POINT OF ENTRY Thoughts on colorâ€™s agency in placemaking .. by Corbin Keech
“Dude, you were like, in the art!” - exchange between excited girlfriend and her excited boyfriend as they emerged from Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturations. Hershhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Saturday, May 5 2012. At what point do we enter a place? One could begin this exercise any number of ways, perhaps by first asking what place we are discussing, or even attempting to define who we are. The idea of defining the entry is probably the trickiest endeavor, given the ease in which the term can be abstracted. Virtual tourism requires significantly less cost and effort than the tangible kind, and the lines are a lot shorter. Nevertheless, having practiced long enough to know a site visit triggers a more interesting route towards critical judgement, the field trip trumped the make-believe one. VISIT The mission was to visit the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC to witness Suprasensorial, an exhibition of large-scale installations by five artists who abandoned traditional art in favor ephemeral and subjective forms based on light, color, motion and space. It seemed appropriate to be transversing the predominately grey and lifeless industrial landscape that separates New York from DC on the gloomiest of days in search of a colorful multimedia experience. In my mind, I had already entered the place. Conceived as temporary installations, 1these pieces generated stunningly immersive experiences of color. As hybridized structures combining space, color and media, they were originally developed at a period in time when artists and architects of the avantgarde were questioning the common virtues of their respective disciplines and attempting works that dynamically engaged the public. The pieces by Lucio Fontana, Julio Le Parc, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto and Hélio Oiticica span the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s reflect a period of intense social revolution, and are united by their underlying interest in democratizing art and rejecting the elitism and exclusivity of the art world. Coincidentally, within the architectural field, the Modernists’ mechanical grip was beginning to loosen under the pressure of subversive disciplinary forces - their orthodox chickens were coming home to roost. ARCHITECTURE In the name of pluralism, complexity, and humor, Postmodern architects gleefully targeted the monolithic aridity of Modernism. But what started out in earnest as an ambitious disciplinary movement deteriorated into a caricature of itself, the outcome being an embarrassing landscape of empty, superficial tropes, faux-historic motifs, commodified and bereft of the meaning they were originally designed to project. However, at its highest and lowest points, fundamental to this “style” was an exaggerated use of scale and color, in many cases simultaneously. 1
Countless postmodern works used color to magnify the significance of a particular style or formal component - a reference to something that preceded it. At the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, James Stirling celebrated a multitude of historical styles by highlighting the characteristically ‘ancient’ columns, gables, architraves as well as contemporary mullions and railings with punches of color. Michael Graves’ Portland Building is nothing without its turquoise brick, baby blue ribbons, all united by the heroically over-scaled bronze heroine, Portlandia. And can one imagine the Vanna Venturi House with brown shingles or a respectful shade of suburbia-taupe? A
Soto, Jesús Rafael, Blue Penetrable BBL. Photograph by Author 1
delicately faded blue envelops the entire house, literally and metaphorically sealing the deal. At its best moments, these works seamlessly wove together material and meaning. But how was this accomplished? What appeared to be decorative flourishes were in fact the intentionally highlighted signifiers that referred to a specific moment in time that preceded it. Indulgently mannered pieces began the argument and brought outsiders inside the discussion, whether they liked it or not. In other words, without the oddities that characterized these projects, there was no message. The architecture was literally meaningless. