When Jamie Franklin became curator of the Bennington Museum in 2005, he began to connect with artist fields and living artists related to the mid-century heyday of Bennington College. Founded in 1932 as a college for women, Bennington was a hotbed of American artistic experimentation from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Its almost all-male faculty had strong ties to the New York gallery scene and influenced a generation. female students, who then gained their own fame. (Bennington became a student in 1969.)
Five years ago Franklin and then-CEO Robert Wolterstorff decided to dedicate a room in the museum to the college’s key role in modernism “because it was such an important part of cultural history. city, ”said the energetic long-haired curator on a recent visit.
The Bennington Modernism Gallery, a permanent installation with changing works, currently hosts “Color Fields: 1960s Bennington Modernism”. The show was designed to be paired with a special exhibit in adjacent venues on how the 1960s effected similarly sweeping changes in Vermont society, politics, and culture.
Due to the pairing, Franklin said, “we made sure to get top notch work” for “Color Fields.” This includes a pastel striped painting of Kenneth noland, guest lecturer and subject of an exhibition at the college in 1961; two sculptures of Sir Anthony Caro, who taught at the college from 1963 to 1965; and a paint soaked in Helene Frankenthaler, graduated in 1949.
This 14-work exhibit offers a window into Bennington College’s pivotal role in America’s mid-century art scene, but it’s also a staple for its gender reinterpretation of a male-centered era.
The color field painting – along with minimalism and hard-edge painting – was part of a 1960s reaction against the gestural and emotional work of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The idea was to create abstract “fields” of flat colors in simple compositions that celebrated the sensual experience of color.
Clement Greenberg, the art critic and influencer of the day, named the movement “Post-Painterly Abstraction” – the title he gave to an exhibition he organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964. Of the 31 artists selected, Greenberg for this exhibition, only one was a woman: Frankenthaler, with whom he had had a relationship from 1950 to 1955. Meanwhile, Frankenthaler introduced Greenberg to Paul Feeley, his former teacher, and the two men co-staged in Bennington the first-ever retrospective of Pollock and Barnett Newman.
Feeley then headed the arts department in the 1950s and early 1960s, and three other Greenberg mentees soon joined: Noland, Caro, and Jules Olitski, who taught at the college from 1963 to 1967. The four Bennington-based artists were nicknamed “the Green Mountain Boys” in a 1966 Vogue article, which cemented Bennington’s image of modernism as a man. Their works continued to be shown together until 1998, at a gallery exhibition in New York which was well reviewed in the New York Times.
“They were the central characters, but it wasn’t just them,” Franklin said. “I included women [in ‘Color Fields’] to make it seem like it wasn’t just a boys’ club. ”
Frankenthaler, for example, pioneered dip painting, which involved pouring thinned paint onto an unprimed canvas and allowing it to soak in. The method had a major influence on Noland and other artists in the field of color.
Frankenthaler’s “Waterfall” (1966), her only painting in “Color Fields”, is a later work in this vein, after she had cast oil for acrylic paint. Compared to his huge and exuberant “Jacob’s Ladder” (1957) in New York’s brand new Museum of Modern Art, “Cascade” is small and uses clean shapes: only two stripes in yellow and purple with a smaller green spot. and an accent of red.
Feeley has two works in the exhibition. “Untitled (Green Eye)” (1962) places two rectangles of oddly paired colors – dark orange and brick red – side by side on a white canvas. In the center of the left rectangle is a circle, unpainted, except for a green ball in its center, like an iris.
While Feeley’s application of oil enamel leaves traces of canvas visible under the paint, his ground sculpture in the exhibition, “Enif” (1966), uses the same paint to create areas of color. united on the wood. Named after the main star of the constellation Pegasus, the sculpture has two intersecting planes – the bare minimum necessary to create three-dimensionality. They make up a tooth-like shape with the painted lavender center and orange stripe both underlined in white.
Ruth ann fredenthal, a Feeley student who graduated from Bennington in 1960, may or may not have painted “Enif”. But, as a studio assistant for six months in 1965, she painted all of Feeley’s sculptures for an exhibition that year at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Also in 1965, Fredenthal created his own painting, “Hermaphrodite”, which appears in “Color Fields”.
The oversized canvas features the most understated depiction of combined sex organs imaginable: a slender vertical block adorned at the ends with two pairs of circles. The sharply demarcated form in creamy white is contained within a more squared yellow shape with semicircular tabs defining its slightly domed shape. The whole is edged in matt silver.
A Fulbright Fellow in Painting in Florence, Italy after graduation, Fredenthal worked in several major Italian contemporary art museums. She won the Pollock-Krasner Foundation scholarship in 2008.
“Color Fields” opens with “Study for Color Room”, a small informal colored pencil sketch made by another Feeley student, Patricia johanson, who graduated in 1962. In 1960, while her teacher was away, Johanson used colored paper to transform her desk into an installation she called “Color Room.” Exploring hue as it is experienced in space, the work created a buzz that led Noland and sculptor-painter David Smith to see it before college dismantled it a few days later.
Johanson’s other work in the gallery, “Model for Hayden Survey” (1968), is indicative of the increasing scale on which she has worked since. A thin horizontal line of precise lengths of color stretches across a long canvas, a pattern for an 80 foot job that was never done. Johanson named the painting for the 1871 Geological Survey of Yellowstone Park. According to Franklin, the three yellow segments of the painted line are “designed as vanishing points. You experience this as you move along the canvas.”
Johanson’s recent large-scale works of art combine public infrastructure and ecological restoration, among other environmental concerns. Franklin described Johanson as “an integral part of this exhibit” because it was “steeped in high modernism, pushed beyond and still working today while drawing inspiration from the core values she learned at Bennington” .
Pat adams was Bennington’s first full-time teacher. Her long tenure, from 1964 to 1993, overlapped that of her husband, Vincent Longo, from 1957 to 1967. Both artists are included in “Color Fields”.
Adams’ “Along and At” (1966) and “Steady Change” (1969) share an elegantly curvy line. In the first work, an abstract but recognizable rendering of green mountains and pink skies on canvas, the line forms a yellow border for the mountains. In the second, a work on uniformly dotted paper of acrylics in various shades of green, the wavy line becomes a multicolored frame within the actual frame.
The most pleasing use of color, for this reviewer, has appeared in two metal sculptures by British artist Caro: the rich red-brown in “Table Piece LXVI” (1968), whose gracefully industrial form recalls the farm tools and scales on the edge of a white table; and the dark grass green of the angular Ground Sleeper (1965).
While space does not allow for every piece of this show to be mentioned, each is worth seeing and evokes pleasure from a single color.
“It’s sort of the pinnacle of high modernism,” Franklin pointed out. “[Later, with] pop art, conceptualism, assembly, installation, it started to become this complicated and inflated world that we know today. But for artists working in an abstract vein and thinking about formalism – color, line, stripping painting of its elements – Bennington was leading the way. ”