Review of Surface, Support, Process: The 1960s Monochrome in the Guggenheim Collection

As The Guggenheim closes its central spiral space in preparation for a show of works by another art world super star, John Chamberlain (opening on February 24th), the museum has decided to use some of its peripheral galleries as throw-back spaces for the genesis of modern and contemporary art. Along with its ongoing exhibition of the Thannhauser Collection—home to the classic modernists like Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Picasso—the museum offers “intimate presentations” of later works such as Kandinsky at the Bauhaus and 1960s art as consolation bribes to its disappointed visitors. We are deprived of the spiral-meandering experience, but with the discounted ticket prices—student tickets, normally $15, are reduced to $8—the mini exhibits aren’t bad; without being overly ambitious, they provide spaces for us to pause and reflect upon what art has come to mean for us today.
Surface, Support, Process: The 1960s Monochrome in the Guggenheim Collection is one such exhibit that occupies a side gallery on the second floor. It consists of ten works in total from the same time period by artists that utilized the advantages of a limited range of tones in order to explore the nature of their mediums, and by extension, art as a whole. The 60s marks an important moment in American history; during this time of social upheaval, the dissatisfied and ever increasingly disillusioned masses, having mobilized beginning in the 50s for change to a better world, finally started to gain momentum. The U.S. dropped its first bombs on Vietnam in the midst of anti-war protests, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in the same year (himself to be assassinated four years later), and feminists were making increased efforts to raise awareness about gender inequality. The 60s became the time when realities—hitherto accepted as the fundamental bases of American life—were actively interrogated by those within the cultural fabric. It is no surprise that the 60s gave rise to an explosion of literary and artistic scholarship that challenged the origins of what had been called definitions and unquestionable nature. It is from within this context that the artists of the Guggenheim’s 60s monochrome show created their works.
While the Pop art on the floor above presents one direction that American artists took to the questioning the role of art in a changing world—looking outward to mass culture as the reservoir of subjects—the monochrome exhibit presents another: an intensely inward look at art and its basic materials. Ever since the invention of photography, modern art took its turn by emphasizing the materiality of paint and the sculptural medium; these artists from the 60s push the emphasis further by eliminating numerous elements that effect the experience of viewing, including a diverse palette. Not all of the works presented are in monotone—Robert Ryman, for example, blends blue chalk with white paint in Surface Veil II, c. 1970 and III, 1971—but in fact, even the ones that are (ostensibly) evenly coated with a single tone—like John McCracken’s Blue Plank, 1969, or Robert Mangold’s 1/3 Gray-Green Curved Area, 1977—make one do a double take; uniformity in color perception does not exist in actuality. The curators, Megan Fontanella and Lauren Hinkson have indicated that all of these artists possessed varying interests in their use of monochrome, but by way of limiting their palettes, the artists demonstrate one common effect: bringing attention to surface and material. Josef Albers has written, “color deceives continually,” sometimes caused by its juxtaposition with another, sometimes caused by the play of light upon the medium bearing the color (Albers 1). The use of monochrome eliminates the first instance of color deception and thereby enhances the physicality of the object.
The small but careful selection of examples effectively eases the visitor into this particular mode of viewing, which can prove a difficult task in our now color-bombarded world. (Vilém Flusser: “Now everything cries out in all imaginable colours, but it cries out to deaf ears. We have become accustomed to visual pollution; it passes through our eyes and our consciousness without being noticed” (Flusser 66)). We are used to quick and easily digestible flashes of information thrown at us; we are not used to standing still to search a canvas that does not offer us the exhaustive range of possibilities in color that we now have the technology to create. Here, we must pause and look—we have made the trip, after all, in expectation that we will be offered something—but with more patience. Some works act as the beginner’s introduction to viewing monochrome; Mary Corse’s Light Painting, 1971, for example, is a clear display of the artist’s interest in light and the surface materiality of a canvas. Her mixture of glass microspheres in acrylic paint creates a shimmer across the surface that shifts with the position of the light and the viewer. Even while one stands still, the small sparkling grains of glass seem to sweep by before one’s eyes, like witnessing a rare passing sandstorm in some distant desert. Corse interrupts the illusion of the mystical trance, though, with the solid white squares at each corner of the plane as a reminder that this is an object that she has constructed out of tangible materials in our world. Agnes Martin’s White Stone, 1965, provides a similar training for our eyes: the faintly gridded canvas houses a number of even more faintly perceptible flower motifs that appear and disappear with our position.
After having experienced these two works, one acquires a more acute appreciation for light as a significantly determining factor in viewing other works in the gallery. The feathery strokes upon the surfaces of Ryman’s whitescapes seem to begin to flutter with much more energy with this newly altered perception; our eyes notice that the shadows made on the walls and reflection of light on the gloss coating McCracken’s Blue Plank, 1969, and Ellsworth Kelly’s White Angle, 1966, appear more pronounced. All of these artists choose to emphasize different aspects of their various materials, but the exhibit successfully identifies one unifying characteristic that relates to the American socio-political climate at the time: interest in the basic materials for any type of construction—high or low, social or artistic.
Works cited:
Albers, Josef. Interaction of Color. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.
Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Book Ltd, 2007. Print.