PRINT April 2008


IN THE CONTEXT of an issue concerned with the color of money, it might nevertheless be productive to consider a wider plethora of hues. Or so it would seem given the questions raised by “Color Chart,” an exhibition recently opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art and organized by curator Ann Temkin.
Spanning works by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Dan Graham, Jennifer Bartlett, André Cadere, and Liz Deschenes, Temkin’s show focuses on the role played by standardized and mass-produced color in the shaping of art production since 1950, and proposes the “readymade” hue as a common, if unstable, thread running through the work of several generations of modern and contemporary practitioners. The aforementioned artists, and nearly forty more, variously press pigment, courting its residual appeals to pure emotion even while emphasizing its modern, coolly detached commercialization.
And yet Temkin suggests that “Color Chart” also provides a jumping-off point for considerations of institutional politics, historical narratives, and the place of critical discourse within a glutted economy. Indeed, the provocative (and timely) subtext of her show is one of larger tensions between critical and curatorial concerns and between institutional and market imperatives. For while the artists constituting Temkin’s narrative ostensibly share a “conceptual” bent, they also offer an embarrassment of tactile riches. And museums, for their part, stand at the crossroads of vetting such histories: one part symbolic value; one part cold, hard cash. (Perhaps this attribution and status is especially pertinent when it comes to the example of MoMA, given its status as a sort of ur-museum in our time.) And so, Temkin argues, although the ways in which artistic objects and genealogies are constructed, received, and eventually consumed is a subject interrogated often enough, the nature of other presumed tensions—between the market and the critical endeavor, between the institution and critical practice—might itself be due for some reevaluation. In the interview that follows, conducted while “Color Chart” was still being installed, Temkin discusses a show that proffers a history of artists who cut their teeth on the stuff of modernist inquiry, and yet proposes a reconsideration of the museum’s role in taming and safely contextualizing what were once anti-aesthetic—or in some cases über-aesthetic—acts. A provocative tallying of contemporary concerns comes via a history lesson.

JOHANNA BURTON: It’s safe to say, I think, that there is often a murmur of discontent in the art world about the stupendous coming together of wealth and cultural production today. But perhaps a more significant problem is that no one is really willing—or able—to suggest any truly viable alternative. Instead, many of us hold up what are likely romanticized—or at the very least simplified—ideas of historical moments that seem less structured by, or for, distribution and codification. Now, I say this because you’ve described “Color Chart” as a rejoinder of sorts, in terms both of contemporary art’s critical reception and of the way in which the Museum of Modern Art’s mission is carried out today. I should say outright that this is surprising to hear about an exhibition that is at first glance beautiful, plush, amazingly aesthetic. So how do you see “Color Chart” participating in this conversation? How did you first conceive the show?

ANN TEMKIN: It’s an issue that was in the back of my mind since we first acquired Gerhard Richter’s 180 Colors [1971] at the Philadelphia Museum of Art ten years ago. Perhaps the idea really crystallized for me in 2004 when the Museum of Modern Art acquired an untitled 1989 Donald Judd sculpture and it arrived with the fabrication order listing the RAL code numbers for the color of each aluminum box. This is, I thought, really art after the palette. This is no longer about mixing paints with any grandiose ideas of creativity. Even the way an artist’s palette is typically identified with that person—as if it were a metonym for the artist—no longer seemed true in the same way. For me, then, the commercial color chart served as a key to our thinking about color’s having lost its identity as a transcendent, lofty thing. And in our present context, where it can sometimes seem like anything goes when it comes to contemporary art, it offered me a way to measure and position the art of our own day within a certain trajectory. Funnily enough, I realized only midway into my research that this line of inquiry was an absolutely logical follow-up to my work for the Barnett Newman exhibition [at the Philadelphia Museum of Art] in 2002. I was personally retracing the steps the artists in the show had taken more than forty years ago. In other words, Newman’s work contained the seeds of this next stage. Whereas his rhetoric about his work still matched that of his peers in his own generation—full of both ego and spirituality—the appearance of his work at the time lent itself to a misreading as craftless and impersonal: qualities accepted as a plus by the next generation’s artists and that they set out to pursue in their own work.

