By Emily Lenz
In the 1960s the art world was searching for something new as artists, curators, and critics looked to move beyond Abstract Expressionism. As part of achieving this, museum and gallery exhibitions held in the 1960s into the early 1970s investigated new approaches to art making with an emphasis on color and process. Structured Color features seven artists who were included in many of these exhibitions as they created paintings of reductive geometric compositions to examine color interactions. The focus during this period for Richard Anuszkiewicz was the square; for Julian Stanczak interlocked forms; for Tadasky the circle; for Gene Davis and Karl Benjamin the stripe; and for Charles Hinman and Thomas Downing the ambiguous space created by the fusion of painting and sculpture in the shaped canvas.
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All the artists in our exhibition, except Charles Hinman, were included in curator William Seitz's 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art. In his exhibition, Seitz broadly identified styles that emphasized color interaction and movement as Optical or Kinetic art (though sculptures which actually moved were not included). The works selected, particularly the paintings with color, had discordant figure-ground relationships that elicited response from the viewer. Seitz included the work of American artists known now for their Minimalism such as Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and John McLaughlin. Only a small number of the Americans, notably Anuszkiewicz, Stanczak, and Tadasky, were truly investigating perception through spatial ambiguity. Seitz's exhibition catalogued an international movement focusing on perceptual inquiry. This led Seitz to divide the 119 artists and groups from 15 countries into six types of perceptual experimentation: The Color Image (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Paul Feeley); "Invisible" Painting (Ad Reinhardt, Paul Brach); "Optical" Paintings (Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Julian Stanczak, Tadasky, Larry Poons); Black and White (Bridget Riley, Francois Morellet, Francis Celentano); Moiré (Mon Levinson, Ludwig Wilding); and Reliefs and Constructions (Yaacov Agam, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus-Raphael Soto). The Museum of Modern Art's The Responsive Eye was the first international museum exhibition in which American artists were presented on equal footing with their colleagues from Europe and South America.
Further museum exhibitions examining color followed The Responsive Eye. One was the 1965 San Francisco Museum of Art exhibition Colorists, 1950-1965, which included many American artists of The Responsive Eye, as well as others. Anuszkiewicz, Benjamin, Davis, Downing, Hinman, and Stanczak were all represented in Colorists. The 1971 Whitney Museum of American Art's The Structure of Color was another pivotal exhibition showing the prominence of color in contemporary art. It included work by Anuszkiewicz and Davis. Marcia Tucker, curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney, began her catalogue essay reminding the reader that despite a long tradition of color theory, artists continue to use color intuitively. This intuitive exploration led many artists of the 1960s to examine color interactions serially. Tucker's 1971 Whitney exhibition was eclectic, identifying a range of artists focused on color in their abstractions in both painterly and hard-edge styles. In the catalogue, Tucker quotes Anuszkiewicz as saying a test of whether a painting is dependent on color is if it loses its composition when reproduced in black and white. Inspired by Tucker's exhibition, our exhibition Structured Color focuses on selected geometric artists whose works have definite and highly organized structures created through color.
In their search for new approaches, the 1960s artists increasingly painted in series, often incorporating systems into their process, to allow them to delve deeper into their work. This was not new to art. Monet painted series of haystacks and the Rouen cathedral to examine the effect of changing light on his subjects. In the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, senior curator Lawrence Alloway identified this serial reduction and repetition of composition as a growing practice among contemporary artists, including Gene Davis and Thomas Downing. For the artists in our exhibition, fixing the composition within a series shifted the emphasis from composition to color experimentation. Charles Hinman made a pertinent statement regarding systems in Art in America's July-August 1966 issue, "Part of the goal is to reduce expression to the most essential terms. The further the reduction, the fewer the decisions to be made, and the fewer the decisions, the more important each one is relative to the other." These systems of painting were often more logic driven than mathematical. In the kinetic sculptor George Rickey's 1967 book Constructivism: Origins and Evolution, he saw in 1960s art a dialogue between mathematical model as image and mathematical thought as process. While some may see the geometry of Op art as mathematical imagery, a more appropriate reading is that the composition results from an analytical approach to color in the artist's process. The limits Op artists placed upon themselves were part of a broader trend in 1960s art to move away from the emotional emphasis of the Abstract Expressionists into the calculated art of the geometric. Each of the artists in our exhibition formalized their compositions to examine the infinite possibilities of color. For example, Tadasky limited himself to concentric circles without color blending and Anuszkiewicz painted with only two or three colors.
