, as a former museum educator, that it would have been especially helpful, especially for school groups, to have a study guide or brochure to carry and to encourage thinking about pertinent questions raised by the works.
The next room houses Thomas Downing’s paintings of arrangements of circles. These are cheerful but not all that engaging. One can see Downings’ relationship to Mehring, with whom he shared a studio, but Mehring’s work, to my liking, is so much more sensitive. Wall texts here add little to the experience.
The room called “ Color Connections” exhibits artists (not Washington artists) who investigate uses of color (throw, flick, pour, layer, scrape) and other concerns related to abstraction, the shape of the canvas, etc. There is no thorough explanation as to how or why this group was assembled and if or how they had direct or indirect relationships with the Washington Color School artists.
Frank Stella is represented with an angular painted aluminum wall structure, “Batafogo II”, 1975, wherein paint and the surface moves into the viewer’s space blurring the lines between painting and sculpture. It is tantalizing to see where he took his interest in color, but we are not told how the Washington Color School can be credited with this interest.
No exhibition about color would be complete without an Albers “Homage to the Square” this one from 1956. As alluded to earlier, it should have been shown earlier near the text about Black Mountain College. Still, the wall text about Albers and the Bauhaus is valuable for those not familiar with its history. An interesting comparison at this point is Albers’ comment about color having no emotional appeal vs. Anne Truitt’s statements to the contrary. For a slightly different take on stains, runs and splatters, Sam Francis’s Untitled work of 1974 is a prime example of personal interpretation over replication of Color School technique/approach. Likewise Jules Olitski’s “Pink Alert”, 1966, shows the influence of Morris Louis’s poured stripes, but Olitski paints and places them only at the perimeter and only on the sides and bottom of the canvas. These two have a real visual “connect” to the Washington School painters. On the other hand, Larry Poons’s “Seel”, 1981, has a paint surface that moves into three dimensions. The paint is ultra-thick making for a juicy, explosive surface, and because of its emphasis on texture over color, this piece feels more aligned to Pollack than to the Washington Color School. This work could have been omitted.
Frankenthaler's work appears near the end of this room, and given her influence and importance to the Color School artists, one wonders why her work was not shown closer to the beginning of the show. This very distilled green and brown poured paint piece, “Hurricane Flag”, 1969, is an excellent example of her modus operandi. The text about her is informative, highlighting her studies with Hans Hofmann, her association with the critic and theorist Clement Greenberg, her familiarity with Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Franz Kline and how she started using paint cans to pour onto her canvases at the young age of 23. All this was interesting but there was more text here than was needed since much of it was unrelated to the Washington School painters themselves.
Limited color and geometry on a flat ground are the tenets of John McLaughlin’s work installed at the end of the show. Since this piece is black and white, I presume that color for the curator also meant, for black, all colors absorbed, and for white, all color reflected. It seemed completely out of place.
I wish the curator(s) had included at least one or two contemporary artists interested in color and working in DC today. For example, if one goes through the photo show just beyond this exhibition, you will see a piece by Maggie Michael entitled “Helmet”, 2006. Note this Washingtonian’s use of/love of color and how it is handled differently in a more recent piece (mixed with other mediums, e.g. and more obviously personal and expressive). On the same floor, see also Chris Martin’s abstract painting of 2008 using latex, ink and enamel on canvas.
One also wonders how the choices were made for inclusion in the show since on the same floor in the area called “Minimalism and the Washington Color School”, one finds more work by Gene Davis and Anne Truitt, along with non-Washington color-related artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold and Ad Reinhardt all for whom color was significant and integral to their work, perhaps more so than for some of the others included in the “Color Connections” final gallery of the show.
The visual appeal of the show—bright color, process-oriented work—will draw viewers, but if you are looking for conceptual and educational enlightenment or if you wonder about artists’s motivations, passions, about what they do and why, if they talked to each other, or wrote letters to each other and if you want layers of meaning, then you may want to go elsewhere. Writing this review, I was reminded of the challenges and intricacies that go along with curating exhibitions, especially those that must work with whatever permanent collection is at hand. With funding at a minimum, curatorial staff has to come up with more and more shows based on their collections. This was one of those shows. It was a decent attempt, just not thorough enough.
The exhibition is on view through March 6, 2011 and reopens June 25 – August 14, 2011.