María de Mater O'Neill
July 3 to August 2, 2003*
An edited version of this essay was published in Revista Domingo, El Nuevo Dia, Sunday, August 3, 2003.
Viveca Vázquez, "¡UY!", photo by Miguel Villafañe, 2003,
Teatro Julia de Burgos, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.
There is a woman on top of a table. She strikes it, throws herself from it, seems to fall, and topples the table over. What I really look at, among these games of imbalance, is the color of the table. The same color of the cube on which the woman balanced herself previously, the same color of the coat that another woman was wearing earlier which she then took off, to put on again and wrapped herself with it. The green I am describing is not one we would call natural, that is, the color that refers us to nature (a term that I employ cynically because of its associations to the "authentic"). This is a kind of green that reminds me of superhero energy flashes. The coat was similar to the silk ziberline coat that Oleg Cassini designed for Jacqueline Kennedy on the occasion of her trip to Lake Pichola, in Udaipur, India. But instead of apricot, it was a Barbarella green (as in the film that Jane Fonda would like us all to forget). It is the type of green that comes from the history of technology- science-fiction and atomic -spider B movies from the late fifties and early sixties. It is the kind of green we see on the Internet when a letter is assigned the hexadecimal color "#00FF00." It is not the pastel green that Italian designers used in sixties furniture, instead it is the type of green that is artificially illuminated by the cylinder of a computer screen. It is a color belonging to the palette of the future, but "the future in two weeks" as David Reed, the American painter, once said. It is the color that we no longer keep in the garage, in a bubble that splits inside lava lamps created by Craven Walker in 1963. This green is the color of the fantastic, of the promise of progress that modernity brought forth after the atomic bomb. Perhaps that is why I can understand when Walker said "if you buy my lamp, you won't need drugs." But this anxious green also encloses the radioactive hazard of technological evils. The future is not in two weeks, Reed, it is now: Living La Vida Jetsons.
It may sound like an urban legend but it is a good story nonetheless. The techniques and research in oil pigments during the renaissance were aimed at attaining the color of skin. I am referring, of course, to white European skin. Because even though we may not want to, color possesses a social signifier. Cities like Florence, Sienna, Venice, Rome and later Padua and Milan, gave us the painters that developed the optical laws that are taught today in art schools (or at least those which have recovered from nineteen sixties antagonism). These laws were developed out of a necessity in representing nature during humanistic times. We owe much to these Italians since for the first time in the history of painting they looked for the Holy Grail in order to achieve a realistic atmosphere. The Italian Dream Team was first comprised of Mr. Giotto, who early on in the Renaissance game made the first leap towards the basket in the feat of accomplishing background and light settings treated in a realistic manner. To understand this feat we need to remember that never before had three-dimensional volumes been depicted; representations of space lacked perspective due to the fact that the constructor had not conceptualized himself (as if the mind visualized space in the style of Egyptian hieroglyphs). But the starting point of what would be the long trajectory of the illusion of volume belongs to the star player, Mr. Masaccio, one hundred years later. He realized that colors degrade at a distance and rejected the use of brilliant colors in favor of blacks and whites in the modeling of bodies. Another great player comes into the court later on, Piero della Francesca, who developed the research on chiaroscuro and perspective, particularly on luminosity, giving the sensation that his figures are created by their own light. The Magic Johnson of this team, Leonardo da Vinci, made definitive conquests in the realm of painting: the famous sfumato, which is none other than the blurring of the lines and transparencies that create an endless depth in the painting. This search for the real/natural through techniques related to the observation of natural light (they didn't have a choice, there was no electricity) culminates with the great who's who of the Renaissance- Titian, Raphael and Tintoretto. But if we wish to talk about the special effects of light in painting, Rembrandt is the one who rules. This Dutch baroque painter is the Master Jedi of the power of light and learned his lessons well from Caravaggio, Titian and the Venetian School. But pay attention because this is not a story about color but about light and shadow, and in order to represent these, color must be restrained.