George Rickey provided further insight into the geometric artists of the 1960s, suggesting their work incorporated nature in a new way as a source of physical phenomena, inexorable laws, and orderly relationships. Forces such as gravity or the energy of light served as the stimuli for the observer, as did aerodynamics, mathematical relationships, probability, and chance. Julian Stanczak also states this in the exhibition catalogue for art dealer Martha Jackson's Vibrations Eleven in 1965, "In my work I do not try to imitate or interpret Nature; but with the response to the behavior of colors, shapes, lines, I try to create relationships that would run parallel to man's experience with reality." The work is no longer abstracted from what the artist sees, but serves as a non-objective examination of the forces that make up our experience of the world. The resulting abstract artwork exudes energy, emotion, and power without narrative content.
A shared characteristic among the work of the seven artists in our exhibition is the uniform application of paint - no brush strokes are visible. This can be seen as another reaction against the Abstract Expressionists for texture as an artistic device was heavily emphasized by the 1950s painters as symbolic of the artist's creative process. The smooth surface also underlined the idea of a calculated process. The elimination of bold texture in 1960s art was a unifier of Pop, Op, Kinetic, and Minimalist art. Each of these styles was based on "literalism," rejecting the emphasis on emotions and myth. "What you see is what you see," as Frank Stella said. This move away from emotion led to the coining of "cool art" in the 1960s. For Op, or perceptual art as most artists prefer to call it, an objective of the work became the viewer's interaction with it and the success of that response was one way to judge a work. An intriguing aspect of our exhibition is how differently each artist explored color and experimented within a limited composition to achieve this interaction with the viewer.
Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak studied with Josef Albers at Yale University at the time Albers was developing his series of concentric squares, the Homage to the Square. Early in the 1960s Anuszkiewicz and Stanczak created new compositions for each of their paintings. By the late 1960s they both were using serial compositions to thoroughly investigate color theory. Our exhibition includes two examples from Anuszkiewicz's warm and cool "Portal" diptychs of the early 1970s and three examples of his "Centered Square" paintings of the late 1970s. In the Portal Diptychs Anuszkiewicz used subtle variations of warm and cool colors to examine their effect on the viewer's perception of space. In the Centered Square series Anuszkiewicz discovered he could create the feeling of deep space using only two colors. Four examples of Julian Stanczak's "Folded Forms" compositions in our exhibition show another approach to seriality. Stanczak developed this series from 1968 through the 1970s to investigate light and dimension within one dominant color. The Folded Forms suggest sheets of folded material in three dimensions floating on a background of similar color. These paintings are built up through multiple layers of paint applied in overlapping vertical taped lines. Stanczak's color selection in the Folded Forms was highly calculated with some paintings containing up to 30 slight variations of one color to create astounding luminosity. For both Anuszkiewicz and Stanczak, fixed composition series placed the emphasis on color interactions as the changeable subject of their paintings.
Each of the artists in our exhibition has selected easily readable shapes to move the viewer quickly from identifying the composition to examining the overall effect of the painting. Like Albers's square and Anuszkiewicz's rectangle, the circle, often in its target form of concentric circles, was another geometric shape used serially by artists in the 1960s to examine structured color. Tadasky was drawn to the circle from the beginning of his career, making circular works while still in Japan in the late 1950s. He found the shape alluring as a form found in both nature and geometry. In his compositions, Tadasky applies paint as raw color, using the proximity of his rings to create optical blending. This exhibition includes two of Tadasky's multicolor works from 1965 which can be interpreted as targets or flat spinning discs. We have also included a triptych of volumetric single hued works (blue, red, and green) as examples of Tadasky using seriality to examine the creation of depth in a single color and the interaction of colors between three equal works. D-142 (Blue), D-143 (Red), and D-144 (Green) of 1966 pulse due to slight lightening and darkening within each hue that create interior rings that project and recede. By showing the works as a triptych, Tadasky creates an environment of color and tests whether one hue can dominate the others.
