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The Force of Color

January 19, 2013 – March 30, 2013

installation view of an exhibition with framed artworks hung in a row


Where color in art is freed from describing the objective world or telling a story, the experience of color itself becomes the subject. As an adjunct to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition of prints by the great colorist Ellsworth Kelly, The Force of Color addresses the role of strong color in the abstraction of the 1960s, the decade that witnessed the recognition of Kelly as a major artist.

The term “colorist” is used by scholars of western painting to mean an artist who makes vibrant color a critical element of the work of art. From the High Baroque paintings of Peter-Paul Rubens to the Impressionist canvases of Claude Monet, certain painters have done just that. With the inception of modern art at the end of the nineteenth century, most especially in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, intensified color was used to emotionalize subject matter. It continued to be so for many artists in the early twentieth century, notably, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.

In the 1960s, toward the end of the modern tradition, emphatic color in painting shifted dramatically from figuration to abstraction. It is this moment in the history of modern art that The Force of Color addresses. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, the paintings and prints on view date from 1968 to 2009, although the majority of artists represented in the exhibition came to the fore during the 1960s, the decade that brought the sensuous and declarative use of color to its apogee. For these artists, color remained key throughout their careers.

The onset of contemporary art in the 1970s saw the diminishing importance of painting and abstraction in favor of other media and formats, including conceptual art, installation art, digitized photography, film, and video art. Although the association of color with beauty has not been a prominent factor in contemporary art, where color tends to be used conceptually to make political and social points, this was not the case in modern art, where color was championed as a central pleasure.

installation view of an exhibition with a wall with title text that reads "The Force of Color"

Exhibition Support

Generous support for The Force of Color has been provided by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and from MMoCA Volunteers.