Studio Update #9

Who’s Afraid Of Red, Yellow and Blue?

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Pure Red Color (Chistyi krasnyi tsvet), Pure Yellow Color (Chistyi zheltyi tsvet), Pure Blue Color (Chistyi sin tsvet).Alexsandr Rodchenko, 1921, oil on canvas. Each panel, 24 5/8 x 20 11/16”.As we embark on 2022, I hope that this finds you all safe and excited for the year to come.

In this update, we’ll delve back into my monochrome works from the 70’s, which, over the past two years, I’ve lifted from crates and unwrapped after leaving them unopened for decades. Last time we explored my pastel works, which we’ll return to next time, but for now we’ll turn our focus to the oil paintings I made during this period. I’d like to share not only the paintings themselves, but also thoughts on the work from critical voices of the moment. We’ll start with Lilly Wei — curator, critic, and contributor to publications such as ARTnews, Art in America, and The Brooklyn Rail — who wrote about my monochrome work in New York in December of 2001 for the catalogue of my exhibition Layered Time, Layered Paint at Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, 2002:

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K. Painting for B. George Peck, 1977, oil on canvas on plywood structure, 5’ x 4’ x 6”; Install view, Layered Time, Layered Paint, Kiscelli Museum, 2002

“In 1921, at the ‘5 x 5 = 25’ exhibition in Moscow, Alexander Rodchenko exhibited a red painting, a yellow painting, and a blue painting and said, ‘I reduced painting to its logical conclusions.’ He also said, ‘It’s all over.’ It was not. The monochrome painting, through the subsequent course of the 20th century, would go on to establish itself as one of the most exemplary of modernist images, the grand, highflying flag of the modernist adventure. It was identified with artists such as Kasimir Malevich, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Robert Ryman, and Brice Marden.

But the designation ‘monochrome,’ also called ‘aniconic,’ ‘pure,’ ‘radical,’ or ‘fundamental’ at various points in history, has never had widespread acceptance among its practitioners.

Very few monochromatic painters consider themselves to be monochromatists. Theirs has never been a monolithic world; in fact, they are reluctant members of a group distinguished by its contentiousness and full of passionate dissent.

In the end, monochrome painting is as varied in form, content, and intent as any other category of painting, although the distinctions may be more subtle. A classic monochrome - a neutral, allover, unmodulated single-color rectangle - hardly exists as an actual work of art. While some monochromatic paintings are singular in color, many are not; even paintings which appear to be a single color have been constructed out of more than one color - and sometimes many colors - to achieve a single surface hue. As a result, mono-chromaticism may be a category of painting that exists without true examples, a commentary on the complex nature of “single-color” painting.

George Peck painted monochromes in the 1970s, showing with Marcia Hafif, Phil Sims, Frederic Thursz, and Jerry Zeniuk, among other contemporaries. His elegant, beautifully made paintings are a variation on the theme of the monochrome, investigating not only the possibilities of the single-color surface, but also its structure. Intrigued by painting after‘the death of  painting,’ Peck was interested in finding ways to refresh and reconstitute painting, a quest of his that continues to this day. At the time, he still felt compelled to make paintings, but he shied away from making a straight painting on a flat surface. Instead, he constructed a curved support, which resembled a shield or Russian icon.

Peck’s intention was to bring the visual and theatrical into equilibrium, to balance the pictorial and the physical, a strategy that continues to be characteristic of his work. Created out of layers of rich colors intermittently glimpsed, these curved, ostensibly monochromatic surfaces made of the painting something that was not quite an illusion, not quite an object. Instead, they aspired to be, as Peck says, ‘visual condensations with multiple associations dealing with the physicality of paint, with what was real and what wasn’t - in other words, a mix between the material monochrome and the metaphysical monochrome” (12).

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Robert Ryman in his studio, late 1960s.

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Barnett Newman

In 1966, Barnett Newman made a painting titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I. With this, he referred to Rodchenko, positioning himself defiantly against the earlier artist’s announcement that painting is dead. From this refusal to accept the death of painting, a group of artists — of which I was a member — sprung up in New York City. During this period, we would often visit each others’ studios, and harshly critique each others’ work. While we didn’t declare ourselves monochromatic painters, our practices all placed focus on the strength of reductivism. Along with myself, this group included such painters as Milton Resnick, Jerry Zeniuk, Frederic Thursz, Marcia Hafif, Paul Rotterdam, David Reed, Porfirio Di Donna, Edda Renouf, Allan Uglow, and Marilyn Lenkovsky.

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Milton Resnick in his studio, 1980.

Many of us participated in a group exhibition titled In The Realm of the Monochromatic, curated by Michael Walls at Susan Caldwell Gallery in 1978. John Russell, former chief art critic of The New York Times, summed up the exhibition in this review for the Times on Friday, June 30 of that year:

“‘In the Realm of the Monochromatic’ (Susan Caldwell Gallery, 383 West Broadway): One of the more persistent endeavors in recent art has been the attempt to pursue painting into its inmost lair: to make do, in other words, with just one color and in that way to forfeit almost all the tactical advantages of earlier painting. Kasimir Malevich’s “White on White” may have been the great exemplar in all this, but in one form or another the extreme ambition has haunted more than one generation of painters.

If we may judge from the choices that Michael Walls has made for the Susan Caldwell Gallery, its appeal is worldwide. His 17 painters include a Scotsman, Gordon Hart; a Mexican, Edda Renouf; a Hungarian, George Peck; an Austrian, Paul Rotterdam; a Moroccan, Frederick Thursz, and a German, Jerry Zeniuck. He also includes Robert Ryman (an old master in this context) and Rober Mangold, who doesn’t quite qualify but

Monochromatics and monotony might seem to be first cousins, if not brothers. But in point of fact there is nothing monotonous about this show. A one-color painting by Milton Resnick is not at all like a one-color painting by David Budd. Marcia Hafif’s slithery touch with oil paint on linen is not at all like the simulated slap of malachite that George Peck somehow wrests from oil on canvas. Paul Rotterdam’s piece is rough, tough and monumental. Marilyn Lenkowsky’s fits into a corner of the room like a dark blue wedge.

What emerges in the end is not a doctrinaire show that argues for one particular reductive position. It is a miscellany of works by intelligent people who have only one thing in common: that they have put the problem of color relations on one side and got on with whatever was on their minds. The show is there through July 15, and it has a good deal more in the way of an intellectual armature than most summer miscellanies” (1).

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In The Realm Of The Monochromatic, Susan Caldwell Gallery, installation view, 1978

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Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I, Barnett Newman, 1966, oil on canvas, 190 x 122 cm.

In our next studio update, we’ll dig deeper into the monochromatic group of the 70s’; our work, our lives, and the ways that we challenged one another in an interflow of ideas. But before we finish this update with a few of my monochrome paintings, there’s an anecdote I wanted to share. Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue I, Barnett Newman’s piece, was not just in conversation with Rodchenko — it was also a tongue in cheek reference to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s 1962 play. When I asked Albee, years later, what he thought of this reference to his work, he said something that stuck with me:

“The fight goes on.”

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Edward Albee (left), George Peck (right), New York, 1984.

Works Cited:

Russell, John. “Art: What's Happening At the Frick Collection.” The New York Times, 30 June 1978, pp. 1–1., https://doi.org/https://www.nytimes.com/1978/06/30/archives/ art-whats-happening-at-the-frick-collection.html.

Wei, Lilly. George Peck. Layered Time, Layered Paint. Edited by Edit András and Jonathan Goodman. Budapest, Hungary: Catalogues of Municipal Picture Gallery 117, September 27, 2002. Exhibition catalogue.