Tadasky's concentric circles can be read as circular stripes and for this reason connect to the work of Karl Benjamin and Gene Davis. Each artist treats his stripes as distinct units that create playful interactions of color between neighboring lines and the overall painting. The application of color in stripe form allows for optical blending when the lines are thin and juxtapositions of equally saturated color when the lines are thick. We have selected Tadasky, Karl Benjamin, and Gene Davis to represent the many artists who were interested in different forms of stripes in the 1960s. Benjamin represents the earliest of the hard-edge artists who approached their work with an economy of form, unified flat surface, and saturated color. He was included with three other California artists (John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, and Lorser Feitelson) in critic Jules Langsner's groundbreaking exhibition Four Abstract Classicists in 1959 at the Los Angeles County Museum where Langsner coined the term "hard-edge." Although Benjamin employed many systems in his work, including a series of paintings patterned with letters in the 1970s and 1980s, the stripe was a formal device he returned to across the decades.
In our exhibition there are three examples of Benjamin's stripe paintings dating from 1960, 1970, and 1980 which each use a different system with varying levels of intuition. Benjamin is noted for his ability to mix the colors of the natural world with the pop of the rainbow. VS #10, 1960 appears to be an intuitive composition without pattern or system as the dominant reds, oranges, and pinks are broken up by thinner stripes of purple, green, blue, and yellow. Benjamin's #17, 1970 differs in its suggestion of pattern in the shifts of dominating red and green stripes, appearing red-heavy on the left and green-dominant on the right. The breaks of yellow and blue in #17 activate the painting, while the equal saturation of all the colors causes the stripes to sit on a single plane without illusionistic depth. In our exhibition, Benjamin's 1980 painting #1 (Blue, Green, Brown) is methodically composed of stripes of equal width in a numerical progression that creates close color comparisons leading the painting's surface to vibrate. For his exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1986, Benjamin said:
I am an intuitive painter, despite the ordered appearance of my paintings, and am fascinated by
the infinite range of expression inherent in color relationships. For the past fifteen or twenty years,
I have been working with systems including relatively simple numerical progressions, modular
constructions, and random sequences. Images formed thusly emerged in very surprising and
gratuitous ways, as opposed to being drawn or designed in what had become, for me, on
hindsight, a rather self-conscious operation.
Unlike Benjamin, Gene Davis stated that there was no system to his art and that the selection of colors within his striped format was intuitive and romantic. Davis kept his stripes on one plane through equally saturated colors without either tactile or optical depth. The repetition of stripes deters a central focus so that the rhythm of the stripes moves the viewer's eyes across the canvas. Davis sought experimental color harmonies that did not align with theories. In 1968 Gerald Nordland, then director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, in describing Davis's paintings said:
No tactile values, no sense of emotion in the technical means of application, can be felt. Stripes of
relatively pure color are set down without disturbing order: there is no geometric concept, no
occult number system. There is simply a non-gestural, chromatic abstraction, developed intuitively
in the process of growth from random beginning to a highly imaginative and controlled completion.
As Gene Davis said himself, "I paint to surprise myself." After working with stripes of uniform width that created allover patterns like Red Chatterbox, 1967, Davis in the early 1970s added differing widths of stripes to his color variations to see what the two effects together could achieve. Green Stripes, 1970 demonstrates this new development with uniform wide lines of darker shades taking up most of the canvas countered by a smaller area of thin bright lines. In Green Stripes Davis investigated the relationship between light and dark and wide and narrow. A musical feeling of syncopation is achieved in the sophisticated large canvas Leapfrog, 1970 by combining a cool palette of grays, whites, and beiges with brief intervals of bright colors within varying widths of stripes.
