PRINT December 1967

Problems of Criticism III: Venetian Art and Florentine Criticism

LET ME BEGIN BY SAYING that criticism seems most alive to itself when it is kept somewhat off guard by works of art—when a critic suspects that he must enlarge his frame of reference, or intensify his analytic tools, or even switch his methodological approach to make his experience intelligible in its own terms. Many things in current art have required him to move off his intellectual base, from minimal art to the theater of mixed means. These have engaged him in philosophical, sociological, or perceptual operations that may come to seem more or less warranted by the shifting developments under examination. But different as they are, one condition they share is their logical bias: their faith in schematizing and analyzing variously fused esthetic data into a picture of a structured, internally consistent (even in its contradictions) phenomenon. As a response to the spectacularly anti-rational strategies and the fictionalized maneuverings of the contemporary artist, this bias is understandable. Yet, it tends not to be seen as a bias at all, and in view of criticism’s deep-seated neglect of color,1 it becomes more, a very troubling deficiency indeed.

Of all the challenges that criticism faces, color is the most shunned. Despite the fact that color-field painting has expanded into one of the most significant undertakings in post-war art, and regardless of criticism’s own acknowledgement of that fact, no writer on art has seriously proposed to interpret color, or to integrate it within any critical exposition. It is as if the great canvas facades had been measured and diagrammed and even fluoroscoped, their few placements and shapes worried over and teased into some conceptual-sounding order, their spatial inflections scrutinized with a magnifying glass, and yet no one noticing that they were not in black and white.

If I exaggerate this critical discrepancy of attention, I do not think it unfair to suggest that the whole color problem causes embarrassment, much as if it were a bodily process exposed in public. Circulating among themselves, regulating he energies that are available in the pictorial make-up, expanding or pulsating sensuously beyond their borders, colors in works of art are the equivalent of the organic functions and changes in living creatures. Not that criticism has ever been ignorant of this. Diderot, in the 18th century, wrote that “Drawing gives beings (etres) their form; color gives them their life.” With color, one is dealing, at the very least, with the enzymic and metabolic, the temperature and pulse rate of art—set into unique governing and governed ratios with all other elements. Our criticism today has not illuminated these ratios, nor does it give evidence of doing so in the future. It is an engrossing failure, very much in need of some explanation.

Color offers criticism resistance on two levels. One has been a long-standing situational breakdown inherent in the tension in any linkages among sensations, words, and memory. The other, obviously related, has to do with a more current disposition within which the color factor causes disturbances that are in contradiction to a general outlook.

It should be understood that specific perceptions themselves will not be spoken of here. Innumerable treatises exist which purport to show us how we perceive different color interactions, and which explain various optical laws. These constitute the study of chromatic behavior, a branch of psychology. But if it acquaints us with the complexity of such behavior, it simplifies the topic radically by assuming that subject and object, stimulus and receptor, however variegated, are constants in any given test, influenced by determinable rules. Any resemblance between a color in a work of art, and a color illustrated or alluded to in an experiment, is completely coincidental. The psychologist’s color is a worldless color as far as the critic is concerned. It is not circuited into an imaginative matrix where it is associated and charged with a unique processing, texturing, and density. But the critic’s color is just as unreal, because it is an allusive tissue whose connection with certain emotional and sensuous latencies has as much to do with a willingness of the spirit as it does with an image on the retina. No matter how many are the conditions under which color is apprehended, the psychologist is interested in classifying their sensory effect, or studying them as part of a learning situation. But no matter how particular the chromatic effect, the critic must treat it as unstable and conjectural—a pure possibility invoked in his unreflective consciousness.

