Modernisms


Palermo, eds. Ulrike Groos, Susanne Kuper, Vanessa Joan Muller
(29.95, Merrell)
The Modern Element, Adam Kirsch (15.99, Norton)
Color as Field. American Painting 1950-1975, Karen Wilkin (25, Yale)


When I first read Palermo, I thought it was perhaps an elaborate hoax, and  that Palermo was one of those invented artists that critics love to invent. This wasn't because of the work as much as the po-faced essays and discussions about him and his work in this volume. Careful reading along with a visitor friend getting very excited about the book soon set me straight, so I am at a loss as to why I haven't heard of this 'mythical figure in post-war art' before.

Palermo's work is reminiscent of many other artists, particularly Ellsworth Kelly, but then you work out that Kelly and all these other artists come after Palermo, not before. Clusters of small boxlike monochrome canvasses? Done it. Hard-edge stripe paintings? Done it. Minimalist sculptural wall reliefs? Done that too. And explored it thoroughly, seriously and produced beautiful work in doing so.

There's lots of mumbo-jumbo artspeak in here about whether Palermo's colour is/was conceptual or not, and that perhaps no-one actually 'saw' his paintings at the time because we associated conceptual work with browns and beiges; and lots of other stuff too, which doesn't really help at all. Palermo is clearly an artists' artist, which may be why I've never heard of him, but I do hope people went and saw the exhibition that this book was produced for, because it is the work that will win people over, not intellectual inarticulation. The reproductions in this work are stunning; the rest is pretty much dispensable.


Adam Kirsch's book doesn't have any pictures to divert from the words, which is a shame. Kirsch had me hopping up and down with anger and shouting at the page. He may be regarded as 'controversial and fearless', but he is also seemingly ignorant and a poetry-hater. Not for him any brain work, Kirsch wants poem to be immediately obvious and de-codable by the reader, as well as making a musical mark.

He is especially astonishingly bad in the essay on Jorie Graham, where he suggests the key to her writing is a kind of 'algebraic logic'. This appears to be because one of her poems has x and y in, which tells us we have to fill in the gaps and work out the equation. And Kirsch can't! So it must be crap, mustn't it?

Elsewhere, Kirsch is a staunch defender of (presumably pre-modernist) culture, and gets sniffy about Billy Collins taking the piss out of it; he also holds forth on what he terms 'courteous' and 'discourteous' poetry, rooted in - you guessed it - 'communication'. We are back again to the fact that Kirsch wants to be told things by poetry, and not think for himself. Goodness knows how he has managed to engage with
The Waste Land and Howl which he praises, but lets be thankful for small mercies. On the evidence of this book Kirsch appears to be an absolute buffoon and needs to get out more - obviously someone will have to tell him where to go, how to cross the road, what's for tea, and dress him in the morning, but I'm sure that can be arranged.


In contract to these other two books, Color as Field is a joy from start to finish. There's a good solid essay-cum-survey which starts as an introduction and then wends it way through numerous superb full colour plates of work from the 50s, 60s and 70s, as does a second essay by Carl Belz. The book ends with short, useful biographies of the artists whose work is shown.

Karen Wilkin is interesting in that she includes what might be otherwise seen as hard-edged, minimalism, pop or abstract-expressionist work rather than 'color field' which would usually imply staining and saturation in the work of artists such as Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler. Despite discussing a rejection of gesture and bravado, it's difficult to read paintings such as Larry Poons' 'Yellow and Brown Womb' without involving gesture, or many of the large works as as macho or overpowering as any splash-and-grab expressionist works.

There is, then, an inherent tension here, between the 'color as field' of the book title and 'color field' painting which we might see as a previously defined school or movement, but it's an interesting one to work though, as Wilkin has done. And it's also interesting to be presented with many lesser known artists and interesting and contrasting works within the debate of how and why colour is working in these paintings, and why colour remains such an important topic for consideration and exploration.

     Rupert Loydell 2008