An exciting development in the 1960s was the shaped canvas, which fused elements of painting and sculpture while freeing compositions from the restraints of the rectangular or square canvas. Charles Hinman was one of the originators, making his first shaped canvases in 1963. Hinman was a leader among the New York shaped canvas makers for his painterly attitude toward color, exploring how color could define his structures and allow the viewer multiple interpretations of the work. In the catalogue for the 1966 exhibition Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Structure at Finch College, Hinman said "My work seems to partake of the object-making of the sculptor and the illusion-making of the painter. I endeavor to cause these distinctions to fuse and become one concept." Hinman achieved this by combining illusion and physicality via implied depth through color and actual depth through curves that rise above the picture plane, sometimes as much as 6 inches. In Phrasing, 1969, singled out as one of the best paintings in the artist's 1972 New York solo exhibition at Denise René Gallery [The New York Times, Mar.11, 1972], the artist used rhythmic rectangles of colors, perhaps Hinman's variant on the stripe, that move across the white canvas at slight angles to create a unique overall shape and implied depth in a flat work. Hinman explored many possibilities within the shaped canvas. In the later 1970s Hinman used traditional color theory and actual dimensionality to create an ambiguous depth that was both illusionary and actual. By 1980 in Overlap the darkest colors are partially obscured by the lighter shades in a traditional method of creating depth and at the same time the top gray-blue panel physically juts out over the flat picture plane of the bottom. A characteristic in all of Hinman's work is the visual tension of the forms held in balance through color and structure. The scholar Roberta J. M. Olson observed in 1975 that "Hinman's canvases are more intuitive in conception than they appear. Strangely, the angles inside the prisms are rarely identical, thus increasing the dynamism, instability, and illusion of depth."
Another pioneer of shaped canvases is Thomas Downing who turned to them in 1967 as a further way to explore color and movement. Downing was included in two major exhibitions focused on new approaches to painting: Clement Greenberg's Post Painterly Abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964 and Lawrence Alloways's Systemic Painting at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. Investigating how color could break out beyond the boundaries of the canvas, Downing started with slight tonal modulations in his dot series of paintings. Downing's dots were first placed in grids and then in dial patterns that seemed to float off the canvas. Green Melt, 1964 includes Downing's characteristic dots, which were limited to the dimensions of paint cans in his studio. The work is distinctive for its broad color application. In what first appears as a field of color, the artist has suggested in the underpainting a ring that holds the blue and green dot in orbit, giving the impression of a composition in motion. Downing began his first shaped canvas series in 1967 as another method of releasing color from the grid. This was a natural progression for an artist who looked to develop different structural solutions within which he could concentrate on the spatial definition of color. In a conversation with Gene Baro, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, published for the artist's 1970 solo exhibition at Pyramid Galleries in DC, Downing expressed his feeling that the use of a structural system, which he found in his shaped canvases, negates composition to encourage a more contemplative level of perception in the viewer. In Troll, 1967 and Fold 1, 1968 we see seemingly arbitrary colors typical of the Washington Color School being placed together within an equally unusual shape. In both works, the viewer's eyes oscillate between the color relationships in the overall shape and the multiple readings of the form as flat, three dimensional, or moving.
The goal of our exhibition Structured Color is to present concrete examples of these seven geometric artists' commitment to color and how their work parallels Color Field painting and connects to Minimalism through the incorporation of systems. We have endeavored to show the endless possibilities of structured color and that even with a systemic approach to painting, the results elude logic in their effects. While there was an inclination in the 1960s to pronounce painting dead, Anuszkiewicz, Benjamin, Davis, Downing, Hinman, Stanczak, and Tadasky found ways to make painting fresh. All created energetic works that tested the boundaries of order in their compositions, played with new understandings of perception, and resulted in flexible readings of the painting in terms of figure and ground and two or three dimensions. Our hope in bringing together the 1960s and 1970s works of these seven artists is to show the rich material available for further study of the American Op art movement and how its expansion of the painting medium opened the door for future generations to continue to examine color and questions of perception.