JB: Obviously, you’re putting forward a history of the utilization of color over the past fifty years or so, but others would have told it quite differently. It’s not a transparent historical narrative that can’t be questioned: You start with Duchamp and conclude with Sherrie Levine. How does this provide a different story, and how do you take into account—redirecting or deferring—the museum’s inevitable role in creating symbolic and sometimes economic value?

AT: Well, I’m making an argument, right? I’m thinking about the museum as a knowledge center, as [curator] Jan Debbaut has phrased it. Of course, an exhibition such as this one will have short-term critical or economic ramifications for certain of its artists, but if I do my job right, my evident purpose is arguing and presenting a historical narrative I believe in, rather than affecting a market. I think that analytic exhibitions are essential. One by-product of a hot market has been a certain noncriticality, as if to say: “All contemporary art is good by mere virtue of its newness.” I’ve felt a great frustration with that. Part of my argument with some of the new art one sees made today is that it somehow seeks to avoid the issues of our cultural situation, pretending that the past fifty or even one hundred years of art history didn’t happen.

Also, in the short term, what ends up being considered good is decided in part by what sells. I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive, but if it’s a Venn diagram, one finds the two circles of popular work and of seriously challenging, potentially history-making work to have a relatively small area of overlap. It’s up to museums to tend to, even to articulate, the latter circle. And that does require group exhibitions that situate contemporary work historically, which are not so common.

JB: Why is that?

AT: Most curators would agree that it is easier to put together a monographic show, for instance, than a more synthetic one intended to push our thinking and provoke the field. Such shows are generally more difficult to research, to fund, to attract press for—on and on.

JB: As you’ve described it, “Color Chart” opens onto the question of distinctions between the modern and the contemporary—which is significant, given the context of MoMA. Yet it sounds to me like there might be an uneasy question of how one approaches the public—a split between the imperatives to be a crowd-pleaser and those to be a crowd educator. In fact, we were walking downstairs by the Jim Lambie [ZOBOP!, 1999] as it was being installed and we noted how visitors seemed so excited to see this piece being installed, possibly more interested in the process and the promise of the artist’s “presence” than in the work or show itself. How do you see the museum’s educational role now, in contrast with its role at the institution’s very inception?

AT: Visitors definitely enjoy watching things happen. And one purpose of the exhibition was to bring an immediate awareness of artists and artmaking into the space of the museum. One of my goals was to showcase the work of art—the object not as an isolated artifact but as the result of a process. So it’s not a focus on masterpieces or art stars, and that’s harder to communicate. Certainly, American museums have long been caught up in their need for money and, by extension, their need for an audience. So there is often great pressure to provide the familiar or obviously seductive exhibitions—whether it’s the famous name of the individual artist or the well-known art movement. In this regard, I should say that MoMA is extremely fortunate, luxuriously so, in terms of its visitorship, its endowment, and its unbelievably supportive trustees. What we need to be addressing is not our popularity in the quantitative sense of visitors paying for a ticket but rather our mission of providing a springboard for conversations that change the field.

JB: This idea of luxury is interesting. Some people argue that the best thing to happen to the art world would be a recession, because it’s typically at moments of economic crisis that greater strides are taken in aesthetic and intellectual movements. Perhaps that’s a romantic way of thinking about economic poverty, or simply wrongheaded?

AT: I do think the attitude is a romantic one, at least at the institutional level. If attendance and membership revenue decrease, there will be a greater desire on the part of the museum administration, perhaps reluctantly, for shows that are guaranteed revenue producers. It’s actually during flush times that we should take advantage of the situation and be adventurous. But all that said, we also have to be wary of thinking that MoMA was “pure” in the golden days. From the start, there was great awareness of how many visitors we had, how much media attention we had, and how glamorous the people at the parties were. It was never a monastery or a perfect art oasis. This fact is represented by our geographic location: From the day we opened, we were in the center of business in midtown Manhattan. By comparison, older American museums were set off in parks, creating a physical and symbolic separation of art from the bustle of ordinary life and all the things that come with it—money, journalism, and whatever else. And one should remember that we’re a private museum; we don’t operate on municipal, state, or national funding. In fact, we were founded by collectors and were absolutely enmeshed with relationships among artists, dealers, collectors, and critics to a degree that at that time was unusual. Now it has become something of a norm for museums, not only museums of modern or contemporary art, but other museums as well.

