New York

“The Green Mountain Boys”

André Emmerich Gallery

Just in case you’re the last one on the bus, I’m telling you now: formalism is back and better than ever. And I don’t mean the crew of pretty-pretty painters who dabble “playfully” in formalist concerns while studiously disavowing or making fun of the intellectual premises that underwrote Color Field painting, and hence aligning themselves with the kinder, gentler crap that enjoys such vogue in certain quarters of the art world. (It’s worth mentioning that this alignment is not necessarily to the exclusion of those quarters that patronize the mean, scream-at-you aspects of the contemporary scene; in this Venn diagram there is definitely a zone of overlap. Peter Schjeldahl, for example, embraces with ecumenical open-heartedness both pretty-pretty painting and the epigones of Bruce Nauman.) I mean the hard-core, original article—Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, without smirking, without condescension. I’d like to say without irony, but that is literally impossible for us at this historical juncture.

On the heels of the Helen Frankenthaler exhibition at the Guggenheim comes the real Color Field show. For “The Green Mountain Boys: Caro, Feeley, Noland, and Olitski at Bennington in the 1960s,” the gallery looked nothing like the Emmerich of yore, with its slightly tatty, down-at-the-heels ambiance, even though technically I suppose it’s always retained its status as a blue-chip enterprise. These days the space is immaculate, a perfect white box in which to display these ’60s jewels. One entered the gallery as if stepping into it in 1962, at the apogee of High Late Modernism. Of course, this is just a fantasy. Is this what Emmerich, or Sidney Janis or Betty Parsons or Poindexter or Green, looked like then? I can’t know (after all, this period antedates my birth or, at best, coincides with my earliest childhood). It feels more like the early ’6os reimagined with a prismatic lens accommodating an aesthetic orientation more in tune with that of Calvin Klein-esque, Pawsonian “minimalism.” And, risking a mix-and-match of terms that will no doubt offend parties with a more grounded historical understanding, I felt as if I had entered a stage set—precisely the sort of theatrical scenario that the greatest proponent of and apologist for this art famously disdained. The stagecraft worked. I believed in this art that no cool person over the last three decades has really believed in.

We know all this work. Perhaps Paul Feeley, the pedagogical éminence at Bennington (he taught Helen Frankenthaler in the late ’40s), is the big surprise. No doubt part of the appeal of his work today stems from the way it seems to prefigure aspects of Philip Taaffe’s painting—certain of the latter’s early works explicitly lift Feeley motifs—and Taaffe’s reimagination of Feeley allows us to see the older artist’s work with fresh eyes. The Noland target painting here hits with all the force of a welcome slap in the face, or a required cold shower. The Caros are beautiful, and should win over new adherents for whom this artist has heretofore only been a dated name. Olitski is especially startling: his earlier stained canvases look much smarter than the kind of sprayed abstraction for which he earned his fame with Greenberg and Fried and his risible reputation among all those who opposed them. (This exhibition features two stained Olitskis and one sprayed painting, Pink Shush, 1965. Of the latter, I can almost hear the snickers: Pink Slush.)

For all the beauty and elegance in evidence here, the show openly begs the ironic reading of Color Field, taking up another layer of historical reference/fantasia: Bennington, ca. 1965. The pamphlet accompanying the exhibition goes a long way toward nourishing this image-repertoire. The text is a reprint of Alan Solomon’s 1966 Vogue article “The Green Mountain Boys.” The photographs by Mulas are the same ones that accompanied the original piece. A panoramic foldout image documents, in the most lusciously nostalgia-provoking way, the Bennington look, both with respect to natural and aesthetic landscapes: we see in the foreground a lavender Caro sprawling across a greensward with the blue mountains in the distance. In the middle distance, more or less at the center, is a white cottage that can only be described as adorable; to its right a vertical blue Caro arises. The ultimate, perfect touch: a soulful collie—Lassie—cavorts beside the lavender Caro. Solomon dilates on the seductive charms of the Bennington environment for the Big City Folks: “One of the curious things about this history is the way so many of the tough guys who have come into contact with Bennington seem to have fallen desperately in love with the situation, not as a casual liaison, but with undiminished intensity and devotion.”

Of course, it is precisely this context that makes even closet dévotés of Color Field nervous. This exhibition was exemplary in that, while it showed the art to its best advantage, it still implicitly acknowledged the special problems presented by the artists and ideologues of Color Field. We’re very far from the social experiences that conditioned the Green Mountain Boys. To pretend otherwise would be, well, to pretend. Taking the measure of that distance even as we give in to the aesthetic pull of the art is the only sensible way to go.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.