Does Colorfield Have a Future or is Pop Forever?

The triumph of Pop Art as the art market’s favorite art movement coincides with the emergence of high profile, buying and selling of contemporary art at public auction. This conjunction first appeared at the sale of the Robert and Ethel Scull Collection at Sotheby’s in 1973. Since then, and until now, Pop has reigned supreme. Many new artists have appeared. Some have come and gone, others have taken their place in an ever-growing pecking order with Pop at the top. In the late eighties, Robert Rauschenberg’s and Jasper John’s proto-pop was surpassed by Andy Warhol’s pure Pop as the ultimate Pop statement. But Pop’s preeminence has remained secure. Even the dismal dip of the early ’90s, didn’t shake the Pop-down hierarchy which has prevailed for thirty years now. No wonder more and more investment money is going into contemporary art. As with the markets for Impressionism and Early Modern or the Old Masters, blue chip Contemporary Art can now be counted on as virtually a sure thing. This is the way that the stock market seemed in the late 90’s. And in the art world too, pundits have been quick to see in this predictability a wholly new kind of market, a new paradigm, in which the old laws regarding structural and cyclical market factors no longer obtain. Two typical and prominent examples are the distinguished philosopher, Arthur Danto, and Peter Watson, in his excellent book on the modern art market From Manet to Manhattan. Both offer the new paradigm of postmodernism, defined as the end of a narrow, elitist, modernism that began in the mid-19th century. For them, Pop is the triumph of a democratic art of everyday life where anything can be art.

But consider this: many people had their portraits done by Warhol. Today, many of these pictures are almost worthless, just photographs of wealthy people no one knows, silk screened onto canvas at the “Factory” by whoever. The auction houses have sometimes not even been willing to accept them for sale. However, if the image is of Marilyn Monroe, or Jackie Kennedy, the picture may fetch over $17 million dollars! Shouldn’t we be a bit suspicious of an art that is so totally dependent for its value on its contemporary subject? After all, we love a great Rembrandt or Van Gogh portrait because we see the master’s hand and vision in the picture, even when we know nothing at all about the sitter.

The Massacre of the Innocents, a large picture by the great 17th century Baroque Master, Peter Paul Rubens, sold recently at auction for 77 million dollars, the highest ever paid for an Old Master painting. It depicts a horrific scene of soldiers tearing infants away from their terrified mothers and brutally butchering them. Yet the buyer was only concerned with the fact that it was an exciting, unique, and major work by Rubens and entirely in his own hand. Will Warhol continue to compete at this level overtime? Of course he will always be an “icon” of his period and his works will always be “collectibles”. But will he go down as one of the great painters in the tradition stretching back to Giotto?

In this context it is worth remembering that from its beginning there have been those who rejected Pop’s preeminence. One example is Phillippe de Menil, Heiner Friedrich and the group around their Dia Foundation, founded in 1974. They have championed a group of 60’s artists who they regard as masters of Minimalism, Post Minimalism, Earth Art, Video Art and Conceptualism: Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol Le Witt, Richard Serra, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Bruce Nauman, and others. While not as popular as Pop, this group has been widely shown and have been very influential. The Dia Foundation has sponsored permanent installations by individual artists of the group throughout the country. Recently, Dia opened a huge new facility in Beacon, New York as a showcase for work by all of their favorites. Unfortunately the beautiful old factory building, beautifully renovated, trumps the art. There are a few notable exceptions however: the sculpture of Richard Serra, John Chamberlain and Michael Heitzer. All three carry on the tradition of heroic Modernism, and in my view, are far more expressively powerful than anything produced by the Pop artists. (Dia: Beacon does offer a room of Warhols, but these are atypically abstract and minimalistic)


On the other hand, the Minimalist paintings by Sol Le Witt, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin and others seem pedantic and feeble hanging in Dia: Beacon’s expansive, light filled spaces. The true Minimalist painters were some of the Color Field painters like Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, but only in some of their pictures. In these, less is indeed more. And with Louis, Noland and Olitski, Minimalism is only one aspect of a much larger vision. But advocates of Color Field have always found the work of the Pop and Minimal painters simplistic next to the paintings of Louis, Noland, Olitski, Friedel Dzubas, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Goodnough and Jack Bush among others. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, some of these advocates, including myself, did large exhibitions of Color Field work in major museums in New York, Boston, and Washington. Robert Hughes has written “In the 60’s and early 70’s more museum time and space was devoted to Color Field than any other art movement or style”. Color Field’s advocates believed, and most us still believe, in Color Field’s greatness. Ambitious collectors like George and Lois de Menil, Lewis Cabot, David Mirvish, Bruce Gitlin, Tony Goldman and others have large collections of Color Field pictures and are still buying. One of Color Field’s biggest fans, the critic, Clement Greenberg, declared everywhere today America’s greatest art critic, spent the last 40 years of his life advocating Color Field as the great art of our time. One might reasonably ask: if he were such a great art critic, how could he have been so wrong for so long?