JB: For a kind of critical reflection on our moment and on an institution like MoMA’s place in it, one would think the last place one would turn is to a thematic show about color, and yet I suppose this is the point at which one can read a kind of metanarrative. You begin with Duchamp’s 1918 piece Tu m’, effectively underlining his famous argument that all paintings are in some way found objects because they incorporate paint, which is itself a readymade. And yet any premise that all affect has been drained from color is quickly complicated; there’s plenty of pleasure to be had here, on a lot of different registers. So this question about color producing emotion and affect (and even manipulating both) versus color’s chance procedures, systematization, industrialization, and commercialization produces clashes within your show. It’s especially interesting because the very look of austere, colorless “criticality” has itself become extremely stylized and easily consumable. You seem to want to put forward a position that has these two sides historically linked.

AT: It’s a false dichotomy, as Briony Fer explains in her catalogue essay. The dichotomy between color as it has been practiced by the artists in the show and the idea of art as a passionate, desire-filled enterprise is a false one. I want to suggest that the sublime pleasure of, say, Rothko or Matisse actually isn’t sacrificed in contemporary art; it’s necessarily transformed. In the art of the past fifty years, there isn’t the same belief in symbolism or theories about color that there was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But that doesn’t mean that color is not a hugely important part of the way artists think and work—it’s just that the questions being asked are different ones than they were early on. Rather than abandon color as a subject because it doesn’t seem like artists are interested in the old questions, we need to ask what were and are the new questions. For example, we should ask about, rather than take at face value, the nature of an apparent indifference.

JB: It’s striking how you use the term indifference. In the catalogue, each section leads off with a quote from an artist—which actually seemed a potentially strange gesture for a show ostensibly about acknowledging that the author has removed him- or herself from the conversation. This is telling in terms of what it means to make a show that is historical but leads up to contemporary production, this idea of pairing the systemic and the subjective and allowing them to kind of infect each other.

AT: The use of the quotations was to show that a historical trajectory comes from the attitudes of individuals, and also to suggest the complexity of situating the self in the making of these works of art. By talking about color in this way, I hope to bring together art on the basis not only of how it looks but also of the thinking behind it. It’s more of a procedural and intentional kind of exploration. Think of Rauschenberg joking about how he loved discount paints because the labels were off and he could paint without knowing what colors he would be using. What I’m trying to say is that we should take that nonchalance seriously, and not only examine what that rejects but also ask what it is producing.

JB: Which artist would you say manifests this complicated mix of subjective indifference most compellingly in the show?

AT: I’ve talked a lot with the art historian Christine Mehring about how Blinky Palermo is double-sided: He is someone working with color as a readymade, having shopped for his fabrics at department stores, yet he has a romantic attitude that resulted in pieces that absolutely obtain, for me, a kind of contemporary sublime.

JB: Palermo does seem to be an interesting case for reconsideration at the moment, with a number of historians willing to read his work as not strictly conceptual or, better, straining the limits of certain notions of the conceptual. But in this regard I also think of the [John] Chamberlain pieces in the show, which were never popular at all when he first presented them, because they seemed too precious and too—

AT: —beautiful.

JB: So if this is a show about conceptual practices that result in beautiful objects, does that make you nervous as a curator—particularly when it comes to our con- text in what we’ve already characterized as a largely market-driven moment?

AT: One subtext of the show is that all great artists are masters of the formal—even if the term formalist now has a narrow and specific meaning that would exclude many. Considerations of Conceptual art have for the most part been absent of those questions. Yet there is no doubt that, with a thirty- or forty-year time lag, works like those of Sol LeWitt appear breathtakingly beautiful, among other things. An artist as conceptual as Walid Raad, who is in the show, could be called an amazing formalist. In turn, to take an example of an artist outside the scope of the show, Matisse’s painting is as smart as it is beautiful. There’s not an either-or.

