Donald Judd states: Material, space and colour are the main aspects of visual art. Unless a work is obviously durational, as with a film or video, time rarely figures in this equation. The durational aspects of painting and sculpture are usually only equated with the process of their making: studio or manufacturing time. Borrowing its title (a self-explanatory neologism) from a 1959-60 orchestral work by Olivier Messiaen, this small grouping of works explores some of the ways in which colour and time can be understood as matched qualities in visual art, hereto generally overlooked.
As is abundantly clear from a reading of his extensive notes on colour for the Large Glass (1915-23), Duchamp’s work forces us to reconsider the role of colour (as with almost everything else). A key element in his “farewell to painting”, Tu’m (1918), is a sequence of coloured lozenges which recede to a faraway vanishing point. Unlike the familiar colour wheel, this sequence has no obvious order. At best, the lozenges appear to darken in hue as they disappear into infinity. It’s impossible to know how closely Duchamp planned their appearance because, as with other elements of the work, they were painted by others. What is revolutionary here is the bald presentation of pure colour as nothing other than itself. This is no post-Impressionist scatter of unmixed pigment organised to evoke a landscape or nude, but just the swatches of colour without any clear ordering principal. We don’t really see this again until Warhol’s serial works of the 1960s, with their viral colour permutations. Colour presented as a seemingly infinite sequence, lacking any representational purpose, exists here as a durational event: we view one colour after another, over a period of time, to the point where the colours signal this durational fact.
Tomislav Nikolic’s PREDICT (2006), works in a similar register. Its series of tiny colour field paintings on thick paper evoking a set of tarot cards wrapped in a piece of protective fabric. They invite random viewing (and organisation) maintaining a sense of a sequence, like the sets of cards they mimic, one colour after the next. The paintings’ apparently simple surfaces mislead: what reads as a single layer of paint is in fact myriad coats of pigment mixed with marble dust, patiently built up over several days.
If colour can be considered as a durational sequence, its accretion can be rendered spatially as Nikolic’s spread of paintings, but other models are also possible. Sally Marsland’s equally diminutive objects - all constructed from other, found, wooden objects - evoke colour as a substance stored within them. Bright pigment is revealed on the facets that Marsland has sliced from the wood, just as a tree or a piece of fruit would when cut. This causes the shiny surfaces of the objects to appear to pulsate with accumulated energy, although the elaborate artifice of their construction tends to belie a neat overlap with the natural world. Without their coloured planes, Marsland’s objects would be all about form. Colour renders them with a temporal vitality, from which a type of abstract narrative unfolds: tragic or comedic depending on the disposition of the viewer.
Colour does not need to be depicted as a static sequence to summon temporal associations. For several years, Axel Osborne has been working on a series of kinetic sculptures that employ sheets of coloured glass that are raised and lowered by a clockwork mechanism to form slowly modulating chromatic images. The deep frames that house the glass and the inner workings retain the status of sculpture, however much the shifting colours play with the modes of abstract painting. The extended duration required to observe any significant alteration of the image is a test of patience for viewers more attuned to the quick scan that has all but overtaken most modes of attention. Osborne’s sculptures enact a lesson in duration that is almost meteorological in scale - of shifting states depicted in mutable hues like the changing skies above us.
An untitled painting made by an artist who has slipped from history forms the outer reach of Chronochromie. Paul McKenzie’s small abstract painting, produced in Melbourne in the late 1980s, evokes earlier 20th century models. With its aged surface, it could pass for a work by a minor master of the 20s or 30s. The strongly contrasted colours of its crystalline forms ally McKenzie’s painting to the intensely pigmented substances that lie beneath Marsland’s wooden objects, but here, already affected by passing time. Coloured paint does not remain unchanged over the years – surfaces become sullied, and pigments themselves chemically alter. McKenzie’s painting is a relic, as all of the works in this exhibition are fated to become. Its style betrays it, but also its challenged physical condition. Works of art are not self-renewing (Duchamp gave them an upper limit of 25 years of life), and in McKenzie’s painting, colour is rendered explicitly as time having passed.
Should time be allied with colour in Judd’s otherwise undisputable list? Perhaps the inherent nature of this relationship conceals its evident presence. I hope that the works in Chronochromie succeed in suggesting further chromatic and durational correspondences with which to experience other works of art, both past and present.
Melbourne, April-May 2014