Friday, 28 August 2009

Colour Chart at Tate Liverpool: Review

Tate Liverpool. Photograph copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

(Continued from long ramblings about trying to find the Tate..., over on my new Around Britain blog)

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about Tate Liverpool, and the Colour Chart exhibition. Indeed I am. I didn't know what to expect from this Tate, or this particular collection of what I suspected would be mainly colour field paintings, a style of uniform application of colour without representation that I had found derisory as a child roaming free range in the Albright Knox (I could do that! As in, I'm still learning to draw but I could paint a solid block of blue next to a solid block of yellow just as well, but no one would put me in the Albright Knox). In later years (I won't presume to say maturity) I found them tedious compared to other modern styles, such as my beloved abstract expressionism. And yet, a few years after attending a course exploring some of the symbolic and spiritual applications of colour, I had embarked on a project that effectively transformed my flat into a walk-in colour field painting, through the magic of Dulux custom mixed strong pigments, a different jewel tone for each room).

So I didn't have any particular expectations of this exhibition, except to make further good use of my Tate membership. After jete'ing neatly into the lift, and not so neatly having the doors nearly close on my shoulders, to the alarm of the two girls inside, I found myself breathless on the fourth floor, ready to flash my membership card. 'You have twenty minutes to see the exhibition,' smiled the woman at the desk. 'That's all right,' I said. 'Better late than never.' And so, through the doors...In the initial room the visitor is confronted with Marcel Duchamp's wonderful valise containing miniature reproductions of his oevre to that point. I have no idea what the link was to colour, but I've wanted to see this valise for years (knowing Duchamp, he probably made more than one). Truth be told, I'd love to make one myself, or to have one containing works by all my favourite artists. To the left, a smaller room contains the Ellsworth Kellys, including the one featured on the museum promotional materials. These do amazing things to one's eyes, when standing at a certain distance. All the squares appear to be leaping about on the retina. Remarkable, for such an apparently simple composition. I was also impressed with Kelly's entrepreneurial lateral thinking: young, poor, and working in Greece, he was unable to afford to ship an 8 foot square canvas (and didn't have room in his studio to work on one). The solution? Sixty-four 1 foot square canvases, to be assembled in a precise order at the receiving end. Brilliant!

There were many other points of interest, including displays of historical books on colour theory, and annual volumes belonging to Japanese artist On Kawara, who had meticulously documented swatches of each colour that he used on a daily basis. Having enjoyed Robert Rauschenberg's numbers painting in the Albright Knox as a child, I was delighted to see his series of ten lithographs of the digits 0 to 9, each in a different specially mixed but apparently straight-from-the-tin colour. On a wall backed with the Dan Flavin neon piece (and hence having a slightly jarring pink light spilling over the partition into the adjoining room) was a real treasure: Jan Dibbets' 'Colour Studies' from the 1970's, printed in large square format in 2007. These abstracts (or nearly abstracts) of details of cars had a colour cast typical of Kodachrome 64 or similar slide films of that era. But their primary interest for me was how well they worked as abstracts, and how well they were hung with contrasting colours next to each other. A sure sign that I like a piece is if it is the sort of thing I would like to make myself. (Countering this selfish approach to art appreciation, I hasten to add that I also enjoy work employing techniques, subjects or media that I would never use myself.)

After that, there just wasn't enough time to see the rest of the exhibition properly. I had assumed I was near the end, but in fact the Dibbets pieces were about halfway through. Still, I would highly recommend this exhibition, even to people who are reluctant to confront minimalist modern art. Oh, and look out for the exhibition staff. A chair in one of the first rooms proclaims that their attractive waistcoats were specially designed, making them living, breathing performance pieces. 'You have five minutes left, if that's okay!' said one brightly, popping his head round the partition as I contemplated Dibbets. Excellent work.

Coulour Chart continues at Tate Liverpool until 14 September.

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