Of course, none of the above distinguishes color in itself from the other impacted and compressed features of the work of art. They all exist in a self-contained ambience or presence, the art object, of which it can be said that “it is in, but not of historical reality . . . that it stands isolated, apart from the world of uncertain and precarious being.” (Arturo Fallico, in Art and Existentialism.) “If we said,” writes Fallico, “that it presents what it is possible to imagine, we would be all the more incorrect, because so close and yet so far, from the truth of the matter. The presentation is not a presentation of possibilities which might be said to subsist apart from the art-presence; the presence is the possibility itself—the whole of the being of it.” The markings on a painting are reflections of a mental hypothesis, but taken together, they tangibly form a new thing in themselves. The critic, therefore, deals with lines, masses, shapes, spaces, subjects and colors in a picture, in simultaneous consideration of its qualities as intact construct, and mnemonic aggregate—to both of which he owes a dual allegiance. Since the medium in which he works is non-discursive, his procedure will be all the more tentative and illusory. Yet, with the exception of color, the critic is fortunate that pictorial elements are made peculiarly accessible to him on the basis of their very artifice—an artifice which permits a relatively sophisticated stereotyping of verbal response.

This is to say that non-visual concepts like boundary, placement, volume, interval, proportion, location, are all familiar enough to the mind such that the paths of lines, say, or the curvature of a shape, already become analogues of mental processes. It is possible to analyze (if not to picture) these visual trajectories with some effectiveness in language because the symbolical abstractness of cognition is prepared to find in them a parallel abstraction. Mutual structures in both are naturally discoverable, quite independent of the fact of art’s sensuous embodiment of matter in any particular dimension or on any level.

But of the experience of color, who can say that there is any thought concept that facilitates its rendering in language? Quite obviously, color is unmoored in this discussion because our only means of reference to it is a recollection of the sensation it offers, or possibly an experience similar to the one we are now having. It would seem as if we are reduced to the comparatively primitive operation of naming and recalling.

Since it is known that color can be very well handled by an artist in a conceptual manner, and that, as a dominant element, it can account for, or be identified with, a picture’s available form, the lack of any syntax in the critic’s capacity to treat color is all the more grievous. Color’s endemic potentiality for sharing pictorial roles, therefore, only promotes a disintegration of critical method, for no matter how broad his approach, the critic is reluctant to blend procedures that implement conflicting images in the mind’s eye. He may be an iconographer or a formalist, but in either case he can rely on the existence of communication models that neither he nor the reader can conjure for color. It may be argued with reason that color can be “seen” by the inner eye, that the naming of it therefore has an eidetic strength; but it cannot be maintained that we are equipped to “see” it in the stripped down, diagrammatic fashion in which we have become accustomed to view the non-chromatic materials of the work of art. Despite some degree of overlap, or rather, confusion, between them, these are fundamentally incompatible means of seeing. What really makes the problem serious is that in the majority of paintings, it is empirically impossible to distinguish color from tone, for example, or the illusion of space—and if we separate these picture constituents, we do so only by virtue of analytic conventions that estrange us from the reality of esthetic experience in direct proportion to the rigor with which they are pursued.

Hence, one reason why the study of color has never been embarked upon, nor its centrality acknowledged, is that this would expose the hidden flaw in critical practice. Even more, if honestly faced, it would require a complete overhaul of the language of art writing. For a major consequence of confronting color is that criticism can no longer satisfy itself that a description of the optically visible alone is effective in summoning up the presence of the object in memory.

Color forces us to learn the difference between the visible and the far more exclusive category of the visual. The latter is something that can only be held in the eye’s memory, as it were, and not thought’s. If one attempts to structure visual color as any number of our mental paradigms are structured, one sidesteps or ignores its primary attribute of sensory affect—even though it is open to such treatment, as are all things visible. Yet, almost as if in payment for its inhibitions on discourse, it affords the most extraordinarily vivid sensations. More than through any of its other elements, a work’s color limns its overall proxy in the mind. (Think of how more puissant is this effect than anything comparable in music.) In neglecting such imagery, criticism must abandon most of its claims to resurrect the work of art for verbal examination. For all that it may scrupulously investigate a painting’s physical features, such criticism results only in their bloodless dissection. The importance of color here is that it bares, with vengeance, the criterion of esthetic recall in criticism. If critical prose does not focus on recall in this sense, its ability to generate conviction in whatever it does observe, is impaired. By words alone, the eye can never be forced to “think,” but the mind can be made to see.

