New York

Priscilla Colt, Stephen Prokopoff, Pat Sands, Alan Cote, Gary Hudson and Clement Greenberg

Whitney Museum of American Art

The first impression that one gains of Marcia Tucker’s survey, “The Structure of Color,” at the Whitney Museum, is that it is handsome and winning but, very quickly, nettlesome issues creep in and attach themselves to the enterprise, at last revoking the initial good impression into one of caution and doubt. First, there is the competitive memory of several color shows of these past two years—Priscilla Colt’s “Color and Field,” Stephen Prokopoff’s “Two Generations of Color Painting,” Pat Sands’ “Color” among still others, not to mention Clement Greenberg’s “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” which was held, it will be remembered, way back in 1964. The problems of these exhibitions, the last named perhaps being an exception, are connected to a simple notion, namely that so-called color paintings in a large clear exhibition space are, in themselves, sufficient esthetic justifications for the events to have taken place at all. Much of the relative unimportance of such exhibitions can be traced to this cavalier attitude. Moreover, they accepted, as Tucker’s still accepts, and promoted, as Tucker’s still promotes, the idea that figuration or figurative art is divorced from essential color problems—which it is not; or that artists who work with technological issues or with color not embedded in what conventionally passes for paint, are equally alienated from the problem of color—which they are not. I would take, for example, Keith Sonnier’s technological employment of color any day over that of Alan Cote, though he is here at the Whitney and Sonnier is not; I would take Alan Saret’s over Gary Hudson’s though the latter is present and the former not; and Andy Warhol’s glamorously arbitrary color—though he is clearly a figurative artist—over most of the younger artists in the show. What, then, was the selection premise?

Selection criteria, for color overviews particularly, break down like this:

a) Allegiances and fears; views of friends, enemies, lovers, families; political strategies involving artistic reputations, powerful dealers, anxious curators, jejeune critics, rapacious collectors, and still other factions of the art community; the multiplicity of extrapolations possible to the aforementioned pressure centers.

b) Distinguishing a common feature, a self-evident working principle, which makes for the semblance of order although the rule may have only emerged into clarity during the very process of selection. I think this happened during Tucker’s selection as so many of the figures can only, with unquestioning good will, be bent to the intellectual scaffolding erected to sustain the exhibition.

Like many, Curator Tucker views the history of color painting as having emerged first as part of the non-gestural aspects of Abstract Expressionism, in the work of the so-called Field Painters. This tendency was reinflected during the mid-1960s and became known by the tag name “Post-Painterly Abstraction.” Still a third phase was entered at the end of the ’60s, a phase which I have called “thick field painting,” others “lyrical abstraction,” a development which combines the morphological extremes of the first Abstract Expressionist group—field and gesture.

In her examination of this tripartite history, Curator Tucker discerned a principle based on an attitude toward compositional organization which had not been singled out for examination previously in terms of color or within a broad survey—thirty-nine artists are shown here. Doubtless the emotional predispositions we must cope with during the experience of color tend to cloud or discourage the isolation of this principle. But it is also likely that the principle itself is either so specious or so simplistic as not to have warranted broadcasting in the first place. The number of inconclusive demonstrations in the exhibition lead one to the latter view. Whatever, “Tucker’s Law” had long been talked about in terms of the individual artists in question. In her usage, the structure of color refers to a compositional type which tends “to stabilize . . . forms from painting to painting, so that the basic figuration remains the same for a series of works.” This, plus the fact that Josef Albers is cited as the “classic example,” suggests that Tucker may have derived the working principle from her awareness of Minimalist seriality. However, the kinds of series that Tucker is willing to admit can run from the square-within-square compositions of Albers to the group of scarcely visible open quadrilaterals which form the substratum of certain recent Walter Darby Bannards; it can include the survival of edges in the regular subdivisions of Robert Zakanych’s grids as well as the marginal spottings of Doug Ohlson. It can include these things, but it cannot distinguish, in terms of quality, Albers from Bannard from Zakanych from Ohlson. And that, to me at least, says something very serious about the aptitude of the curatorial eye.

What we have then is a set-up situation to force the impression that certain young artists—many of whom I have championed as well as many whose work I think deplorable—can “look” as good as the revered figures beside whom they are pointedly hung. The fault here then is not in the incapacities of young painters but one of curatorial recklessness. A provincial curator, open to manipulation by the powers of the New York Art Market, easily could be inveigled into making the kinds of errors made in this exhibition. Having a vague theory about art could suffice; finding a handful of fashionable young painters could suffice—color surveys tend to look nice no matter what the odds or the issues. But it is surprising to find this show at the Whitney. For one whose politics are already famously right-minded in the New York art world, the political servility of Curator Tucker’s exhibition is distressing. Though she spouts the (b) criterion described above in her catalog, her selection is unalloyed (a). It retells the enervating story of paintings for the “junior collectors” at prices they can afford. Entirely too much of the new “Soho scene” has been legitimized on the Whitney Museum walls.

Robert Pincus-Witten