Two Concepts of Liberty

John Haber
in New York City

Color Chart: Reinventing Color

Design and the Elastic Mind

In the shadow of totalitarian empires, Isaiah Berlin contrasted "Two Concepts of Liberty"—the "negative liberty" from interference by others and a supposed "positive liberty" to satisfy human needs and to find the "real self." People may wish to sacrifice the first for justice, "but nothing is gained by a confusion of terms." Nothing, that is, but reductive thinking and despotism.

Modernism is haunted by dreams of freedom and of a utopia in which to fulfill them. So, too, is the Museum of Modern Art. But does freedom entail art apart from life or a transformation of life itself? And can one separate the two? With a canon of painting set out by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and with architecture and design collections going back to Philip Johnson, MoMA has always had something of both ideals. For the spring of 2008 two contrasting dreams again sit side by side. Dan Flavin's Untitled (to Don Judd, Colorist), 1-5 (Stephen Flavin/Artist's Rights Society, 1987)

"Color Chart" acts out the dream's formal side. Here autonomy requires pure color, apart from representation or expression. In "Design and the Elastic Mind," function returns with a vengeance, through technology. The first talks of learning to love color, but in pursuit of a new austerity. The other talks of an elastic mind, but also of mind control. Even after Modernism, utopia and dystopia get harder than ever to tell apart.

Off the charts

When people remember a rivalry between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, they mean more than bragging rights. They have in mind line and color, but also so much more—the intellect and the imagination, the fourth dimension and a red tablecloth, disfigured women and The Joy of Life. Did Picasso and Braque set painting free of colored surfaces? It took Matisse, so they say, to set color free.

The story overlooks Matisse's line and Cubism's wealth of sensation, but it has a kernel of truth: the identification of color with pleasure, black and white with "just the facts," has a long history. With "Color Chart: Reinventing Color," the Modern is out to turn the story upside-down.

Maybe Abstract Expressionism blew the opposition between line and color away long ago, but not for Ann Temkin. As curator, she sees artists as only beginning to set color free, continuing even today. As David Batchelor puts it, Modernism suffered from chromophobia, a literal fear of color, but the color chart came to the rescue. Moreover, they both see it as imposing an almost stifling constraint. In dreams begin some very serious responsibilities.

Just who is afraid of color, Virginia Woolf? Not Marcel Duchamp in 1918, with the onrushing color samples of his Tu M', or Robert Rauschenberg, who allowed a horizontal line of them to bisect a combine painting. MoMA's turns both works into fresh discoveries. The guards' colored vests, designed by Daniel Buren, similarly get the show off to a creative start.

None of this has the least to do with Impressionism's quest for light, color-field painting's quest for the art object, or Josef Alber's quest for the logic of perception. Batchelor puts his stark ideal way:

The color chart divorces color from conventional theory and turns every color into a ready-made. It promises autonomy for color; in fact, it offers three distinct but related types of autonomy: that of each color from every other color, that of color from the dictates of color theory, and that of color from the register of representation.

Take that, Grande Jatte! Like Berlin in his ideal of freedom, Batchelor accentuates the negative.

Autonomy and detachment

"Color Chart" offers at least two distinct notions of the ready-made as well. On the one hand, color supplies the found materials of painting, akin to what Betty Kaufman calls "the story of red." Frank Stella first adopted household paints when he moved to New York, to save money, and he spoke of wanting it to "look as good as it did in the can." In Rebus Rauschenberg used whatever discarded paint he could find, and he made himself stick to a can until it ran out. At MoMA John Chamberlain applies automobile paint to canvas, Jan Dibbets photographs automobile hoods, Donald Judd stacks sheet aluminum in standard enamel colors, Dan Flavin fills a gallery with fluorescent light, Cory Arcangel reprograms the picture tube, Christopher Williams photographs colored dishware, and Bas Jan Ader recasts Piet Mondrian as a changing floral arrangement. In the video of his extended performance, he seems to be making it all up on the spot.

On the other hand, color appears as a ready-made concept. It motivates Andy Warhol in his deliciously half-finished Paint by Numbers, Walid Raad in downtown Beirut spattered with the colors of bullet fragments, a documentary collage by Dan Graham, Yves Klein and his trademark blue, wall text for Lawrence Weiner, and Sherrie Levine with her appropriation of Le Corbusier. The color chart alone recurs as a pattern for Jim Dine, Gerhard Richter, Giulio Paolini, and Katharina Fritsch, herself the granddaughter of an art-supplies salesman. Jennifer Bartlett breaks it down into dots on a tiny grid years before digital art, and Ellsworth Kelly randomizes it for good measure. On video Richard Serra rips into the pages of a flip book with abandon—and undisguised aggression.