The above may seem to argue for conversion and translation of optical fact into verbal terms, as if by this means criticism may attain a greater credibility in the depiction of its subject. And pictorial color would be seen as the catalyst for this literal coloration of language. Under the guise of Impressionism, we have already seen a good deal of this writing in the past. But any attempt to vivify it now comes sharp upon an obstacle, on one hand, and a paradox, on the other.

Translation of a visual experience into words is, of course, impossible, even if it were not pointless. Reading the newly created prose becomes simply a cue to what had been seen, or a fairly independent experience in its own right. The paradox consists in the fact that memory of a thing endures through its potency in affecting the faculty of retention—and color, despite its almost electrical status of engendering the mental image of a work, has a very low retention threshold. Not only is color memory particularly inaccurate because unfixed, diffused, and distracted, but it tends to subside and dissolve as rapidly after stimulus as the memory of things tasted or smelled. (And this is not to speak of one’s color intuition of paintings described, but not yet seen.) That is why color is the most palpable and yet the most tenuous topic in criticism. It is memorable, without being recollectable, and even as it quickens the senses, it is lost to comment. But this predicament is compounded all the more because one never senses color generically, so to speak, but frequently as a profusion of hues, a conflagration of qualities in constant diaphanous modulation of each other. Colors induce, cancel, and inflect each other—so much so that memory itself is harried into an exquisite turmoil of evaporating impressions and ghostly intimations. In addition, there is the well known phenomenon that no one senses colors exactly the same, that they exist in that physiological realm in which people cannot compare and judge, but only allude to their sensations. No wonder the old writers constantly referred to color as the soul or the life of the work of art. Its internal effectivity is so completely sealed into its external energy that it can be considered the great enigma of art precisely because it is so immediate.

Such has been a classic dilemma of criticism, no less important for having been long unremarked. Yet, not only have today’s critics inherited this old liability, they have added to it formulations hostile to any resolution of the problem. It was inevitable that writers as obsessed with form as these should revive the animosity toward color that characterized the Florentines in their hoary dispute with Venetian art. We are today wholehearted partisans of the fallacy that color destroys, even as we are being stared down by certain works in which it defines, form. Of course, considerable ambiguity is inherent in the problem. Ruskin, for instance, can say at one moment: “Take care also never to be misled into any idea that colour can help or display form; colour always disguises form, and is meant to do so . . . Colour adorns form, but does not interpret it.” Yet, elsewhere he writes: “If he cannot colour, he is no painter, though he may do everything elsewhere. But it is, in fact impossible, if he can colour, but that he should be able to do more; for a faithful study of colour will always give power over form, though the most intense study of form will give no power over colour.” (Compare this with Vasari’s “He who can draw need not rely on color alone to hide the lack of design as many Venetians do.”) Ruskin was wrong in assuming that any such observations could be made general, but this has not prevented current critics from seeing color as at best, ancillary to an artistic statement.

Symptomatic of this whole direction are recent comments on sculpture whose chromatic surface tends to look superfluous to such critics. Of Anthony Caro’s work, for instance, Clement Greenberg writes that “Here, as almost anywhere else in Western sculpture, color remains truly the ‘secondary’ property that philosophers used to think color in general was . . .” Somehow, the feeling persists that if color is to be discussed, it must be framed within conditions that will make it more tangible, either as sensory datum, or intellectual proposition. Thus, Sidney Tillim writes that “color as such is just another kind of shape.” Or, very shortly after, “Color is actually a subject, or functions like a traditional subject, because like conventional subject matter, it elicits a desirable and corresponding structure.” And Jane Harrison, carrying on for Michael Fried (who was either unwilling or unable to interpret color in Kenneth Noland’s painting), devotes a 1965 essay to explaining where Noland’s colors are placed, and how many inches from what edge. Even her treatment of the “weight” of colors, or their value contrasts, is quantifying rather than qualifying in function. Finally, she feels constrained to apologize for using such evocative words as “radiance” or “against the grain of color,” since they are not analytic, and therefore, not clear. The above quotation may very well be accurate as far as the individual instances to which they refer go. But the fact remains that even after the writer has shifted color into the area in which he feels he can safely deal with it, the whole matter is abruptly dropped, as if he had proved that it had no consequence, after all.