Any one familiar art with history knows that there has always been periodic reevaluation of taste and especially in modern times. A classic case is William Adolphe Bouguereau, the brightest star of French Salons in the 1880’s and 1890’s. His soulful, sad eyed maidens and children, his erotic nudes and polished mythological and religious paintings, perfectly fulfilled the needs and temper of his day. Later, the modernists made him their bête noire and his reputation and prices fell. Today, with the mini-revival of 19th century academic painting, the prices for his pictures have been on the rise again, and, recently, one of them was sold for $3.5 million. But compare this to the art of Bouguereau’s contemporary, Vincent Van Gogh, surely the most exciting and singular painter of that period, who only sold a single work in his lifetime. In our day, Van Gogh’s pictures have led the market with one, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, achieving the then all time record price for a painting of $82.5 million in 1990.

The great shift of taste reflected in the markets of these two artists, began in the early years of the 20th century. By the time of World War I, the modernist painters, like Van Gogh and Picasso, were widely known. It is noteworthy that they all pretty much came to prominence together: the Impressionists of the 1870’s; the Post Impressionists of 1880’s; the Symbolists and Nabis of the 1890’s; and the Fauves, Expressionists, and Cubists of the first decade of the 20th century. All were presented as “modern art” in large and very controversial exhibitions held just before the war in Germany, England, and the United States. After the war, modern art won out. Older hierarchies were overthrown. The time demanded something else, something better.

The same kind of major reevaluation in taste occurred in America right after World War II when the New York School or Abstract Expressionist, led by Jackson Pollock, did their epoch making work. Despite the dramatic newness of their pictures, they were quickly recognized by the art establishment. Here is a seeming exception to the tendency for true genius to go undetected, or, at least, to have to wait a long time for recognition. However, there were special circumstances prevailing at that time in America which account for Abstract Expressionism’s quick success. Once again, war had changed the outlook. With the exception of Pollock, who became a major figure already in 1943, the Abstract Expressionists all matured artistically in the first few years after the war ended. Most of them were already in their 40’s. Their art came as an outburst of self-confidence and creative freedom, triumphant and expansive, exactly expressive of an America, which had just won a world war and had emerged from it as the world’s dominant power. Pre-war styles like Social Realism, Regionalism, and Geometric Abstraction, suddenly seemed dated. Also, the Abstract Expressionists had no significant competition from within their own generation. And finally, the America art world and art market was still very small and undeveloped, consisting of only a handful of galleries, critics, collectors and museum officials. It was easy to stand out.

In the late 50’s and 60’s the Abstract Expressionists inspired a large, second wave of followers and several different movements: a second generation of Gestural Expressionists who took their cue from Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline; a second generation of Color Field painters who combined Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and Barnett Newman; Pop, which married Gestural painting and then Color Field with the popular illustration of de Kooning; and the Minimalists, Post Minimalist and Conceptualists who derived mostly from Newman.

Pop was the newest looking and the easiest to grasp. It had its origin in the gay community, starting out as an in-group attitude, “camp”, a mock enthusiasm for the most banal and stereotypical aspects of popular American culture. Ironically, new collectors embraced it as a straightforward celebration of Modern America. Bright, fresh, fun and familiar, it flattered the taste of post war nouveau riche. At its core, Pop is commercial art, marketed as fine art, just as Warhol himself pointed out. Its glorification of advertising, media, and fashion is the perfect expression of our rampant consumer society and our celebrity culture. And the public auction is its perfect stage and showcase. So it is that Pop holds the auction highs for 60’s and later contemporary art: Warhol 17.3 million, Johns 17.0 million, and Rauschenberg 12.0 million.

