Who doesn’t enjoy a pie chart, a pretty colored graph, or any of the array of data visualizations available on the web? I suppose at some point I’ll grow tired of the endless endeavors in information aesthetics we see today, but I haven’t hit my threshold yet, which makes MoMA’s Color Chart particularly topical. Curated by Ann Tempkin, the exhibition showcases art work which assigns color through arbitrary systems, chance, and readymade source — all the stuff we see on the internet now, but largely in old-school, fine-art form. Which is to say, count on seeing a number of familiar works from canonical artists: Dan Flavin’s Untitled 1-5 (to Donald Judd, colorist), a series to incandescent colored bulbs in T formation, Ellsworth Kelly’s painted grid of colors on a large wall, and an excellent series of paint by numbers by Andy Warhol. There are, however, a few disappointing contemporary choices: two nondescript works from Damien Hirst’s limitless pit of dot paintings for example, and Byron Kim’s frequently acclaimed Synecdoche, a grid of paintings based on the skin tones of models, which to my tastes are far too heavily indebted to process-based conceptual painters like Garry Neil Kennedy.
While the exhibition’s contemporary content might be disappointing, the curatorial expertise demonstrated for the 60s and 70s yields fantastic results. Basically, the older the work in Color Chart, the greater likelihood the piece will present a surprise. For example, John Chamberlain, an artist well known for his gaudy crushed automobile sculptures, has an underappreciated series on display from the brief period in which he was a painter. Deriving minimal images from the scrap he found in the junkyard, Chamberlain would build up the shapes and color with translucent paint, creating elegant simplicity and a stunning light. Probably the most impressive work in the show comes from Robert Rauchenberg’s Rebus, a giant collaged painting in his signature loose style, incorporating color chips in the center of the piece. Among a crowd of calculated and predictably cool work, this moving painting provides an unexpected take on the many approaches artists have taken to charting color.
Although I’ve never responded well to On Kawara’s paintings – I lost interest in the date on painting idea a long time ago — his Journals documenting the colors he used for these works feel very contemporary. Given the current interest in archiving, the work might have served as a bridge between the old and the new, had the curatorial vision been stronger. And yet, the only new media work to appear in the show came from Cory Arcangel’s Colors, a video that vertically stretches a continuous line of pixel from the movie of the same name. The piece fits the theme fine, but it derives influence from Jason Salavon’s Top Grossing Film of All Time, a work that might have added a different dimension to the show, since it averages the colors from the movie Titanic.
Also a notable omission is deaf artist Joseph Grigely’s Untitled Conversations, 1998-99, a wall of colored post-it notes with banal and humorous messages written over the course of several years. Surely, Grigely could have replaced Hirst, an artist who simply offers another variation on what is best represented by Sol Lewitt’s large-scale drawing in color chart; painting within set perimeters.
Of course, on the upside, Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers, a film displayed on the multiscreened façade of MoMA last year, didn’t make a return visit for this show. For all the curatorial problems this show may have experienced, thankfully, none of it can be attributed to having a bad eye.