Reasons for this evasion are not far to seek in the goals of present criticism itself. (The latter can be found at its most typical in Artforum.) Taking itself with great seriousness (a reaction against the effusions on action painting, and Pop art), this criticism sees works of art as integers in a grand design whose distinguishing trinity of values are historical consciousness, radicalism, and artistic self-criticism. These values are illuminated by the positions a work may take with regard to an evolving abstract morphology. Accordingly, such factors as scale, objecthood, deductive structure, framing edges, and reconciliation of illusion with the picture plane are all measurements of progress that are in part defined by the critic as well as the artist. (In comparable fashion, Vasari based his critical principles on Rule, Order, Proportion, Design, and Manner.) Accordingly, it is a criticism that tends to establish priorities for technique as against process, concept as against execution, and consistency as against contradiction. Moreover, in its methods, this criticism prefers to describe rather than to evoke, to analyze rather than to synthesize, and to intensify a very few rather than integrate many, tools of examination. Under no circumstance will it be found to relate an experience when it can dissect an object, nor will it express affect when it can state endorsement. Mr. Fried is very firm on this point: “. . . there is no real enjoyment, or no enjoyment of what is really there, apart from judging. One can still enjoy Olitski’s painting simply as color, if one wants, but that is not to enjoy them, or be moved by them, or see them as paintings.” Further, needless to say, it tends to be beyond the writer’s standards of relevance to connect any work of art with the social or psychic world outside and around it. Art presumably springs only from itself and relates to nothing but itself. Let there be no mistake that this mental caliper called modernist criticism holds as its gauge of reality, not unique, shifting states of consciousness. elicited by works of art, but the degree to which concrete objects conform to a self-determining program. In this scheme of things, color, because it would only be subversive, can have no place.

It would have been interesting to declare that American critics, by way of extenuation, had no substantial chromatic achievement to take note of, and that their indifference to the subject was justified on the basis of poverty of material. But the briefest historical sketch of the record indicates exactly the contrary.

To the colorists of the forties, Avery, Gorky, Rothko, and Hofmann, all taking great sustenance from the sensuous Matisse, there were added, in the next decade, Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Reinhardt, and Newman, artists more Germanic in their concern with making sharp or close optical distinctions. When these men disavowed painterly dynamics and radically simplified their form for the purpose of enhancing the vitality of hues, the first systematic and wide-based orchestration of color in 20th-century painting was set in motion—unabated to this day. What these artists had in common, despite their different origins, was their faith in control and discipline, a context that gave their color, whether high or low keyed, a reduced, more often than not close-valued, harmonic inflection that stopped short of total assault upon the sensibility of the observer. Whether “soft” and transparent, and hence tending to be light emanating and diffusing, or “hard” and opaque, and therefore, more light reflective and concentrating, their work was tempered, slow and firm in distillation, and frequently conservationist in mood.

Since then, there have been two further waves of colorist art that partly blend into each other, even if they are still obviously based on the same double legacy of the forties and fifties. With the “floral” and “unfurled” series of Morris Louis, the painting of Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski, the hedonism and seductiveness of French colorism has been stepped up enormously. Hues buoyantly inflate and disperse the molecules of pigment into evanescent, orchidaceous shards or drifts that bathe the eye in a sensuous effulgence that is now almost combustion-like in effect. Meanwhile, artists like Poons, Noland and Stella have crystallized this impact in Dionysiac emblems that exhilarate our senses as much as their colleagues browbeat us by their loveliness.