When I first saw Warhol’s paintings in the early 60’s they seemed to me empty and mechanical next to the mindboggeling works of Pollock and the New York School or the members of the Color Field School, like Louis and Noland. I remember conversations with fellow students Michael Fried, Roselind Krauss and Charles Millard, and then later with Clement Greenberg, in which everyone agreed that Pop would not last long, that it was only a passing fad. How wrong we were! Pop has became more and more successful. Meanwhile, the stock of our heroes has steadily declined relative to the Pop. The most ever paid for a second generation, Color Field painting at auction was 1.8 million in 1989 for one of Noland’s early concentric circle pictures. Noland’s later work, much of which is truly extraordinary in quality, has been badly ignored these past 35 years. One can get a beautiful example for as low as $15,000-$20,000 at auction. The second highest price for a Color Field picture was 1.6 million for a Louis “Floral”. Helen Frankenthaler, who is the youngest member of the Color Field group has reached only $715,000 at auction. Jules Olitski, another major figure, has reached a high of only $325,000, and again, his later work, offers big bargains. Even more neglected are Friedel Dzubas, Larry Poons, Robert Goodnough, and the Canadian, Jack Bush, all great painters and all hugely underpriced.

New York’s museums, with their trustee-collectors, have also neglected the Color Field painters whose work has not been seen in the Whitney Annual or Biennial since the early 70’s, despite the fact that they have created fresh new work during this period. We did have John Elderfield’s gorgeous Louis show in 1986 and Helen Frankenthaler show in 1989, both at the Museum of Modern Art, and a few years ago there was a small show of some of Frankenthaler’s early work at the Guggenheim. But however rewarding these shows were to see, they only confirmed the official art work view that Color Field is a brief tendency, which said all it had to say in the late 50’s and early 60’s. No survey show of Color Field has ever been held in a New York museum, although every other 60’s phenomenon, no matter how minor, has been minutely reexamined. A recent interview with Olitski in the Art Newspaper was entitled, “What is it like to be forgotten?”

The most frequent criticism leveled at Color Field painting is very like the criticism which was used to dismiss the Impressionists in their day, namely, that their pictures are merely sensual, only concerned with technique and the pleasures of the eye, without any deeper meaning. This now orthodox view goes back to the first generation and the influential critic, Harold Rosenberg who believed that the first generation of Color Field painters, Newman & Co., achieved “spiritual content” while the second generation, Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc. were only interested in “formal qualities”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great Color Field paintings embody spiritual qualities, like presence, power, majesty, grandeur, beauty, ecstasy, and a liberating, open, boundlessness.

Often, they show that high impassiveness which we know from great classical art. The Color Field painters create a timeless, luminous world, which will never be out of date. Traditional art, like religion, embodies a culture’s highest values. Both are moral in the broadcast sense, in the sense of affirming a fundamental outlook toward life and the world. Color Field is like this. It celebrates beauty and the free creativity of the individual. It lifts our spirits and always shows us at our best. By comparison, Pop Art seems stylized, more like fashion, design, a period style; it doesn’t transcend its time, but reflects its surface aspects.

Fully seeing Color Field’s greatness will involve a big change in the way everything else looks too. For example, following on from Color Field painting, a large, third wave of painters have created their own unique vision and in the brand new, now highly developed medium of acrylic paints and gels. These are the New New painters who have been producing existing pictures now for twenty years. Mostly Americans they have been celebrated in museums outside New York in the U.S. and Canada as well as France, Belgium, Germany, and even Korea. But, thanks to their Color Field lineage, they are off the radar screen in postmodernist New York. They do not even have a secondary, i.e. auction market. Here is a whole new area for discovery.

19th century European Modernism was born in the 1860’s but did not triumph in the market place until the 1920’s. It took 60 years. Pop has only been the market leader for 30 years. So it may take decades, although it might also happen surprisingly quickly, but I believe that Pop and Color Field will eventually be reevaluated relative to each other, and that the New New will come to be valued too. Capitalism has a way of finding and commodifying real value. But it will take a big change in attitude. Lisa Phillip’s huge exhibition “The American Century, Art and Culture 1950-2000”, held at the Whitney for the Centennial, showed how completely the official view of the art of our time has been shaped by Pop. Everywhere the specifically visual and handmade has been pushed aside in favor of conceptual provocation and showmanship. A fundamental reevaluation would take us from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the cute and cerebral to the visual and the visceral, from irony to passion, from the stylization to freedom. It would reaffirm modernism and thereby immeasurably enrich postmodernism pluralism and diveristy. It would enlarge our expression of ourselves.