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Color, Form, Surface
Color Fields at the Deutsche Guggenheim

From the very beginning of its exhibition program, the Deutsche Guggenheim has explored the various different facets of abstract painting. Following the great public success of shows such as "Kasimir Malevich: Suprematism" and "No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock," the Berlin exhibition hall now presents high-caliber works of American Color Field painting from the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

A fog of glowing yellow, orange, and pink. Jules Olitski's painting Lysander I (1970) seems like an concentrated extract of the psychedelic sixties-LSD, the Summer of Love, the light shows in funky discos. "Nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there" is how the artist himself described his painting. Indeed, Olitski creates an evocative color space that recalls Olafur Eliasson's installations to a contemporary viewer's mind, works in which one can actually move through fog lit up in color.

Olitski is considered to be an important figure in Color Field painting, the American movement the Deutsche Guggenheim has dedicated its current exhibition to. Color Fields, curated by Richard Armstrong, the Director of the New York Guggenheim Museum, shows 13 artists who represent the full spectrum of this movement-from Mark Rothko's sublime painting No. 18 (Black, Orange on Maroon) (1963), which resembles a modern devotional image, to Frank Stella's Harran II (1967). Its dwindling forms overlaid with a rigid rectilinear grid, Stella's shaped canvas connects minimalist abstraction with the decorative geometries of Islamic art. Along with well-known names, the exhibition hall in Berlin also presents new discoveries as well as rediscoveries, such as Alfred Jensen, who was influenced both by Goethe's color theory and the Maya calendar. With their triangles and quadrilaterals set into grids, Jensen's serial abstractions attest to his fascination for magical number systems.

In all likelihood, also Olitski is hardly known to the majority of exhibition visitors-despite the fact that Clement Greenberg called him the "greatest painter alive," and this as recently as 1990. The influential art critic was an important advocate of Color Field painting, whose emphasis on aspects of the medium of painting-flatness, application of paint, and optical effect-appeared to confirm his formalist doctrine. Thanks to Greenberg's support, Olitski-together with Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, and Helen Frankenthaler-represented the USA at the 1966 Venice Biennale; in 1969, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art honored him with their first solo exhibition of a living artist.

Instead of "Color Field Painting," Greenberg himself preferred to speak of "Post Painterly Abstraction"-this was the title of a show he organized in 1964 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which included artists such as Gene Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland, works of whom are in the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition. Greenberg regarded them as a counter-movement to Abstract Expressionism, which to his mind had lost its innovative power in the fifties. Instead of thick paint applied to the canvas in gestural brushstrokes, Color Field artists like Frankenthaler and Morris Louis worked with diluted paint. And instead of spirituality and emotionality, they were concerned with questions of perception and application of color. Frankenthaler, for instance, used a can with a hole punched into it to drip the paint onto her unprimed canvases she placed on the floor. She left the ensuing puddles of color the way they were or spread them over the canvas. The results, as in Canal (1963), were diffuse, cloudy forms in semi-transparent, atmospheric hues. Frankenthaler's paintings often seem like gigantic watercolors. Even more radically, Olitski abolished the artistic signature and painterly gesture. He made use of an instrument that serious artists frowned upon-the airbrush. His use of a "commercial" technique recalls the strategies of Pop Art. So do the quasi-mechanical striped paintings of Kenneth Noland, who used masking tape to produce his works' precise edges. Like Andy Warhol, Noland employed assistants in his studio, who helped him between 1967 and 1970 to produce more than 200 paintings with the characteristic horizontal stripes.

While Color Field paintings initially seemed diametrically opposed to Pop Art, these two important American art movements of the sixties have several things in common. Both consciously distanced themselves from Abstract Expressionism, which had become problematic. Both are characterized by a certain coolness and reflect the enormous social transformations that began in the early sixties. While previous decades were still oppressed by the terrors of the Second World War, the subsequent generation was infused with a new optimism that extended to broad areas of culture at the time. This spirit was not least embodied by John F. Kennedy, the youngest president elected to office in the United States.

The youthful energy of this decade is directly reflected in many of the works shown in Color Fields. At the same time, the exhibition demonstrates the enduring relevance of abstract art for the following generations. "It's a fertile field that we barely have explored," said Noland in 1994, "and young artists will return to it. I'm certain." One only has to see Anselm Reyle's striped paintings or Katharina Grosse's color spaces to see that Noland was right in his estimation.
Achim Drucks

Color Fields
October 22, 2010 – January 10, 2011
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

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