JB: Matisse is an intriguing example to bring up, because he was of course quite radical in his time, and now he is all too often discounted as merely decorative and whimsical.

AT: And Matisse, at the end of his life, makes a step toward what I am talking about, using the painted papers for the cutouts or the manufactured glass for the chapel in Vence. Mondrian, too, in the 1940s, shows a modernist caught up in this trajectory, using colored masking tape to plot the compositions of his last paintings.

JB: I can’t help but want to press you again about how you feel this show will be experienced and ultimately how it will be read. As you describe it, it’s meant to be an institutional intervention, but is it possible it could be read just as a formalist endeavor, without necessarily evoking the ideas you lay out here?

AT: I had wondered at first whether the show’s being at MoMA would skew the reading, if people would think it a strictly formalist approach.

JB: It’s a very forceful framing device, MoMA. Something that struck me was your insistence in the catalogue that color is ideally a site where art and life become totally intertwined. And here I thought about how some of the most extreme criticisms of, say, Minimalism had to do with some people’s feelings that artists were making these stark, inaccessible, conceptual objects. In a funny way, this is a critique that could be leveled at “Color Chart” itself, at least in its first few rooms, where the objects seem very self- contained, even for all their color. Your proposition about these objects being in dialogue with the world is very embedded at the outset, becoming more transparent only later in artworks that read as more self-consciously “political” or “critical”—I’m thinking here of, say, Byron Kim’s Synecdoche [1991–]. In a show that operates chronologically, the first rooms seem to offer more autonomous objects while the final rooms present objects that seem almost entirely to manifest responses to context.

AT: Perhaps. I think the distinction is that at the beginning, it’s a question that is more concentrated within color and art. But I think historicity is still very much there, whether in John Chamberlain’s paintings with auto lacquer and metal flake or Warhol’s images of Marilyn. It utterly fascinates me that the first Pantone fan deck dates from 1963, the same year as those Chamberlains and so much of the art in the first gallery, give or take a year.

JB: With this idea of historicity in mind, let’s say a little bit about Sherrie Levine, because to my mind she has been producing work that is compellingly “historically” minded yet very much of her time for the past thirty years. Why does her work end the show? And why end with work in which she returns to the 1930s?

AT: Levine’s 2007 series of paintings based on Le Corbusier’s color charts of 1931 struck me as an uncanny coincidence with “Color Chart.” The conversation I wanted between modernism and today is exactly reflected in these particular works through the medium of a Le Corbusier color chart.

JB: Her recuperation of a failed project by Le Corbusier . . .

AT: Failed is even too distinguished a word for it. It just fell flat. And the case of Le Corbusier is a great way of considering the strange polarization of the feeling about color in modernism. Here’s the man who coined the “law of Ripolin”—saying that everyone should whitewash their homes to get rid of the horror of color—inventing lines of painted wallpapers.

JB: That kind of customization actually brings to mind a Bertolt Brecht quote, used by Briony Fer in her book On Abstract Art, in which he says color is the very worst thing that one can appeal to when seeking any kind of social or didactic or critical engagement with the public—because everybody has a response to it, but it’s always their own. The color red might suggest a rose to one person but a casualty of war to someone else, which in the end only disrupts any potential for discursive engagement. But in a weird way, Brecht is arguing for the very thing he claims not to want, which is that you can get everybody to immediately pay attention by using this powerful thing, color, which is at once utterly personal and not personal at all.

AT: Yes, that reminds me of the months when I was preparing the show: Whenever I would say to people that I was working on an exhibition about color, they would immediately become excited about whatever their idea of a show about color would be. I would smilingly agree and say yes, but here’s what this approach will be . . . And, even as they began to warm to my idea, I could always detect a polite sense of disappointment that my color show would not be their color show.

Johanna Burton is an art historian and critic based in New York.