Colour After Klein, Barbican Gallery

Exhibition held in Spring / Summer 2005

Colour’s an easy choice for a hard-up curator. There’s a lot of it going around in painting, sculpture etc. And even by restricting yourself to a certain period, say, from after Yves Klein, there’s still no shortage of the stuff in installation, video, and performance art. And everyone likes colour. Bright colours, dark colours, shiny colours, scratchy colours. Primary colours. Zig-zag strips of colour dashing from left to right and back again. The kids will like it too.

That’s why I was a bit suspicious of Colour After Klein at the Barbican. Just throw any old stuff together and pretend to make a show of it. An exhibition gathered from whatever could be got on the cheap from other galleries closed for refurbishment or in need of some kudos by exhibiting in London.

But heck no. This worked well, although not in the expected fashion. Most exhibitions work by bringing an artist’s works or a theme together, gradually establishing an overarching narrative for the exhibition a whole. Colour after Klein had no real truck with this method. Instead colour was framed as a technique rather than a theme, something that can be vividly exploited to create myriad effects that jut off at wholly different tangents. On walking through, it was obvious there was no real detailed thesis about colour – the exhibition’s sum conclusion was something like ‘colour is powerful and can induce lots of different effects’. But this didn’t stop each of the works demonstrating how powerful these effects were.

Isolating the works and providing a splendid diversity of media was part of this process. In the central downstairs foyer of the gallery, one saw the juxtaposition of the grey sheen of Richter’s Mirror Painting (Grey) and Bruce Nauman’s kite-shaped pattern of neon lights (White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death). One working like a glassy marble coated with a reflective oil, all natural materials giving subtle hints of the spectrum; the other all mechanical and seemingly transparent, until the bubble-gum neon colours burst into light to reveal their seemingly commonplace slogans.

Beyond the materials, the works’ messages don’t have too much in common, Nauman, in this instance, having a much more clear social agenda than the opaque aestheticism of Richter,. But colour vitalises them both; Richter in the way that colour disturbs and enlivens the seemingly grey surface, and Nauman in exploiting of the expectations, messages and pleasures that different colours convey.

Bruce Nauman, White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1985

Other contrasts were emphasised via different media; Louise Bourgeois’s claustrophobic installation Red Room (child) used a single colour to hem the viewer in while James Turrell’s Zennish experience allowed a room slowly pulsing with a spectrum of glowing colours to allow the mind to escape.

Most effecting of all was the video (Dammi I Colori) Anri Sala had made of the Albanian capital of Tirana. Sala’s video camera had been hoisted on to a lorry cruising around the night-time streets of the city. With the aid of some truly high-powered spotlights, the camera panned along the facades, walls and roofs of the housing and offices Mayor Edi Rama had, as part of a massive regeneration scheme, painted in joyous slabs and patterns of bright colours. The long strips of fresh colour, juxtaposed against the black of the night and the dirty, scarred roads below, served as a life-affirming statement of how the country is attempting to recover from its Communist past. While the rest of the exhibition focuses on colour as an aesthetic element, here it was elevated to a lofty, if perhaps slightly superficial, social position, an ingenious method of adding a little joy to a city sadly deprived of colour of many years.

I’ll finish at the start. Yves Klein’s set of seven or eight Monochrome paintings greeted the visitor on entering and provided, in what was essentially an exhibition stuffed with conceptual art, a little lesson in painterliness. To the untutored eye, it was not too much – cheap paint slapped on to canvases with no skill but a lot of a cheek. But to the more aesthetically minded, a modernist essay in the application of paint. Seven or eight paintings, of different sizes and textures, with subtle adjustments in tones and hues (despite the promise of monochrome in the titles), using different paints on different surfaces, showed how much can be achieved, and how much the observant eye can be rewarded, even in the absence of narrative and polychrome.

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Filed under Barbican Gallery, Contemporary Art, Modernist Art

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