Geo/Metric at MoMA, Part 4


Buren to McLaughlin: view from Gallery 3 to Gallery 4

We are in Gallery 4, where the walls have again become gray. The glimpse of Daniel Buren’s work in the previous gallery should orient you somewhat. As I noted earlier, this space is the mirror image to Gallery 2; so where the dividing wall held Mary Heilmann’s work in Gallery 2, here it holds four prints by Blinky Palermo, which you will see shortly.

Above, and below, with our back to the Palermos, we’re looking at two lithographs by John McLaughlin. Being a lifelong East Coaster, Northeaster specifically, and New Yorker most specifically, I am not familiar with the oeuvre of this California-based painter. Minimalism is certainly his focus, though color does not seem to be a strong point.

John McLaughin, two untitled lithographs, 1963; at left, 18 x 21 7/16 inches; at right, 18 x 21 1/2 inches
Now we turn around to face the Palermos, which face Gallery 3. My own camera didn’t get the vertical shot I wanted, so I have pulled the four images from MoMA’s website and arranged them as they were installed. These four, oriented vertically, are not so much narrative as declarative The shapes are what they are. I don’t know the artist’s intent, but I find these works almost playful and related to the Ellsworth Kellys in Gallery 1.

Installation view of Blinky Palermo screenprints in foreground; Josef Albers screenprints on the far wall


Four prints by Blinky Palermo, 4 Prototypen, 1970, each 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 inches. Images from the MoMA exhibition website


With the Palermos still in our view, we look to the left to see 10 Josef Albers screenprints. These works are in a mirror-image installation to the Kelly drawings and collages on the mirror-image wall in Gallery 2. The symmetry of the spaces and of the Albers and Kelly installations underscore the geometry of the exhibition in a fundamental and deeply satisfying way.

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Ten Works by Josef Albers, 1962, a portfolio of 10 screenprints, 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches
This series, Homage to the Square, is classic Albers. How do I love it? Let me count the ways: the color, the order, the variation, the simplicity, their systematic and intellectual study of something as sensuous and subjective as color. Whether or not you’re interested in the physics and relativity of color—and if you’re a painter, how can you not be?—or in the empirical studies that resulted, you can simply bask in the refulgence of the hues, or thrill to the formality of the installation: a grid of square-framed work of squares within squares.

Squares to more squares: Albers to Stella


To maintain that thrill a little longer, we move around to the Frank Stella screenprint, Double Gray Scramble, which alternates and and opposes tonalities of color and gray. The maze-like, but in fact concentric, progression pulls you deeply into its depths. This work, to me, is the abstract version of those Russian nesting dolls set into a hall of mirrors. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer this early work of Stella’s, before it exploded into dimensional frenzy. (I don’t dislike the new work, which I wrote about last year, I just like these flat geometries better.)


Frank Stella, Double Gray Scramble, 1973, screenprint, 29 x 50 3/4 inches
The Stella print is to the left of the doorway that takes you back into Gallery 1. To the right of the doorway is this celestial Sol Lewitt, below. The artist’s title is the dry Lines from Corners, Sides & The Center, To Points on a Grid, but it suggests to me nothing so much as a star map for a cubic universe. (I know, bad minimalist, reading poetry into the work.)

Sol Lewitt, Lines from Corners, Sides and the Center, to Points on a Grid, 1977, etching and aquatint, 34 5/8 x 34 13/16 inches

Sol Lewitt at left. Francois Morrellet, 8 Wefts 0 Degrees 90 Degrees, 1974, eight screenprints, each 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 inches


To the right of the Lewitt is a series of eight screenprints by Francois Morellett. The proportional order of the works seems a minimalist cliche to my eyes in 2008; still, there’s no denying the graphic power of these eight works as they move from white to black, maintaining the simplest geometric expression into a compressed infinity of blackness. Its placement after the Lewitt is graphically brilliant.

An enormous Richard Serra punctuates the dividing wall, and the gallery, with a muscular sweep of black oil stick and graphite. This work predates by about three decades the mighty steel sculptures shown at MoMA last year, but in this work you can certainly see where he was headed. And let me express awe for the framing job as well. How many of us have either the financial werewithall or the museum support to get a frame like this?

