Friday, January 30, 2009

Color-phobic: why galleries insist on sticking with white

Perusing the galleries of Chelsea, Brooklyn, or hey, Jersey City, you’re hard-pressed to find a contemporary dealer who presents pieces on anything besides a white wall. It doesn’t matter how charged the subject matter, how revolutionary the technique, or how unflattering the “netural” background is to a work of art; the jury has spoken and color is banished! But why, at a time when even museums (normally the last to challenge the status quo!) are breaking out wallpaper and brightly colored paneling to best flatter their multi-million dollar collections (think Paris Decorative Arts Museum, Valencia Museum of Modern Art) are galleries insisting on preventing their spaces from interacting with the pieces they display?

I find it slightly puzzling that, at a time where many contemporary artists are finding it necessary to push the traditional boundaries of art and to cross over into new forms of production, galleries seem to have resisted the urge to revolutionize the way they present these works. Even though we persist in projecting upon “gallery white” the qualities of simplicity, neutrality, and disinterestedness, there is nothing inherently equalizing about displaying a group of diverse pieces on a background the color of a marshmallow. Sure, the contrast between a colorful work might be heightened by what could be seen as negative space, but can we honestly say that Cy Twombly’s blank canvas is enhanced by more white?

So why don’t we abandon this whole idea of white as the official trademark of gallery aloofness and do what museums are doing? Recognize the diversity of works and the need to display them with a sensitivity to the artist’s vision, rather than pasting them up and calling it a day. Environment matters: no one is immune to context, no matter how hard galleries may try to deny it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Title Photo (in the heading on top)

This photo is (or I should say was) 110 First Street. It was taken on September 8, 2004 and it should have been, for me, the end of any hope that there could be a viable historic warehouse and art district in Jersey City.

In 1998 - 99 the city had agreed to take the historic warehouse by eminent domain and turn it over to a developer to be restored and developed as artist housing. Detailed financial and architectural plans were drawn up and about 100 artists put down payments on lofts in the building. At the last minute the city reneged, capitulating to the owner -- Lloyd Goldman.

This presaged what would happen in June of 2006 to 111 First Street when the Healy administration again capitulated to Goldman allowing him to not only evict the artists and demolish the historic warehouse at 111 First St, but also to construct high-rise towers on the sites of both 110 and 111 First St.

The subsequent Toll Brothers outrage (if PADNA losses) will be the coup de grace.

Miro - Painting and Anti-Painting

Detail, Miro, "Un Oiseau..."
Joan Miro, Un Oiseau Poursuit une Abeille et la Baisse, 1927, 33" X 40" (oil, aqueous medium and feathers on glue-sized canvas).

A couple of weeks ago I went to an all day symposium on Miro at MOMA. It was on the occasion of the revelatory MOMA exhibition Joan Miro: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927 - 1937. (Unfortunately the show is over). In the exhibition the wall statements kept stating that these paintings were on raw, unprimed canvas, while at the same time the painting labels noted it was on glue-sized canvas. Likewise every participant in the symposium made the same mistake about bare, raw, unprimed canvas. I was annoyed because I felt it wasn't a trivial matter. That in spite of Miro's attempt at that time to "assassinate painting" as he put it, Miro clearly wanted to preserve the work. So at the end of the symposium I asked about it and luckily a conservator was in the audience and agreed with me. He also noted that Miro was careful how he applied the glue and that he felt (and I agree) it served an aesthetic function.

I have not been a great fan of Miro. I often feel his work gets silly. But this show knocked me out. You could see how during this period Miro systematically, ruthlessly and brilliantly, explored and tested everything that was essential to art. The resulting deadpan simplicity of the work was breathtaking.

Detail, Mondrian, Composition in Yellow, Blue, and White, I 1937 (MOMA)
(Click on image to make it larger).

Some thoughts on Mondrian

Detail, Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, Black, Yellow and Gray, 1921 (MOMA).
(Click for larger image).

I've been thinking about Mondrian lately and how touchingly intimate his classic paintings are. In spite of the myth, I experience them very much as hand-made objects. The brushwork is obvious (see above), and even though the paintings are geometric and harmoniously balanced there's an arbitrariness about them such that you know a human being has made willful decisions here -- they're not experienced as pre-determined or random. Even his colors aren't truly primary but veer off into secondary ranges. All this and the small scale, and even the hand-made frames (see top), make the work seem so hand-made, so human.