Clearly, taste has so changed that it is permissible to inject extreme prettiness into color. Even within the framework of highly abstract art, color can be profoundly illustrational, can distinctly invoke the real things and surfaces around it. (As early as 1964, Lawrence Alloway explored the manifold iconographical references of color in American art, in unpublished lectures at Bennington College.) Acrylics look already somehow less organic than oils—and their artificial, dyed, synthetic quality intrudes ever more frequently into pictorial chromatics. Day-glo, metallic colors, and house-painter’s enamels go even further in evoking the American place. We are witnessing the rehabilitation of what were once thought corny or overly sweet, tinselly or lurid, commercial, exquisite, funky or ultra-glamorous colorations into abstract painting and sculpture, not dissimilar from the incorporation of comic strips into Pop art. Think of Robert Irwin, Darby Bannard, and Nicholas Krushenick. With such color, one always feels “outside,” looking at colored surfaces, rather than experiencing chosen hues which are of the artist’s own invention. Color can now be ironic, “concrete,” displaced, above all, specific of its time and place, a vast change from the “generalizing” dynamics and “mainline” palette that alluded to an older tradition, in say, Hans Hofmann.

I SAID BEFORE THAT a responsible account of color would necessitate an overhaul of critical language. (That this overhaul would be hostile to current critical terminology, would, in fact, do away with it, goes without saying.) Another whole article would be required to spell out the direction of that reformation. Here I am only able to indicate its options. Just as recent color developments in painting stress cross breeding, and re-packaging of chromatic possibilities, so I would like to see criticism load and layer a greater density of associations into its handling of the subject. It is one of the great pleasures of color that while it vibrates through the “eye’s” memory, it reverberates, sometimes no less freshly or naturally, through that of all the other sensory faculties as well. Criticism can strive to “fix” color all the more effectively by a figurative realization of its smell, sound, taste, and touch, thereby conveying a semblance of their mutual impingements, such that the phenomenon gains in texture and sinks more deeply into the firmament of remembered or evoked bodily experience. No doubt the ability to do this at all convincingly is intellectually derived, but it is at least directed to characterizing the chemical and physiological sensitivities ignited by the work of art. (Additionally, the appeal that the apparition of color makes to our sexual make-up can hardly be underestimated, and if it is not yet, it should be a commonplace to speak of the erotic latency of color.)

Hues can be acid or alkaline, tart or bland; they can be milky or syrupy, chalky, gritty, loud, quiet, sonorous, dissonant, tinkly, gaseous, wooly. They can be fragrant, earthy, contrapuntal, pulpy, rhythmic, dank, and shrill. They can be oily, powdery, sweet, or melodic. All these “secondary” attributes, whether they refer to the qualities of hues immersed in particular vehicles, or chromatic interrelations, may, in any one instance, be just as important as the actual identity of the hue. They are certainly no less vivid, descriptively. One prefers them to expressions such as “radiant,” “mysterious,” “scorching,” etc.—words as vague as they are rather overbearingly emotional. (They are not even very helpful as modifiers of sensory properties.) For the point is not to categorize a response, but to impart credibility and flavor to that which is responded to. It may not be possible to avoid emotional modulations in our use of such language, but they can be minimized in the interests of critical technique and coherence. That criticism could be much more involving simply on this informational level, is something worth exploring. It makes a great deal of difference, for instance, to say of a yellow, that it is lemon or butter, or to say of a green, in addition to noting its value or its temperature, that it is olive, emerald, or pistachio. References to the linkages between our senses, however specialized in themselves, convey as much, if not more, about the quality of an object than an accurate description of that object which gives no indication that it has been perceived “transparently,” without the benefit of any sensory apparatus.

The limitations of such adjectival vocabulary, nevertheless, become evident in the fact that while they may flesh certain pictorial strands or states of being, they do not convey a very clear sense of process. It is as legitimate to ascribe to colors certain actions as it is to render their sensory “tone.” For practical purposes, the two activities are very close to each other in object and function. They differ mainly in the degree to which they indulge metaphor. Thus, one may find acceptable such observations that colors may spread, irradiate, hedge, cut, blur, sting, or swallow. But what if it were said that they may also deceive, conceal, conflict, retire, or gossip? Here, distinctions between verbs that express the actions of physical substances and those that render human behavior are weakened. Language usage may all along have had to excuse itself for this melange but empathies within the esthetic experience justify it.

