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Art Review : 'Colorforms': An Old-fashioned Salute

June 03, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Staff Writer

"Colorforms," an exhibition of abstract painting at Security Pacific Bank's downtown Gallery at the Plaza, through July 15, has the look of stalwart old soldiers. The canvases are lined up as if to testify to the virtues of perceptual curiosity, expressive restraint and all-around discipline. They salute old-fashioned values in the face of rampant Neo-Expressionism.

The exhibition is set up to illuminate the concept of color and shape merging as a single entity in abstract painting, but it's unlikely to be seen that simply. Cynics will ask, "Is this a conservative political statement, a retrograde exercise, a stiff proclamation of 'Enough already?' "

No, nothing so confrontational as that. Neither the artists nor the curators have such intentions. The show is just a sober recognition of art's cyclical nature and of the validity of a point of view that has come to be called abstract classicism.

I doubt that thinking art watchers need to be so reminded. The disheveled flurry of expressionistic art that has flooded the galleries in recent years has stirred up a lot of venal instincts, ignited the market, created spectacular new careers and caused faint-hearted formalists to dress up their abstractions in the latest gewgaws, but it hasn't rewritten modernist history.

The only argument that "Colorforms" is likely to incite is whether the chapter on art-for-art's-sake is closed yet. No minds will be changed on the basis of this show. It doesn't present enough current work to do that. What it does accomplish is to showcase some very solid art, spotlighting four West Coast seminal talents--Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin--while tentatively suggesting a continuation of the faith in the recent work of East Coast artists Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Mangold.

Though two of the artists, Feitelson and McLaughlin, are deceased, the exhibition bridges 1951 through 1983 and two generations. The youngest of the old soldiers, Mangold, is only 47 and a hot enough item to have a retrospective exhibition touring the country. (It will open June 22 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.)

Gallery director Tressa R. Miller and co-curator Tobey C. Moss have selected four or five paintings per artist to illuminate a concept that found its voice in hard-edge abstraction three decades ago. Merle Schipper's essay in an accompanying brochure recalls the late Los Angeles critic Jules Langsner's use of the term colorform in the catalogue for the 1959 exhibition "4 Abstract Classicists." It's this familiar era that forms the historical base of "Colorforms."

The artists have distinctly individual aesthetic personalities, but they are bound by a vision of color as an element interdependent on form. Their paintings are not colored drawings but hard-edge structures that can consist of a single colorform or of multiple ones locked in stasis or dynamic movement. You'll find no graded washes, no ethereal wisps of color, only solid hues with firm contours.

McLaughlin's canvases represent the most austere interpretation of the concept with white vertical bars dividing or floating on black canvases, yet there's nothing mechanical about them. These paintings of the mid-'60s and early '70s breathe slowly like meditating monks and invite consideration of their balance.

Hammersley clings to symmetrical square compositions but judiciously introduces a jazzy element in small blocks of red and yellow. His "Power Play" reads as an angular bull's eye; "Figure of Speech" and "Hide and Speak" as flickering plazas, in the spirit of Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie."

Selections of Feitelson's and Benjamin's work cover a wider range. Feitelson's faceted space, built of multicolored triangles, is refined and transformed over a 10-year period, ending in an elegantly curvaceous yellow and white canvas. Throughout this small body of work, he heightens awareness of the importance of every square inch of painted surface and of the weight of color. There is no negative or positive space, only colorforms that seem inevitably wedded.

Benjamin's exhibited work, from 1959 to 1983, points to a change from a central focus to overall compositions of vibrating stripes or grids subverted by jostling rectangles and circles. His crisp, vivid painting represents the energetic peak of the colorform spectrum, tap-dancing in circles while McLaughlin's canvases silently ruminate.

Inclusion of Kelly's and Mangold's work sounds reasonable, but it doesn't quite click into place in "Colorforms," either for lack of strong examples or because of divergent preoccupations. Kelly's odd-shaped, solid-color paintings convey an active sense of one form becoming another, but they need a more controlled space than Security Pacific's cavernous lobby.

Mangold's small canvases undercut the clear concept of colorform with whispered uncertainty; pencil lines delicately correct skewed shapes or superimpose one form on a painted one under it. This would bring us into a whole new ballpark if it weren't for the presence of McLaughlin. A kinship between the two artists' work rests on the unlikely alliance of rigor and vulnerability.

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