Thursday, March 4, 2010

Noland and Color Painting

In my short obits of Jules Olitski and Ken Noland, I made a plea to the tastemaking class to take another look at the marvelous work of the color painters from the late '60's and early '70's, particularly in light of the fact that the major figures (the two mentioned here plus Morris Louis) are no longer with us.

These painters have long been relegated to the historical dustbin, I believe, because of their close association with the highly problematic Clement Greenberg, not because of the work itself. All three made paintings that were self-consciously spatial, not aggressively flat (Greenberg's rule #1), and if only based on the color, the pictures were highly evocative of things outside their own internal existence, not purely auto-referential (Greenberg's rule #2).

I'm not necessarily Greenberg-bashing, here, because I still think he was the best critic of the twentieth century; one of the few non-practitioners who could talk about art in visual terms and say something truly insightful. His insistence on using plain language also speaks volumes on his behalf, particularly in light of the sometimes comically jargon-heavy art writing since the late '60's. When Greenberg's keen observations flipped over into cumbersome demands is when the problems began, most emphatically with the publication of "Modernist Painting" in 1960. Post-modernism effectively sidelined Greenberg, but it also exiled the painters he championed.

In the March 2010 Artforum, however, there is a nice obit for Noland which possibly heralds the beginning of a calmer reevaluation of not only the painter but the period, something I've been waiting for for quite some time. Sarah K. Rich writes:

"Now that we are several decades down the hill of popular culture, and we've all gotten a better idea of how frenzied and mind-numbing kitsch* can be, the formalist advocacy of work that might give the viewing subject a place for the exercise of sustained and quiet attention doesn't seem like such a bad idea."

(*Her description of pop culture as kitsch is a direct reference to Greenberg's essay, "Avant Garde and Kitsch." He wrote this in 1939, and 71 years later it seems like he had a crystal ball.)

Rich also rightly describes Noland's work as possessing of qualities which were entirely outside of the modernist program as outlined by Greenberg, noting his keen interest in Reichian analysis and jazz. In the end of the essay, she does feel the need to apply a kind of meta-agenda (it's still Artforum, after all), but even this was not very troubling - she's using it as away to make the work seem relevant to the present day observer.

So again, here's my plea to MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, hell, maybe even the Met: "Color Painting Reconsidered: Oiltski, Noland, and Louis in the 1960's." Maybe Sarah K. Rich can write the catalog essay. She works for Artforum, you know.