Roberts Smith reviews the “Color As Field: American Painting, 1955-1975” exhibition at the Smithsonian in DC which I was somewhat involved in (I wrote the artist bios for the catalogue).
Some notable passages:
Revisionist this show is not. Its 38 canvases represent 17 painters, including a selection of works by Abstract Expressionist precursors titled “Origins of Color Field.” The elders tend to look as light and jazzy as their juniors; Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hoffman and Robert Motherwell, all present, were ultimately as much a part of Color Field as Abstract Expressionism. But even Newman’s “Horizontal Light” of 1949 seems undeniably flashy; its field of dark red is split by a narrow aqua band, called a zip, that seems to speed across the canvas. Rothko’s 1951 “Number 18,” with its shifting borders and cloud-squares of white, red and pink, has a cheerful, scintillating forthrightness.
But given Color Field painting’s long neglect, a time capsule is in itself a new look, and Ms. Wilkin’s retelling has some new twists. Take for example her account of the legendary visit, orchestrated by Greenberg, that Mr. Louis and Mr. Noland made to Ms. Frankenthaler’s studio to see “Mountains and Sea” during their 1953 visit to New York from Washington. Ms. Wilkin writes in passing that the visit occurred in Ms. Frankenthaler’s absence, which completely reframes this pivotal event. Color Field was arguably the first major art movement initiated by a woman, and that woman was not present, in her own studio, to watch the wheels start turning in the heads of two male artists who, let’s face it, were competitors?
Sometimes a critic’s enthusiasm can do as much harm as good, especially when the critic has a blinkered take on the art of his time. The Icarus-like flight Greenberg took with Color Field was damaging to both parties and became a cautionary tale for art critics. New art is an unmanageable beast. If you think you have its reins in your grip, you will surely be unseated. Better to remain on your own two feet, ever alert to the inevitability of surprise and of betrayal, not the least by your own aesthetic responses.
Photo caption: “Flood” (1967) by Helen Frankenthaler