Richard Serra, Heir, 1973, paint stick and graphite on paper, 114 5/8 x 42 1/4 inches

These last three images are meant to give you an overview of the exhibition:

Here we're standing with our backs to the Stella print so that we see Gallery 4 as it flows from Gallery 3

Here we're in Gallery 1 by the vitrine looking into Gallery 4, with a view of Serra and the Morrellets
Below, we're back at the entrance, peeking at the Albers in Gallery 4


It has taken us four posts, but we have traveled a circle within a square, so our geometric journey has in fact been geometric itself.



Anonymous said...

Joanne, Excellent!
I thoroughly enjoyed that walk through.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, c.p. I've been told my middle name is Overkill, but how could I not have covered this fabulous show? FYI, the exhibition website remains up and there are links in it to previous shows or other work in MoMA's collection by some of the artists, so it's possible to dig more deeply if you wish.

Anonymous said...

To die for, all of these posts. I love it!


Admin said...

As a native of the great state of California, and with absolute respect for her position, and while acknowledging her full and guaranteed right to strongly held opinions and beliefs, I must, in the spirit of open and impassioned coast-to-coast dialogue, regretfully disagree with my good friend and esteemed colleague from the East Coast Joanne Mattera's assertion regarding the magnificent and underrated West Coast painter John McLaughlin, in which she states, "Minimalism is certainly his focus, though color does not seem to be a strong point." I wish to challenge this notion of McLaughlin's color and the use of the word "Minimalism". (Having just watched the opening of the Democratic Convention last night, I seem to suddenly want to talk with great rhetorical flourish.)

I think that color is indeed McLaughlin's strong point. If the criteria for an artist's ability with color merely lies in using the entire palette at full strength then yes, color would not be McLaughlin's strength. If, however, we talk about color being a strong point in terms of defining a personal palette, exploring it repeatedly over time in different compositions and formats, finding nuance and variety in a narrow range of color, and making a body of unique work that is consistent, integrated, sensitive, and beautiful, then McLaughlin is a terrific colorist, though his work may not be very colorful.

The word "Minimalism" is potentially problematic. If one uses the word in the descriptive lowercase without "ism" then yes, McLaughlin's work could be called minimal. But the word "Minimalism" refers to a supposed movement and historic period beginning in roughly the mid-1960's. McLaughlin (1898-1976) had already found and used his mature iconography by the late 1940's, and his work is as much influenced by his time spent in Japan in the mid-1930's as it is by Mondrian and de Stijl. In fact the tatami, sliding screens, and folding panels seem as much a visual reference as anything else. He has to be considered as belonging to the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, Pacific Rim Division (Mark Tobey is another who gets left out of the discussion all too often). Although Malevich is often cited as an influence, remember that when Malevich died in 1935 he was not that well known outside of Europe, his work had already been suppressed by the Soviet government for years, and he was barely known in the US until the 1950's, so it's difficult to gauge Malevich's influence on McLaughlin's earliest development. In the early literature by the Abstract Expressionists-- statements, essays, interviews, transcripts of panel discussions, notably by Newman, Rothko, and Still-- I can't recall Malevich being mentioned much if at all. I don't think they really knew much about him. I have a couple of books to pull out that may verify all of the above. My point being that while McLaughlin can be connected to minimal-like mid-Modernist painters, he did so quite apart from the scene in the small coastal town of Dana Point south of Los Angeles.

Like many Californian's who look as much locally as outside my region, I "grew up" with McLaughlin's paintings at the Oakland Museum, SFMoMA, LACMA, and its ocassional appearance in an SF gallery show. I know his work pretty well, having seen many times its sensitive hand-painted surfaces and eges, and absorbed its clarity and intuitive quality, simplicity and depth. It is interesting to me that McLaughlin was arriving at his motifs during the same time Newman and Rothko found theirs, yet he has been left out of the analysis and history. He lived on the wrong coast, and he never made large work. He remained an easel painter. Although he painted using a narrow palette and very direct means, his work is immediately recognizable in person. The color and his images are uniquely his. I think this qualifies him as a powerful colorist and a kind of maximalist-- someone who got the most possible out of the least.