It is in the sixties that artists like Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, rejected the techniques and the oil pigments, specifically, favoring industrial techniques and paints, since the search for new palettes did not yield results in pigments that were traditionally found in art supply stores. Even in the sixties, pigments were based on the Renaissance palette, the natural palette, which is also a rural one (the type of city where many artists live now did not exist back then) and is the cornerstone of modernist painting. I speak of a kind of painting with values of originality, authenticity, a painting that has an aura which is lost in reproduction, one created by an artist-genius (a requisite for originality) with an exorbitant ego. It is not digital painting, or the simulacra of Fabian Marcaccio, or the ones which appear in David Reed's DVDs inserted in the bedrooms of Kim Novak and James Stewart in a scene from «Vértigo». It is not the kind of painting that can exist in a time in which there are copies without originals: it is painting before Baudrillard.
This reaction against the most influential art critic of the past century, the American Clement Greenberg, on behalf of the sixties' painters who strove to not be "pure" in their paintings and instead became hybrids, could explain the vampire-like attitude of some of us contemporary painters. The truth is that many abandoned painting as if it were the Titanic. In Judd's case, he abandoned it in search for an art that would not reflect human experience but one that would instead dwell on the object itself, since according to him "The achievement of Pollock and the others meant that the century's development of color could continue no further on a flat surface. Its adventitious capacity to destroy naturalism also could not continue. Perhaps Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still were the last painters. I like Agnes Martin's paintings. Someday, not soon, there will be another kind of painting, far from the easel, far from beyond the easel, since our environment indoors is four walls, usually flat. Color, to continue, had to occur in space." Underlying Judd's shift, we find an anti-capitalist ideology in the search for the color he found in the metallic paint can used by Harley-Davidson. For Judd, material and color should form one entity in order to avoid engaging in the illusionist act achieved by painterly tradition. Plexiglas conceded this to Judd, since the color (it can be opaque, transparent, intense, dull or even phosphorescent) is inserted into the material. Ironically, in his last works, industrial material brought forth the act of optical illusion he had avoided for so long. Because even though he stopped painting, Judd never ceased to think as a painter.
I was recently reading a book by Rosalind Krauss («Bachelors», MIT Press, 1999) which made me reflect on beauty. Beauty is easier to find in myth, all myth is activated by desire and desire is full of traps. I use myth in the sense that it strips signs bare of their history (Roland Barthes). It turns them into a natural act, "It is that way just because. Because it has always been that way", turning signs, which are tied to a particular context, into universal and unquestionable truths. Krauss explains the myth in two premises, I'll add a third: the artist imitates reality (universal truth number one), and through his/her sensibility, and because of it, he/she adds a piece of him/herself (universal truth number two). In making this expression concrete, the spectator can identify (universal truth number three) his/her own humanity (his/her ID card). The formula would read as follows: Art = emotion through nature (what is "real"). If the natural is real, the natural palette is based on the theory of color -the notorious feudal circle of hierarchies: primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries-and the "readymade" palette that Home Depot offers presents a democratic system in which each color is autonomous and does not reflect human experience but the things we create in our cities. The industrial palette does not reflect our humanity (white, European, and rural) but it does reflect our contemporary experience (urban, chaotic, repulsive, full of excess and desire).
Let's return to the woman in the green coat. "It looked at me," said choreographer Viveca Vázquez of the coat hanging on the rack at the Salvation Army. In my opinion, Vazquez' choice of color for her piece "¡UY!", which dealt with the fear of intimate urban spaces, is a response to the unfulfilled promise of modernity expressed in Technicolor films. But this green, particularly that of the table, promotes brilliance and flat surfaces, in contrast to the natural greens that create an illusion of space, the optical effect of three-dimensionality so cherished in the history of painting. If Judd said that color is in space, outside of the canvas, I would then say that contemporary color is in the surface (even on canvas) ; it exists equally in the floors of Montehiedra Mall, in the blue-green glass of the Electric Energy Building in Santurce, in Ivelisse Jimenez' painting (yes, it contains Plexiglas) exhibited at Punto Gris Gallery in Los Paseos last June. The urban palette is not illuminated from within but by the resplendent capacity of its surface. It gives off an immediate intensity like the speed of e-mail. It is a vulgar palette, swift, excessive, impure- the urban palette is definitively anti-Greenberg. It is not only present in our malls and office buildings seen from the Luis a. Ferre Expressway but also in the cheaper cars, cell phones, in ATMs, in the handrails of the stairs at the Puerto Rico Art Museum and the Urban Train stations. It is the palette of raves, of the working class, of the hardware store, of «Matrix Reload». It is the palette that Luis Munoz Marin left us with «Operation Bootstrap». It is also the "something is not quite right" palette that appears in Hitchcock's color films, later appropriated by David Lynch in «Blue Velvet».