Like many a utopian or idealist, however, Temkin and Batchelor demand austerity from their followers and even more from their leaders. They are all too determined to set color free—not just of extrinsic purpose, but often of complexity, controversy, context, and joy. André Cadere's stacked rods, Blinky Palermo's dry remake of geometric abstraction, Niele Toroni's monochrome dots, and Michel Parmentier's stripes on unmounted canvas seem to appear solely for their joylessness. The only thing setting dots by Damien Hirst free is their ubiquity in museums—or the handmade version by Kathy Goodell. The faded browns of Ed Ruscha's food stains belong only in the most trivial sense that any materials have color. Alighiero Boetti or On Kawara had to place some color behind their date paintings, but indifference may not always equate to autonomy.

Austerity in the name of autonomy also leads to telling omissions. What, one might wonder, excludes Chamberlain's sculptures of automobiles along with their paint, other than their energy and refusal to let go of their origins? What excludes the mismarried color patches and color names of Jasper Johns, other than that the whole idea of distinct types of autonomy goes right out the window? Why not Kelly's shaped canvas for its slices of perception or Alfred Jensen's mad remake of folk art into grids? What about the advertising and comic-strip palette of Pop Art, digital artists for whom Photoshop's Color Picker translates so easily into hexadecimal, the drab of camouflage in political art, or many a woman artist's grids of tapestry and tile?

What, then, is color, and can anything still set art free? For all its flaws, MoMA's question is provocative, where last year's "What Is Painting?" was merely muddled. At times, in fact, "Color Chart" can overflow its own color scheme, starting with the abundance of Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Kelly's eight-foot checkerboard certainly does so: with just over forty percent white squares, it defeats all efforts to locate a pattern, much less a design template. Those sudden outbursts by Ader and Serra tear the concept to tatters and shreds.

Autonomy need not mean detachment from this world after all, not even at the Modern. Carrie Mae Weems overlays text about race on photographs tinted like archival sources. Here and with a wall of skin tones by Byron Kim, one gets a reminder of what else color means in America. Batchelor's photographs by the exit get the first and last word. Ironically enough, his city walls carry their own scars and their own very human history.

If design govern

Probably nothing could detach MoMA from Modernism or Modernism from utopian visions. No, curators in jet packs will not fly through the twenty-first century atrium. All the same, Modernism still conjures up white squares floating above Malevich's Russia and fateful towers on the outskirts of Le Corbusier's Paris. And artists will still damn the Modern for them—more and more often on the museum's own walls.

Right next door to the reinvention of color, the Museum of Modern Art has once again seen the future, and it works frighteningly well. "Design and the Elastic Mind" displays architecture and design as extensions of "disruptive innovation" in science and technology. The sheer number of objects attests to energy and ambition, but also to the threat of information overload. So does the low lighting and frequent sharp turns into new alcoves. They allow digital work to play out undisturbed, off a central partition resembling a spidery, extended Sol LeWitt wall drawing. However, they also supply the atmosphere of a darkened theater and keep much of the show at any moment just out of reach.

The term elastic suggests flexibility and gentle curves, in contrast to Bauhaus geometries. It almost pushes such historical details as curvaceous architecture by Eero Saarinen or an Olivetti typewriter out of mind. It also poses a question: will the average human mind prove elastic enough to keep up with computers and their operators? Right on the entrance wall, a spray gun continuously retraces the exhibition title in flowing black curves, to point of the effacing legibility. Intentionally or not, the device also looks awfully like a surveillance camera.

The show has an exhilarating progression, from molecules to mappings of urban and global communities. Naturally these extremes have a way of merging. Nanostructures might resemble futuristic cities, while a two-inch smiley turns out to contain nothing but DNA. The visual traces of all the taxis in San Francisco could easily appear in a show of digital art, and one might finally learn how to find a cab in the rain. Works also juxtapose the betterment of humanity alongside devices for human control—and these, too, can get difficult to tell apart. As one contribution puts it, Do You Want to Replace the Existing Normal?

No doubt one can safely classify soft computers, interface devices for the handicapped, "socially responsible objects for children," and the Architecture and Justice project among the good guys. A living-room wall structured from flowers might, as quite another work puts it, celebrate the "mental, spiritual and sensorial dimension" in design. Others have clearly gone over to the dark side, like the computer game that inflicts physical pain. However, are Chocolate Nipples or Accessories for Lonely Men more like creature comforts and kindly pets or Internet porn? Culture Badges may "encourage communication," but they sure sound like the instruments of a police state. Jewelry made of human bone commemorates a bond but sure gives me the creeps.

Modernism had room for irony, darkness, and self-criticism as well as idealism all along. No wonder neither Hitler nor Stalin had much patience with it. Could one find a utopia—or a god—by an argument from design? Long before the nanotech revolution Robert Frost looked at a spider, "fat and white," and found only "design of darkness" in its dimples, "if design govern in a thing so small." Conversely, faced with Postmodernism's culture of images celebrated by Jean Baudrillard, one hardly knows at times whether to see a critique of capitalism or a trembling before the apocalypse. Postmodern design may not have cast away utopia or dystopia so much as intermingled them, colorfully, elastically, and even thrillingly.

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"Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today" and "Design and the Elastic Mind" both ran through May 12, 2008, at The Museum of Modern Art. A related article looks at artists who combine abstraction, color charts, and text.


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