The First Art Newspaper on the Net   Established in 1996 Friday, July 10, 2020

Weiss Berlin opens an exhibition of works by Phil Sims
Installation view.

by Phil Sims

BERLIN.- I wrote the following essay for a catalog to an exhibition at the Shirley Cerf Gallery of San Francisco held in March, 1980. This exhibition titled “Color Painting” was composed of myself and four friends all concerned with color as their primary emphasis.

I decided to republish this essay in this exhibition catalog because the ideas presented still hold for me some 40 years later. The working out of these ideas has been my painting life. The one thing not mentioned in the essay is the aspect of light in color painting. Today I describe myself as a painter of color and light, for over the years light has come to mean color and color to mean light. In the essay I write “ …a color image is the articulation of the painting surface…” Today, I would write “and this articulation is defined by the light it holds.” --Phil Sims, 2019

Color Painting
As we enter the decade of the 80’s there emerges a vigorous and renewed color painting. Characterized by the exploration of the nature of painting as a color thinking which refuses to become a theory or manifesto. It is expressed by a willingness to explore color as a subject, itself. The idea of color as subject is not new with this generation of painters. The ideas leading to it as a primary concern evolved throughout most of the century. However it was in the 1940’s that color began to emerge as the major constituting force of painting. In 1947, Mark Rothko, a key figure in this development, began to replace imagery with color and climaxed this effort with the group of paintings now installed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. During this same period, Barnett Newman, in an extraordinary series of paintings titled, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue,” used the barest of structural means to assert color as subject. Rothko, Newman, Clyfford Still, and others brought into being what Lawrence Alloway called “American painting as colorist intensity.” Color, severed at last from its decorative functions, its literary descriptiveness, and its subjugation to form, turned its back on the expressionistic uses that the demands of drawing had extracted, and stated its continuous perceptual nature. As subject, color replaced the pictorial in painting with the non-figurative purity of its effects. A number of painters emerged in the 70’s willing to explore the possibilities of paint. A show entitled “Fundamental Painting” mounted at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1975 was to be”….a reflection on the foundations of painting.” This exhibition came hard on the lessons of the 60’s which were pervaded by formalistic dictum and minimalist thinking. Painting it seems was no longer content to be a footnote along the reductive journey, but was to assert the creation of a painting of duration utilizing the fundamental ideas of painting. The tradition of painting was being recreated through the affirmation of the means of paint. There has been a growing realization that painting has for some time been shedding its pictorial aspects and assuming a more fundamental nature. The pictorial (an assemblage of parts or forms within a figurative design, either representational or abstract) is being replaced by concepts crucial to the new painting, “marking and surface” and “color and the actualized object.”

Marking and Surface
Necessary to the formation of a color image is the articulation of the painting surface, insomuch as it individuates the particular color concerns of the painter. A distinction must be made between marking and drawing, for within this distinction lies the fundamental nature of a color image. Marking leaves a record of the painter’s activity in such a way as to articulate the image forming characteristics of color, whereas drawing isolates the marks within the surface configuration and results in the separation of image and surface (or traditionally, a pictorial figure-ground relationship). It is the act of marking with paint (defined as a color) that provides an actualized surface of integrated marks building to a subsequent color image, an image integrated within the body of the paint. It is no longer necessary to distinguish between figure and ground, but only to perceive ground as belonging to the body of color and contributing to its qualities. The application of paint in the marking of the surface gives rise to the visual manifestations of the whole, and conveys the inherent characteristics of each color as well as the subtle meanings of the autonomous sign, a color image. The image-substance of color is bound up with the characteristics of specific pigments. For instance, black is not only black but can result in either a warm sensation or a cold one, i.e., the difference between Mars Black and Ivory Black. These sensations are properties of the pigment and not of the color black. A color image is built through the use of pigment mixtures and color overlays in which the mass tone and undertone of a particular pigment are inherent to the possibilities of color content. As painters open color to the factualness of surface, they return meaning to the syntax of language.

Color and the Actualized Object
“The central issue of painting as an actualized object is not the color of the object, but rather the function of an image whose objectiveness is color” (“Painting As An Actualized Object”, Joseph Marioni, 1979). Discussions of painting as an object have all too often closed it in a web of formal restrictions. Once the pioneering color work of Rothko, Still, and Newman gave way to the advanced of formalism espoused so avidly in the 60’s, color painting became a series of moves within a prescribed structure. Indeed, through the ideas generated at the beginning of what became known as minimalism contained germinal concepts applicable to the resurgence of color painting, it too sealed itself off from the continued realization of a color image. Some painters throughout the 60’s and 70’s continued to investigate the fundamental ideas of painting. Their internal structuring of paint – purified of all references and existing of pure marking – realized the color presence of paint as actualized object. That image substance of color is bound up with a direct and primal visual experience and is understood within the context of an actualized object. The painter and the sensitive viewer are, at the heart of it, characterized by their abilities to discriminate and judge the various qualities of color, object, marking, and surface, inherent in painting.

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