Anonymous said...

I am in complete agreement with Chris on McLaughlin. Totally under appreciated on the East Coast. His work may look similar to his contemporaries based in New York but the scale and balance is completely different. There was lots of color in the earlier work but his palette gets more and more restricted in the late work.

I guess you missed the "Birth of the Cool" show at Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, MA., it's only stop on the East Coast. Had some wonderful Mclaughlins in the show as well as great Lorser Feitelson's. I try to see every Mclaughlin show I can. The work can seem very dry at times but it slowly bores itself into one's consciousness. The great American play write Edward Albee is a fan and owns some of his work.

Joanne Mattera said...


Are you sure you're not running for something? Your oratory is quite polished!

Thanks for your long and impassioned response to my comment about John McLaughlin.

You have a much fuller history of seeing his work, and I can't argue with that. I think he is a strong exponent of minimalism, upper or lowercase M, and of geometric abstraction, and of that particular branch of geometric abstraction that values spareness to the extreme.

But I stand by what I said about the color. This ability to use color well is a talent, not a skill. You have it or you don't. (I think you have it, by the way, and so do I.) "Colorist" implies that hue is not just an essential part of an artist's work, but that it is used in a way that is retinally stimulating and sensually evocative (and perhaps emotionally evocative as well), that its vibrations activate those sensations in the viewer. There's a certain vibrational congruence that exists in the work of good colorists. I just don't get that from McLaughlin. That doesn't mean he didn't develop a palette that worked for him, but I have to be honest and say that it doesn't hold a tune for me.

(Apropos of color, both Chris and I will be exhibiting together in "Calculated Color" at the Higgins Art Gallery in West Barnstable, Mass., on Cape Cod. Click onto this link for more info:, then scroll down until you get to the post.)

Joanne Mattera said...

I posted after Don wrote in, so here's a quick P.S. I didn't see Birth of the Cool. (I'm sorry to have missed it.) I can only respond to what I saw of McLaughlin's work at MoMA. Perhaps viewing a larger body of work will change my mind.

Admin said...

Hi Joanne,

Ach, I meant "oratorical flourish", not "rhetorical..." You used the right word.

Sure, I'm running for... something. Aren't we all running for something? No? Yes? Maybe I should figure out what I'm running for.

Actually, thanks for your three posts- I meant to say that before, but became so captivated with the opportunity to stick up for McLaughlin that I forgot my manners.

I agree with your definition of colorist, generally: "retinally stimulating and sensually evocative." At the same time I also think that can be achieved in very low key and subtle ways- obvious examples include Reinhardt's late work and Rothko's later large murals and chapel paintings, and I would include McLaughlin in this group. But your point is taken, and you may not see the work of these names as operating in the way that meets your definition of stimulating and evocative.

I think both you and I have a high tolerance and expectation for color, but it's quite possible that for some viewers an artist like Scully or Kelly reaches the limit of stimulating and evocative. It is an odd experience to look at Stella's brightest constructions, with glitter and fluorescent paint, and to feel the color be so dead. The same with Halley. We can name others. The presence of color does not always work.

Matisse is often thought of as a great colorist, but for me it is his work of the 1910's, the Moroccan period, in which color is bright but the palette is quite minimal with lots of black, that seems his most consistently holistic color painting (he might yell at me for saying that), rather than the more obvious examples found in periods before and after. What makes for good use of color is when it is integrated into image, composition, mark, edge, and format- it's a component of something larger. Geez, this is sounding like classroom formalism.

Is your definition mostly being applied to artists working in geometric-affiliated areas? Some of de Kooning's best color work was made around 1940. Starting maybe in the mid-70's Joan Mitchell becomes a terrific color painter when she gives up her serious AbEx muddy palette and responds to the French landscape, and keeps it up right to the end.

I think no one could accuse Mondrian of being a great colorist. Delaunay, Robert or Sonia- I say yes. Marden's wax paintings- there are two camps divided over that one. What degree or key of "retinally stimulating and sensually evocative" is required for something to be stimulating and evocative?