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of cities and architecture’s overall image, the messages these buildings sought to deliver were either misunderstood, lost, or completely ignored by the public. Their ambition to enliven the urban landscape with variety and visual collision was undermined by the dismissal of the common architectural and development industries. Playfully scaled color historical references were not admired for their recontextualization. Instead they were dismissed as a pedestrian appeasement through colorful flourishes. Their ideas weren’t clever - they were clumsy. Worst of all, the buildings were ugly. And so on. In other words, color was no longer the entry point, it was the gate people exited through. Above all, these projects, while crammed with symbolic content, were also speaking in one direction. Interactivity and simulation were novel ideas that stopped where the architecture began, perhaps to the detriment of the movement. THE EXHIBITION & SOME HISTORY Naturally, numerous individual movements in the art world were similarly fascinated by color’s ability to engage the public in new and radical ways. The artists of Suprasensorial are associated with the Light and Space movement, a collection of contrarian but intentionally less brainy artists working independently in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were experimenting with art that engaged audiences directly through physical, sensory experiences. Their attitude was democratic and proudly anti-elitist. In Suprasensorial an assortment of colored rooms, cleverly arranged lighting, and provocative videos transmit a memorable range of sensory experiences. These works also echoed the spirit carried by the protagonists of Minimal Art, who explicitly dissociated themselves from their own disciplinary traditions.2 For Carl Andre Minimal Art meant the emancipation from the “cultural overload” 3 and for Robert Morris also the new order was “not based on previous art orders.” 4 Despite their different sources (these artworks being deliberately anti-elitist, while Postmodern architecture was brought forth largely through mobilization of industry intellectuals) each unit was similarly concerned with communicating directly with the public, and the virtue of unifying the disparate cultures through communal experiences. While Modernist architects were unwittingly dehumanizing cities, these artists were also concerned with the singularity of their immediate respective sites. They pitched themselves against the “superiority” of the modernist project by prioritizing a ‘density’ of experience that is transmitted through studied and precise use of color and movement. This attitude is best echoed by Kenneth Frampton in which he argues that modernization can no longer be celebrated as the key to progress. Rejecting the
Ursprung, Philip. “Minimalism and Minimal Art.” In Minimal Architecture (Munich: Preste, 2003)
Andre, Carl, in: “Ein Interview mit Carl Andre von Phyllis Tuchman”, in: Gregor Stemmrich (ed.), Minimal Art, Eine kritische Retrospektive, Dresden, 1995, pp. 141-161, here: p. 152. 3
Morris, Robert “Notes on Sculpture, Part 3: Notes and Non Sequiturs” (Artforum, vol. 5, no 10, June 1967), quoted in: Continous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, pp. 23-39, here: p. 27. 4
otherwise unquestioned superiority of the eye, Frampton suggested architecture should engage the remaining senses : The tactile resilience of the place-form and the capacity of the body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone suggest a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology. 5 Jesús Rafael Soto filled the interior of Blue Penetrable BBL with a field of antifreezeblue nylon strands that dangle from a steel scaffold, and quietly invite users to penetrate from whatever direction they prefer. The colored material is complimented by the movement through the field, a rich sensory moment Frampton calls “reinscribing the human into an experience of place” further accentuated by the idea that one is actually touching the artwork. This is a rejection of the modernist cries announcing the obsolescence of the body, and a call to take a stand agains the prevailing placelessness of the time. Just as Stirling used bright pink and blue steel to denote the path of circulation throughout the Neue Staatsgalerie, Fontana’s Neon Structure indicates a path, albeit a more abstract one. However while the piece is dramatic in it’s conception the effect is muted by the clumsy installation, for the suspended strip of bright white neon tubing stretches and scribbles above each visitor along whimsical path, while the user takes it all in as they ascend an escalator. In other words, the constrained route dulls the piece, reducing the experience of an otherwise dramatic use of color and form to engage its users.