It is not until the mid seventies that the art industry developed urban colors in oil pigments, designed so that light would reflect on the surface such as the Hansa Yellow or the Quinacridone family. Amid these two pigments there is one that particularly reflects the relationship between color and social overtones: magenta. This color is special for me, and I have used it in my most recent paintings, the magenta from CMYK, the system used to separate colors in photographs printed in newspapers, books and other printed matter. Magenta is also the color used in processing Technicolor films, along with cyan and yellow (Hansa, not Cadmium). Even though magenta is a natural pigment, the Quinacridone is synthetic and appears in car paint, printer toner, plastics and even cosmetics. Quinacridone was developed by DuPont in 1958, two years before Camelot moved into the White House, a year after Judd made his first exhibition -when he was still focused on painting-, and the same year that Olga Albizu presented her first one-woman show in Puerto Rico.
I mention all this because it is common for the local palette to maintain the natural palette, in spite of the fact that most painters live in a metropolitan area, thus creating a compulsory existentialist reading. It must be understood that this is not a matter of natural versus artificial, since all palettes are mediatized, they are all ready-mades. This is a matter of deconstruction, of the signifier and the gaze, the way in which the natural palette is offered by the rural social imaginary as a definition of what is authentically national (the great myth of evasion). My argument in regard to this daltonic attitude cannot be dismissed with an argument of the type "for every taste, there are colors" since taste is not a resource for artistic practice. The retrospective of abstract painter Luis Hernandez Cruz at the Puerto Rico Art Museum is a good example of this selection of color. What I find interesting in his work is his blindness to urban color (if it is intentional I would be all the more intrigued by his selection). This puts him in close proximity painters of the sixties, especially in regard to his incursion in the opticalization of his paintings and his use of industrial materials. As if it were a replicant from «Blade Runner», Hernandez Cruz' painting reproduces the natural=real=authentic formula, promoting narratives (the form is acknowledged as having a real origin, universal truth number one) that assure the spectator (I understand, therefore I know what I am looking at, universal truth number three). This naturalization of the national is so embedded in the cultural psyche of the painter that he makes reference to "Puerto Rican abstraction" in an interview. The assimilation of this myth is activated by desire: the desire to remove what we do not possess, the frustrated and neurotic desire (for the nation) as in Mick Jagger's "and I try, and I try, I can't get no satisfaction." All desire produces pleasure. All that gives pleasure has a limited time. Pleasure has a concrete moment, that is, it begins and must end at a given moment. Consequently it excludes and does not take into account the unformed, the unknown and that which cannot be represented. I question the spectator's expectation in receiving this type of pleasure in painting (the spectator's verdict in which after thirty seconds of looking at a painting-- "mmm … I like it") because it comes from myth. All myth is ideology because it offers only one reading (looking = understanding). "It is that way, because, because it has always been that way."
We have all passed through Hato Rey's Golden Mile with its epic blue-green banners offering money for those vacations that will take us away from the urban bustle (sailboat, beach, sky, de rigueur mountains in the background). Yet when we look, we do it rurally, within that oneiric Puerto Rican space, blind to the fact that we are in a car, waiting for the light to change (which I don't necessarily consider a negative space). Or the Harris Paint commercial in movie theaters, that one to which everybody sings along to- that "cobblestone blue" is really the color of my lighter. I do not propose that painters abandon one palette for another, that would imply the establishment of yet another myth, but I do question the reasons for this very particular kind of blindness. In these times in which the "death of painting" is announced in its extended funeral (as if a cultural manifestation could be terminated, as if there existed an end to history), I propose a reflection about our daily color. It is not a question of making up another language (being original) since there is still much left to say in that regard (I don't believe in the autonomous painter). The problem is not in painting, it resides in how we see painting and how the painter relates to it.
Lucecita Benitez at Ed Sullivan's show and right photo, Camelot and Muñoz at modern San Juan's airport.