For the sake of argument, think of someone like Judd- is it possible to say that in choosing materials that made his objects appear both constructed and natural, and to keep these materials-- plywood, steel, plexi-- in their natural state, so that he made perfectly integrated and present objects, is he a colorist because the color of his materials achieves his end? Is he "retinally stimulating and sensually evocative" enough? Maybe a case could be made for him being so. Maybe not. So how about Flavin? Murakami? What about Koons' bright and shiny polished red stainless steel balloon dog? There are photographers whose blacks, whites, and grays could be talked about in terms of color.

Why am I going on at length about this? Because I'm trying to figure out my point, and I think maybe it's this: the assessment of color is pretty specific to each context. I think a color situation in one body of work can work be assessed as good in one context and disastrous in another. Ingres' paintings have beautiful color areas, but his work did not require the palette of Fra Angelico. Van Gogh willed himself into being a great colorist, but his palette would never serve Goya. McLaughlin's paintings worked; although they are retinal and sensual in very low key ways, the fact that they work is still stimulating and evocative (I realize I keep reusing your words in a way that you may not have intended, and I apologize for that).

Writing all of this, however, is not just about justifying McLaughlin. I guess I'm just more interested in individual situations, rather than classifications; I see a label like "Colorist" as defining a group, school, movement, trend, tendency, whereas when I call someone a good colorist, I mean that their use of color is integrated into the materials, marks, and meaning of their work. I'm not sure how you see it, but I'm just trying to make the definition open.

Nice to see Don V. here- hiya, Don.

BTW, Joanne- will you be at the Calculated Color opening?

Joanne Mattera said...

Oh, Chris, this is a discussion we should be having at Two Artists Talking! Will re ever revive it?

I see we've shifted from McLaughlin to color per se. Using color and being a colorist are totally different. I don't have the critical vocabulary or background to discuss this issue in depth, but I like your last paragraph distinguishing Colorist and colorist.

Stella uses color, but only in those earliest works--such as the print at the Geo/Metric show--could we think of him as a colorist. He has other issues on his mind. Murakami? Koons? Well, they use color, of course, but that doesn't make them colorists, u or l/c, in my book. The Delaunays. Bien sur! Joan Mitchell in France? Oh my god yes!
Flavin? Scully? Marden? I don;t know how to answer that? How did/do they define their relationship to hue?

This is an interesting discussion to be having at this time, because as you know New York has been "awash in color" (the name of my many posts) throughout the spring and summer. "No Chromophobia" reopens at OK Harris on September 2 for a week. And the trend continues elsewhere. "Material Color," curated by Mary Birmingham, will be at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, about an hour west of Manhattan. It opens the 5th of October. The focus, as the name suggests, looks at the work of artists who are not only using color but using it in great gobs, schmears, drips and swipes, and engaging intense process as they do: piling it on, scraping it back, digging into it and so forth. I'm in it and will report on the opening. I'll post info on the blog as soon as the museum sends a jpeg of the announcement. My exhibition blog ( the preliminary information; it's just under the info about "Calculated Color."

Yes, I will drive to the "Calculated Color" opening on Friday, September 19. Several of the artists will be there. We'll miss you!

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you, thank you Joanne for all of this. It is a great resource!

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Carol, Eva, c.p., Chris and all--

This is what can happen when museums allow artists, writers, bloggers and other art people to photograph their collections. Not everyone will be as--how you say?--obsessive about reporting on an event, but small shows, especially those without catalogs, will get more visibility.

Glad you found it helpful.

Eva said...

I don't have a huge art collection, but one thing I was able to get is a print from a big book Albers did.
It has two squares!
One all in blues, the other, yellows. Yeozah!

tony said...

Remembering seeing examples of McLaughlin in the seventies at ICA galleries/London.If anyone ever suffered through neglect because of the East/West coast divide it was him. As to this notion of not being a 'colourist' it's mistaken & further to use the greys/blacks/whites that he used demands as much, if not more a sense of colour, than merely bashing out what is easily perceived as 'colour',