Los Angeles

“Color”

UCLA Art Gallery

“Color” at UCLA is a curious affair: on one hand it appears a can’t-miss overture—half a dozen manufacturers of chromatic delectation, a collection of paintings and a catalog both hip, scholarly and decorative in the extreme; on the other, it is tepid and disjointed. The reasons for this negative element lie partly in the mechanics behind the show and partly in the exhibition itself. The acknowledgement states that the exhibition is an educational exercise: ten graduate students assigned themselves six artists, gathered the show, and wrote the appropriate catalog essays. As with novels by undergraduates, one-man shows by Venezuelan painters and press conferences by Weathermen, one never quite knows whether to ingest the phenomenon with (implied) apology for the source’s shortcomings, or to take it straight. The painters here are major and the production is MGM, so we take it straight. Since the exhibition attempts only to assemble the obvious (various forms of big, recent plein-air painting) and to burp up still more distilled appreciations of the work of Ron Davis, Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella, it must be regarded primarily as a mission in art criticism. (However, for the record, the personnel is good, the paintings—quibblings of connoisseurship aside—are pretty good to very good, and there are too many of them for the limited, choppy space.)

“Color” is a simplistic topic and a naive title for an exhibition, and the speciousness of the whole isn’t really mitigated by the individually perceptive catalog essays; in his piece on Ron Davis, Charles Kessler opens with, “Modernist painting employs three main media for expression: color, shape, and line.” Imagine if you will a show called, “Shape,” whittled down to Motherwell, Youngerman, Nick Krushenick and three others. That the UCLA Six are colorists is unassailable, but not definitive colorists, as implied through exclusions: Hofmann, Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Newman, Frankenthaler and Sam Francis. If a deficiency of student-curators decimated the show, then that’s what is wrong with serving two masters (us and the Master’s degree). Insufficient wall space should have been surmounted by including less than five or six per artist; variety would have only enhanced the bouquet. Since the catalog offers no overview fully explaining the operative thesis of “Color,” one can only guess about a particularly problematical artist like Ron Davis. To be sure, he paints with a super-charged poster-paint palette, but his images owe so much to objecthood, perspective, and overlapping-undercutting of paint that the sudden sense of disorientation peculiar to his work comes through re-markably undiminished in black-and-white photographs. What the catalog does adduce are six smooth, slick, didactic and somewhat subdued pieces which seem, to their credit, to admire Michael Fried’s formalism and Darby Bannard’s common sense. But boiled down, no essay pumps for its chosen artist with anything faintly resembling passion.

Peter Plagens