Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Arts

Engaging Museum of Fine Arts exhibition explores color theory

ST. PETERSBURG

The big color question: Is the red I see the red (or blue or yellow) you see?

No one knows for sure but the accepted answer is, probably not. Still, all human brains are wired in the same basic way, so we tend to share broad assumptions about and perceptions of color while reacting to it individually based on our experiences, personality and the context in which we see it.

You could read scholarly treatises about color theory that explain the games our minds play with us and color. Or you could visit the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg to see "Color Acting: Abstraction Since 1950" for a good primer.

It begins with Josef Albers, the great color theorist who explored color exhaustively in his epic Homage to the Square series that he began in 1949 and continued until his death in 1976. He essentially took a one-note concept — squares of colors — and turned it into a complex visual fugue that artists have riffed on for several generations.

Albers is represented by two silkscreens and a wall illustration demonstrating how a color looks different against different backgrounds. And how viewing color without representational distractions becomes an interactive experience. Stare at I-Sj long enough, for example, and the center square seems to recede, then advance. It's hypnotic.

Every other work in the show can be measured against Albers', not in the sense that his is the best art here but in how persuasive the rest are at engaging us in the color games.

Contemporary artist Jessica Eaton re-creates Albers' squares using painted nesting boxes that she photographs, turning a three-dimensional sculpture into a two-dimensional print that resembles Albers'. But she makes no effort to disguise the boxes; they're clearly objects, which adds the kind of distraction he sought to eliminate.

Frank Stella makes a literal game out of color theory, creating a lithograph with two squares each made with strips that wind into the center like a maze. One is full of color, the other is done in monotones of gray and white. It's titled Jasper's Dilemma, a nod to Jasper Johns' penchant for using both in works with identical images, such as his famous Flag series.

Fredric Karoly and Leon Berkowitz use color washes to different effect. Karoly's Attala lets them run down the unprimed canvas to create broad swaths of color, in this case primary red and blue that mate to become the secondary color, purple. It's like the aurora borealis moving across the surface. Unlike this painting, in which the canvas is visible through the paint, Berkowitz's layering of the color washes, also red and blue, creates a shimmering opacity that is more refined.

Norman Bluhm uses two beautiful hues of soft blue and yellow for a sensuous abstraction of curvy forms. They are so harmonious that the painting would have been bland had he not added a bright punch of green (the secondary result of blue and yellow) and black, illustrating an important principle of color theory.

Pierre Mabille is the color anarchist here. He throws theory to the wind and uses what seem like random combinations of color the way children do when given a big box of crayons. But he's just taking the Frank Stella experiment we saw earlier to its limit. And it's fun. (That's not a description meant to diminish the quality of the works.)

Op artist Richard Anuszkiewicz gives us the best optical illusions in his version of Albers' squares. In Volumes, three squares are translated into cubes seen from different angles but joined as a single wall sculpture. They are incised with tiny lines that run parallel to the sides of the cubes and each other. The colors are yellow, orange and red with lines of pale blue and green. They seem to shimmer and dance.

This work, and most others in the show, will be familiar to regular museumgoers because it is part of the permanent collection. Like many others, it is in fairly regular rotation. But a show such as this puts them in a new context, which gives us a more enhanced way of seeing them, almost as if they are new to us.

Katherine Pill is the museum's assistant curator of art after 1950, a position recently created with endowment funds donated by Hazel and Bill Hough. This is her first exhibition at MFA, and it's a fine start. It would have perhaps been a finer show if a bit of money had been loosened up to bring in a few more heavyweights. One of Helen Frankenthaler's magnificent color-field paintings, for example, instead of a rather pallid print that would have made sense in another show but gives off the aroma of just making do here. Or a Mark Rothko. Yes, he always insisted that his paintings weren't about color. They are.

But Pill worked with what was available (and free!) and on that basis the show is pretty impressive. We delight in the colors and, if we choose to, better understand why.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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