Beginnings are important and basic to the formation of the painter. Spending half my childhood in India and Pakistan, and the insistence in the sub-continent on color as well as on the spiritual in art and life has formed me. Color is never arbitrary for me, but full of meaning. I remember meeting Helen Frankenthaler in 1969—she would become very important to my early painting—and asking her how she chose her color. She replied, “It’s like choosing a word in a poem.”
Color for me is related to specific qualities of light, and according to Guenon, “the initiatic cave is illuminated from within.” I found this embodied in Ajanta and Ellora. Coomaraswamy provided helpful clues. Color is shaped by emotional reference, and I agree with Alain, “Every emotion is a presence.”
Poetry has also been important to my work and without reading Rilke in my formative years, and then Mila Repa, it would have all been completely different. It is Rilke’s insistence on putting the impossible at the center of the quest that stays with me every day. HD also entered my work when I was searching for a furtherance of inward voyaging.
Recently I have been looking at late Braque. And Bonnard is always there as well as Basohli and Pahari painting. Also it is those who companion the journey. And with HD I strive, “to make what is most real more real.”
Drenched by the sun and an expansion of spirit in space, Color Field Painting is exuberant and hedonistic. In an adequate, if not definitive show, “Color as Field,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the eye has much to feast upon with monumental works by Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella. The show opens with a preamble in the gallery containing Rothko, Motherwell, Hofmann, Newman, Gottlieb, and Still. They are curiously chosen pictures as they do not in themselves embody (except for Hofmann’s “Gray Monolith”) why they are precursors of Color Field Painting.
There is a beautiful Sam Francis hanging just before the entrance to the main exhibition that opens the way to wondering just where the space found in the subsequent works perhaps came from. The center of the Francis is open. Reflecting on it I saw an obvious connection to Japanese art, particularly Japanese screens, where empty space can flourish. Sometimes one panel of a screen is completely “empty.” It is the employment of the Japanese concept of “ma” roughly explained as the space between things. It is also a space in its own right.
If there is a mother of Color Field it was Helen Frankenthaler, who provided “a bridge between Pollock and what is possible” (in the words of Morris Louis.) I was very fortunate in the late sixties and early seventies to be in New York and to know Frankenthaler, Motherwell, and Clement Greenberg, who structured much of what was written about these works. Greenberg was passionate about painting and art, and remains the most influential art critic of the twentieth century. Frankenthaler recalled to me in a conversation how Greenberg would suggest the format of pictures to Morris Louis, saying for instance to leave out the middle. Louis came up with the Unfurleds, which are his brilliant take of a hint.
Pollock’s large drip work set a standard not only in their high achievement, but also in the visceral expansion of space. Monet’s nympheas, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with Picasso’s “Guernica” engendered Pollock’s use of large horizontal canvases. The literal expansion of pictorial space is a large factor in the power of Color Field Painting. Olitski and Poons in particular fare far better in their best larger scale work. Frankenthaler is an exception in that her smaller works contain the same power.
I remember being at a show of Larry Poons in the early seventies and visiting it with Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler. Poons was there and exclaimed he could not believe how great his own pictures were. On the way out Helen apropos Poons’ braggadocio recalled being invited to dinner with Willem and Elaine de Kooning when she was a young painter, and she complained she wanted to paint, not go out. Greenberg (whom she was living with) took her aside and explained, “These people are real artists, don’t act like that."
Poons was probably the artist most tied to Greenberg in that he literally had his pictures cropped by the critic. On entering Poons’ studio with yards and yards of canvas stretched over the vast floor space one saw cats wandering over the painted fields. It resembled a Japanese garden in that you could walk over the three-inch thick paint on stepping blocks. I remember suburban ladies fleeing his studio in horror. Greenberg would take the canvas and have it tacked on the wall and Poons’ work would be subdivided from it.
Four large Louis paintings open the main gallery of the show and are all masterworks. One can get a sense of Louis’ range and the magnitude of his accomplishment in this show. Not dripping but pouring, manipulating the pouring and pooling of paint was Louis’ method. The act of pouring the paint remains visible in the pictures. As a result the pictures seem active. Within the bronze veil in particular, there is a vocabulary unique to Louis. It is a language of shapes that achieve a deep rhythm. Submerged beneath the bronze veil are seen pure oranges, greens, and yellows visible at the edges of the veil giving light. It is extraordinary that these huge works by Louis were done in the dining room of a modest bungalow in northwest DC.
In Frankenthaler’s best work there is a joy that is arrived at in the alignment of composition and most of all in an unerring personal color. When I first met Frankenthaler I asked her how she chose her color, she said, “Choosing a color is like choosing a word in a poem.” It is hard to realize at this point how much her palette influenced the use of color in everyday life. The use of color in the seventies was influenced through the wide reproduction of her work at the time. It is amazing how fresh her work seems. “Flood” is theatrical in its large scale and yet retains an intimacy in mood. “Interior Landscape” is a modern masterpiece that opens to inscape. Frankenthaler has declared, “When abstract painting does not have illusion of depth, perspective, space, and when it does not have that ambiguity of playing in volume, then it becomes pure decoration.” Rothko put it more succinctly, “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing."
Also in the show is work by Dzubas, Jack Bush, Noland, Davis, and Gilliam.
Robert Rauschenberg, who recently died at eighty-two, bridged Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Rauschenberg said he worked “in the gap between life and art.” In that very gap I remember working on top of a table at Gemini G.E.L in Los Angeles in the eighties stretching Rauschenberg’s light box piece onto an aluminum stretcher. The print was printed onto parachute cloth and the important thing was not to ding the piece, making it unusable in the final artwork. The room had a machine taking out the static in the atmosphere. At one point I fell off the table, getting a day off from work and a pair of aluminum crutches.
