Shades of Significance: Tonal Values in Abstract Art
at the Fogg Museum
through December 1994
It is a shame that the Fogg Museum has kept its current exhibition "Shades of Significance: Tonal Values in Abstract Art" underpublicized and virtually hidden behind an exhibition of antique clocks. The show opened December 11, but it has not received the exposure and recognition it deserves. The exhibition examines the uses of color and tones in abstract art, spanning from Picasso's Cubist collages to Louise Nevelson's monochromatic sculptural reliefs.
The show begins with James Abbott McNeil Whistler's painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: Rag Shop, Chelsea (c. 1848) He explores the effects of shadow and light, outlining a little girl's illuminated white dress in a dimly lit storefront which encloses her in a veil of darkness. The only representational painting in the exhibit, it anchors the efforts of the later painters in their exploration of tonality in the continuum of degrees of abstraction.
The exhibition consists of many abstract expressionists who confront and dissect the issues of color. In two characteristic works by Franz Kline, color is reduced to the essentials, black and white. He creates a world of undefinable forms and limited space through the use of thick brushstroke and straight edges. In Composition (1952), space is sectioned off by geometric forms, creating depth and volume within a closed space. The white has traces of black to reveal the underlying layers of the painting as well as to indicate the presence of the painter himself. High Street (1950) portrays a more complicated definiton of space less successfully through the application of black and white. The forms are more planar, and the white is cleaner; thus, the painting is pushed to its surface. These works are not the most appealing of Kline's efforts because they do not achieve the opticality and the ambiguous, real space which characterizes his work. However, they do succeed in demonstrating the creation of space through the extreme tones of color.
If you missed the magnificent exhibition of the Mark Rothko murals which were on display at the Sackler for the most part of the Fall, you have a chance to catch some of his smaller works in this exhibition. Rothko was captivated by the visual experience of color. His work had a profound impact on the color field artists such as Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. This leaves me to wonder why the exhibition didn't include some of their works such as Olitski's sprays or Louis's Blue Veils (which is in Fogg storage).
Rothko's large soft-edged squares seem to vibrate when absorbing the brilliance of his colors. The Black and the White (1956) is a purely optical experience, as the impenetrable white square and a smaller, opaque black square thrust and recede simultaneously. A static red rectangular form sits atop the white square, emphasizing the purity of its whiteness. Rothko's other work in the show, Untitled Brown and Gray (1969), has similar effects. However, he explores the density of the colors; the squares are more saturated at the connecting border than they are at the edges. This uneven concentration of color leads the eye to the uncovered, white paper. The juxtaposition of the dark form and the untouched whiteness produces a sharper sense of weight. Unfortunately this piece is in a glass case that catches all the lights in the room, imposing disruptive reflections on the work. The casing diminishes the effects of this incredible work. Nevertheless, these two pieces exemplify the mesmerizing quality of Rothko's explorations of color.
The larger pieces in the exhibition are more ambitious in what they attempt to achieve. Elllsworth Kelly's enormous triptych, Dark Gray, White, Gray (1980) builds on Kline's ideas of figure and ground. Here, the paintings themselves become part of a larger painting, with the wall of the room its canvas. Kelly has broken the barriers of the canvas and expanded the field of space in order to create large planes of pure color--or in this case, pure shades. Louise Nevelson blurs the lines of sculpture and painting in Study for Sky Covenant (1973) and Total Totality. She frames numerous, irregular shapes of wood pieces and paints them black. Because of the different textures, angles, and spaces of these forms, different shadows are created and provide the works with interesting color and tones.
"Shades of Significance: Tonal Values in Abstract Art" continues the fine season of abstract art exhibited at the Fogg Museum. The show raises interesting issues of the formal elements in art. More importantly, this exhibition acknowledges the emergence of abstraction as an evolutionary stage of art. At one time in the '60s, the Fogg was respected as an institution that supported the new developments of the contemporary art scene. One only has to think of Michael Fried's 1965 show, "Three American Painters," to be reminded of the golden days of the Fogg. Does the museum have the vision to reclaim its former glory?
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