3 Modern American Painters
At the Fogg through May 30
Harvard's first exhibition of significant contemporary painting is now at the Fogg. Junior fellow Michael Fried has gathered nineteen major works by Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella into a comprehensive statement of abstract art of the mid-sixties.
The powerful impact of the canvases--they are at least six feet high and are brightly colored--inhibits an immediate appreciation of the subtleties of the pictures. I suggest that the viewer walk through all the rooms briefly to accustom himself to the large, new images before his eyes, and then return to the paintings for a more extended time.
As with a piece of music, the viewer must react to the abstract qualities of a non-representational art with a willingness to be moved. Like rhythm, melody, and harmony in music, coloristic spacial structural themes are the essentials of this art. An appreciation of these qualities requires a substantial span of time before the canvas.
This is especially true of Stella's works as they evolve from 1959. The contrast between his Die Fahne Hoch (1959) and Ileana Sonnabond (1963) in gallery 11, makes the later work seem dead-pan in comparison to the more obvious monumentality of the earlier one. In time, however, the white lines of the magenta trapezoid come to life.
It seems that Stella means the white stripes to be perceived in the same plane as the purple stripes, having a prominence equivalent to the color. Once the viewer perceives this equivalence, he is able to see an oscillating dynamism take hold of the picture. The white lines wiggle and the bounding stripes continuously exchange roles with the bounded stripes. The repetition of trapezoids becomes mesmerizing and the number of rings becomes an important factor in the painting. The fascination is like ripples in a pond. And like movement in nature, the movement in Stella's best (blatently denatured) pictures encourage contemplation.
So it, is with Olitski's suffused surfaces of color and Noland's sharp, penetrating angles of color. It there is freedom and movement in the formalized schemes of the three painters, it is a hard-won emerging vitality.
Different colors have different densities, feel nearer, more vibrant or softer than others; as in Olitski's subtle color washes. Those are predominently on a flat surface. The importance of the surface in contemperary art is brilliantly discussed by Fried in the "nexus o formal "nexus of formal issues" contained in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition: The first of "these issues concerns the ability of line, in modernist painting . . . to be read as bounding a shape or figure, whether abstract or representational."
A shape is usually differentiated from the surface of the canvas by the line enclosing the shape. A black line or a black blotch on a white surface creates the illusion of "relief," just as surely as a seated figure seems separate from the picture plane. The painters of the exhibit tend to reject relief and explicit bounding lines in favor of a more homogeneous surface area. Paint is exploited for its own abstract properties. The colored surfaces imply nothing but colored surfaces, demanding the viewer's interest solely in the value of their interrelationship.
Noland's Mach 2 (and all of Stella's pictures) illustrates Fried's second key "formal issue," the growing dependence of the shape of the composition and the shape of the canvas in the surface unity. The edge of the canvas is one of the limits (not boundaries) of the painted chevrons. The dramatic shape of the canvas is not determined by an arbitrary circumference; it is part and parcel of the shapes of the fields of color. Each chevron marks off a parallelogram of different size but of similar proportions. The whole constantly intermingles with the parts and is more than their sum.
Michael Fried's essay deserves the attention of the viewers. It yields a greatly increased sense of what is "going on" in Stella, Noland, and Olitski and how they follow preceding abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis. The key ideas and the observations contained in Fried's essay reveal the paintings in the show as a fascinating world of color and form.
Fried finds the basis of modern art in the changed relationship between artists and society: "the alienation of the artist from the general preoccupations of the culture in which he is embedded." A consciousness of art history conspires to make the modern artist highly self-critical, content with a particular solution only if it raises further problems and promises consequent evolution. Thus Fried says that intense personal revolutions occur in the artist's production of different series of works. His description follows the traditional, romantic conception of the artist's struggle to create, which seems only partially true in today's American, affluent society.
The force of this exhibition and the essay is directed toward a particular type of modern art and a particular type of criticism. Fried handles abstract art masterfully as a critic but maintains a critical bias in his "historical generalizations. He treats as historically insignificant many excellent contemporary painters who are concerned with the everyday things of our world, that is, artists who work with "subject matter." It is important to see more of the aspects of the exciting contemporary scene. Fried has gathered together an abstract exhibition of high quality though not representative of all legitimate contemporary styles.