In my particular process, I am interested in Technicolor, created in the nineteen thirties in order to develop films with a natural palette which curiously ended up creating a hyper natural palette with saturated colors. This reminds me not of that which I have lived every time I leave my house but that I have lived in the fantastic imagery of popular culture. However, I am not substituting the rural landscape for the urban one. I am not interested in representing anything; I am only interested in painting itself. I do not want the reader to remember my painting, but to remember the experience he/she had when looking at it. Having made my intentions clear, I think again of the choreographer. It is not only the green of a young president, but also the reality of his murder three years later. It also belongs to the family of grays of the suit singer Lucecita Benitez wore when she sang with her false eyelashes and I-am-black afro in Ed Sullivan's show. It is a blurred palette -interrupted, hybrid, teasing, ambivalent- which declares Stonewall style: "I'm here, get used to it."
If there were any doubts, I hope you now understand why the natural palette is rural. There are materials brought forth by the twentieth century, not by the Industrial Revolution (which was mechanic), but by technology, like stainless steel and acrylic. The color of stainless steel cannot be found in the Old Holland production house, which still manufactures the paints that Rembrandt used. It can nonetheless be found at Gamblin, founded in the late seventies in San Francisco to create paints for artists from Los Angeles- the city of mid-modern and Cher. On the other hand, the history of acrylic is closer to us as a result of the search for material that would be stable enough to withstand the changes in weather and promote quicker drying time, which was needed by Mexican muralists for their works in public buildings. Plastic resins were already used for domestic utensils and Plexiglas substituted glass in trains and airplanes in the nineteen twenties. By the thirties, in Siqueiros' studio in New York, new formulas were being experimented with, establishing collaborations between artists and chemists. The urban palette was developed in the USA. Even if it was possible to buy painter's acrylic in the fifties, it is not until the sixties that the other form of resinous synthetic painting, PVA, could be found in Europe. Winsor and Newton, Liquitex, Golden, all offered a wide range of colors. In them we find the names of the natural palette- Sienna brown, Venice red, Naples yellow- but also names that seem taken right out of a Pfizer brochure such as Phtalocianine green and Doxazine violet. Pigments like Quinacridone are the result of Frankensteinian laboratories where new chemical formulas have been produced which have changed oil techniques (600 years of them) with the appearance of synthetic resins and pigments in the market. If concrete and welded steel affected the past century's architecture, how could we expect technology not to deliver a new palette for painting?
My reading of Luis Hernandez Cruz' optical paintings, for example, could explain why the palette did not change in terms of what could be a more intriguing and logical conclusion in my opinion: to distance oneself from the empirical experience and exchange it for the artifice. Due to the type of mathematical abstraction of color that Hernandez Cruz employs as units in complex groupings, when he maintains naturalistic references these ironically attach themselves to the previous world, to older painting, like «Goyita». And even within this cultural discourse, if the palette originates in nature then it is authentic, real, true, absolute, universal, as if the premise were that our country only existed in that rural space-landscape as when one exits Florence and not the Martinez Nadal Expressway when going from Guaynabo to Caguas. To paint with colors from reality, as if we all agreed on what is happening.
"Can you see?," Agatha, the psychic, asks John Anderton, played by the hero of land of the free and home of the brave, Tom Cruise. A great part of the story of «Minority Report» is told in a duo-tone palette of stainless steel grays and stainless steel blues. Only the Technicolor yellow and reds appear inserted, in the contrasted scenes of violence and tension, as a sign of imbalance. Furthermore, when John Anderton goes into a greenhouse in search of the truth, the palette becomes a «Wizard of Oz» one, warning us not to trust mutating nature, altered by reckless scientists dabbling with a technology that ends up attacking our hero. He then takes his eyes out and inserts another pair in the empty sockets (I cannot avoid recalling the wolf's "All the better to see with, my child" in Little «Red Riding Hood»). It is not until the happy ending that the natural palette makes an appearance in a scene where the camera opens the frame, first showing the stone house, then a tractor, followed by cultivated land and stopping at the sea in the horizon: "in a remote place, so they can live in peace" (because the mutant-psychics are no longer able to see the future). It's amusing to live the present in the framework of the past. It reminds me of the ad for the Municipal Revenue Collection Center they used to play in the movies, during the time of property taxes:
- "Is it now?" asks Agatha
- "What?" answers Anderton
- "Is it now?"
- "Yes, it is all happening right now."
* First essay, part of a series about color, culture, language and urban thinking.
©2008 - María de Mater O'Neill