For it would be extremely unrealistic to isolate the carnal aspects of a pictorial element like color from our intuitions of its range in comportment. Moreover, this very mixture of affect and process provides recognition of color an escape into a much larger territory of discourse than it would otherwise have been granted. For all their richness, intersensory comparisons are somewhat tautological, because self-referring. Add to them a realm in which they can move, not merely physically, but socially, as it were, and one gives fruition to the intangible as well as the visceral associations of color. Far from being a method of awkward, literalistic translation, this emerges as a concerted characterization and evocation of what might be called the complexion of art. Its mode of reference becomes the circuiting of a sensation with its recollection, and the giving to the psycho-visual residue of a work’s impact, a greater latitude of organic change within and beyond the framework of conceptual thought. Since I hope also to have demonstrated earlier the inextricably blended existences of color and the spectrum of its colleagues in a painting or sculpture, this critical revision must bring them all into the same altered hyperacuity—an immense consequence.

Of course, the resulting critical product will register a great deal of artifice. But it will be an artifice that bears far more relation to the restrictions of words, rather than of conceptual thought, in dealing with the esthetic experience. Unprovability there will always be in such matters; implausibility . . . is something that can be lessened. Yet, however graphic its articulation, we are bound to recognize that our criticism is constrained to treat only the potentialities, only the presence as possibility, of art. At best, a writer can only acknowledge the uniqueness of the created construct, sealed off from all other existing things. By way of the metaphors I have outlined, he offers a hypothetical parallel to the hypothesis which is the work of art. As colors are catalysts of feelings,words can be co-efficients of perceptions. Furthermore, there should be no thought that criticism is a question of finding approximations of sensations (these do not exist in language); rather, it is a process, creative in its own right, of locating their symbolic equivalents. Brought to its highest, which is to say, out from promiscuity on one hand, and logical compulsiveness on the other, criticism projected on this level approaches literary art. Of course, criticism these days is ever more self-aggrandizing. Much of it seeks to impress and convince by the intricacy of its didactic structure; myself, I should like to see it attract by the beauty of what is written, if only because this is more consonant with art itself.

A writer who achieved exactly this, in his striving to give expression to the energy, and delight in which he reveled in all senses, was Aretino. In a letter to Titian, in which judgment is subsumed completely by enjoyment, he wrote (translation by Ralph Roeder):

My dear gossip, having in contempt of my custom supped alone, or rather in company of this tedious fever which lets me relish no food, I rose from table, surfeited with the despondency with which I sat down to it. And resting both arms flat on the window-sill, and leaning my whole body on it, I abandoned myself to the marvelous spectacle of the multitude of boats . . . And when the crowds had dispersed, I, like a man weary of himself and with nothing to occupy my mind, raised my eyes to the heavens which, since God made them, were never so lovely with light and shadow. The atmosphere was such as men like myself, who envy you because they cannot be you, would render it. First, the buildings in the foreground, although of stone, seemed to be of some plastic material; and beyond them you beheld the air, in some parts pure and alive, in other murky and sallow. Fancy, too, how I marveled at the clouds, dense with moisture, lying half in the foreground over the roofs and half in the gloaming, for on the right everything was a sfumato darkening down into grey-black. I was spellbound by the variety of hues they revealed. The nearest burned with the embers of the sunset; the farthest glowed with a dimmer, leaden hue. Ah, how beautifully the hand of Nature hatched the air, making it fade and recede from the palaces, as Titian does in his landscapes! Here was a blue-green and there a green-blue, truly conceived by the caprice of Nature, that master of masters! She melted and modeled with light and shadow in a manner which made me exclaim more than once: O Titian, where are you? Upon my word, if you had painted what I report, you would confound men with the wonder that astounded me; and in gazing on what I have told you I nourished my soul on it, for the wonder of such paintings does not endure.

Max Kozloff



1. For purposes of discussion, I put forth the Random House Dictionary definition of color: “1. the quality of an object or substance with respect to light reflected by the object, usually determined visually be measurement of hue, saturation, and brightness of the reflected light.”