Printmaking was what spread Rauschenberg’s reputation, making his work available at more affordable (for some) prices and multiplying his solo shows. It is impossible to think of American prints in the last fifty years without thinking of Rauschenberg. There were stories at Gemini of Rauschenberg coming in at eleven in the morning seriously drunk and his taking suggestions on the insertion of images into the prints. Nevertheless, his prints always have a masterful sense of composition, as well as a play off image and brushwork that holds in even his slightest pieces.
First meeting Rauschenberg when I was fifteen years old in India while he was on tour with the Merce Cunningham dance company was a shock. I had met many of the best Indian artists at that time in New Delhi, but they were serious and sober. Rauschenberg in his mid-thirties was like an overgrown kid. He was fresh from his triumph in Venice, winning the Biennale. I met him in the company of John Cage, David Tudor, and Merce. Cage’s notion of chance is the basis of Rauschenberg’s philosophy of art. I remember a nervous Cage trembling like crazy for several minutes trying to light a cigarette and someone intervening to light it for him.
In the performance of the Cunningham dance company in Delhi a bicycle came down at the end encrusted with marigolds. It was a sure and deft touch of Robert Rauschenberg who was credited with set design and participated in the performance. I remember that there was a wit and lightness in the dance and dancers that I have missed seeing subsequently in Merce’s performances.
Rauschenberg’s first strike was erasing de Kooning’s drawing, an absolute moment of arrogance. But the very structure of Rauschenberg’s later work was derived from de Kooning’s fifties painting. The greatest Rauschenbergs I have seen are in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from the Panza collection. They stand comparison with anything done in modern art. When I last saw Rauschenberg almost twenty years ago in his loft in New York I recalled meeting him in India, and he said, “I was younger then.” Yet he still had the grace and even a bit of the boyishness of that Halloween of 1964.
Is it landscape or the body? And yet there is a “Disintegrating Pig” and a horse/dog-like creature with phallus; but there are also the almost literal landscapes and always vignettes of landscape-feeling. It is biomorphism but with a landscape paradigm. It is Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street, NW Tues. – Wed. 10 a.m.–5 pm, Thu. 10 am - 8:30 pm, Fri. – Sat. 10 am – 5pm, Sun. 11 am - 6 pm.)
New Mexico was crucial to breakthroughs in the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Georgia O’Keefe, and Stuart Davis. Far from the center of the New York School, but very much a player in these New Mexico works, Diebenkorn hits and maintains a very high level. Many of these paintings, drawings, and even the one sculpture hold up with the best art of a very charged moment.
Recently a French dealer of the latest photography was looking with me at painting in New York from the fifties and declared, “The fifties was it.” Also the period was very important for American poetry, and music (classical and jazz,) and dance (ballet and modern.) It was a tremendous nexus.
Diebenkorn’s first mature abstractions had been hatched while he was in San Francisco. They do not match the freedom and assurance in the New Mexico works. Diebenkorn’s first attachment was to the work of Edward Hopper, also seen in his painting of the later fifties. It was Diebenkorn’s veering from the abstract to the figurative that gave him the profile he had when I first encountered his work. There is a similarity to de Kooning’s own on-again off-again tryst with abstraction. In fact it was from reproductions of black and white de Koonings of around 1950 that Diebenkorn departed and the New Mexico oeuvre was born. It is incredible how well Diebenkorn was able to read those reproductions!
One sees the X-shape of de Kooning in Diebenkorn: not quite as elegant, not quite as stressed. Diebenkorn is from this moment a master of composition. While there is a falling off in the quality of his abstract works after this period leading to the realist phase, it is his balancing of shapes that always holds. His color is never surprising; it is always sure. His paint quality (described by a colleague of his as “piss–thin”) is always felt.
In Diebenkorn’s color in these works one senses the light and air of New Mexico. It is a very different light and air from the Santa Monica of his Ocean Park series. Those were born from his encounter with Matisse’s “Zorah on the Terrace.”
Working at Gemini G.E.L. I met Diebenkorn and observed his interaction with the master printers. One of them had convinced Diebenkorn to take a single state of a lithograph and turn it into a print in its own right. It was named somewhat ironically after the printer. The printers were each given prints, worth tens of thousands of dollars of each edition they produced. Thus it was in their interest to get as many prints as they could. Diebenkorn was being importuned to take another single state of a litho and make a finished print out of it. He very gently said no.
In my interaction with Diebenkorn I found him articulate and open, talking about art in the jargon of the fifties. He seemed almost ordinary, without the airs of a master; he was centered and unassuming. Roy Lichtenstein, who was there at the same time, all but wagged his tail at the appearance of the awful Marsha Weisman (collector, and sister of Norton Simon and wife of Fred) while almost not speaking to anyone else. Diebenkorn did say that he could not wait to get back to his studio to paint. Almost everyone who worked printing at Gemini was an artist, though not so fortunate as to have a studio in Santa Monica!
In Diebenkorn’s late works, mostly small, there is a revisiting of the compositional structure and vocabulary of the New Mexico works. In the early fifties’ works he wanted to move toward the edge, to open the center. There are signs and glyphs in the works in the Phillips’ show that he uses in his Abschied. Somehow it is touching that Diebenkorn went back to the first moment of his completely coming into full being as a painter to bid farewell.