The most memorable piece is Chromosaturations by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Its success is due in large part to the treatment of edges, both chromatically and architecturally. Three individual “rooms” are lit by fluorescent strips of blue, magenta and green, whose carefully regulated tones and strategic placement allow the colors blend into each other at certain points and be sharply separated at others. The intense hues are carried from space to space, an effect heightened the longer one remains in the each zone. While the rooms are not fully enclosed, each color exists in its own space, and the configuration thusly encourages each user to create their own internal blend of the colors as they move between the zones. “Between” is a term that can only describe the form, because one’s perception of the color is continually shifting. The success of these projects goes beyond mere aesthetic pleasure or their novel use of primitive technology. On one level, they intelligently utilize color to mark and define their respective spatial limits. Taken further, they collectively reach out to visitors, allowing several users to simultaneously witness the effects of the work as well as other users witnessing the effects, all while simultaneously processing the effects internally. Chromosaturations’ chilly blue mixing with the neighboring rooms chloroform-like green will no doubt trigger different memories and emotions from each person passing through. The flickering polished metal squares that illuminate the room-sized Light in Movement recall both a disco ball and the sensation that one is underwater. Oiticica’s controversial audio-visual piece Cosmococas will likely reconnect boomer audiences to forlorn college days of acid trips and Richard Nixon while giving fatigued tourists an opportunity to sneak in a quick nap. Floppy blue mattresses are strewn about on the floor, a not so subtle invitation to lie and watch the images of cocaine-covered magazine covers flash on the walls as Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile plays loudly over the speakers. The
Frampton, Kenneth, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, in H. Foster, ed., The AntiAesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, MA, Bay Press, 1983) 5
Cruz-Diez, Carlos. Chromosaturations. Three zones stitched together from exterior looking through each window. Photograph by Author 6
Le Parc, Julio. Light in Movement. Screencaptures from video. Image by Author 3
experience of lying on the blue mattresses is indulgent and comfortable; the psychedelic imagery is comical. OUTCOME While the scale of this exhibition is smaller, the stakes are no less high. What makes these works relevant is their mastery of color’s innate functionality as a reference tool and container of meaning, both universal and personal. The color itself is the threshold - the point of entry wherein the public enters through its metaphorical doorway. The very re-installment and re-discovery of these works becomes a powerful metaphor for the changing social currents that are characteristically postmodern, where differentiation trumps uniformity, and the local and the traditional become virtuous and are agents in a collective reinscription of place. Conversely, one may suggest that re-displaying these works is a poorly-veiled admission that today’s art industry has become wholly vacuous and stuck in a nostalgic loop, but the spirit of these pieces seems so far from the definition of the word as it is used today when we critique creative work. Instead, the effect these pieces collectively generate is completely relevant, affecting, and like Chromosaturations, stuck in one’s mind long after departing its limits.
In larger terms, one has to wonder if it perfectly echoes the current state of civilization, where the material city is moving closer to obsolesce, and thousands of years of physical urbanity is incrementally replaced by simulation and technology that is paradoxically isolating (Second Life and other RPG’s, Satellite television, individualized google search results) and ambitiously communal (Google+ “hangouts”, liveblogged political debates, Twitter, and so on.) 6 In either case, because each piece’s argument hinges on its highly calibrated use of color, light and sequence in addition to the “activation” of the public, and given the exhibit’s moments of spatial and cinematic intensity, what results is a contemporary manifestation of early Postmodernist attitudes. The main distinction between now and before is the conversation itself. While early Postmodern wanted to talk to you, these contemporary works are finally interested in your opinion. Dialogue must then be redefined within this context. In Suprasensorial, the idea of “subject” shifts from the artwork alone to a shared responsibility between the two, and the source of that change is the ability for the colored light and material to invite the public in. Architecture and public space is also “penetrated,” but Suprasensorial is unique for its distinctly hybridized variations of space, color, and movement. The fundamental questions posed by these projects is what brings outsiders inside them, and if is their color or their material this is more active in their relative successes and failures as creatives pieces and spatial experiences. The introductory quote illustrates both the practical success and celebrates the spirit of joy and immersion that characterize these works. Furthermore, given that people physically penetrate buildings every day of their lives, is it not worth proposing that architects work to achieve a similarly memorable experience? To borrow an architectural metaphor, this isn’t a discussion of color as ornament, but of color dually active as both structural frame and self-aware advertisement - a contradictory but essential tool with which the public enters and experiences the fullness of the work.
Cruz-Diez, Carlos. Chromosaturations. Exterior of structure. Photograph by Author 4