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Subtle Opulence

September 8, 2021 - August 31, 2022
Palm Desert, CA


Is Minimalism only starkness? A cool detachment? Or can minimal works be filled with vitality, dynamism, and luxury? This online exhibition pulls from Heather James Fine Art’s extensive collection to demonstrate the vigor and lavishness that girds these works. Although not all strictly related to the Minimalist or Post-Minimalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, these works are united in their focus on form, color, or texture. The contradictory exhibition title reappraises the starkness and appearance, proving that these pieces are meditations on the lushness of materiality or profound complexity of meaning that supports the work. In examining the works in the show, opening ourselves up to them, we can appreciate the sumptuousness of these artworks as they reveal themselves.

Minimalism emerged in the early 1960s from the Color Field and Abstract Expressionist art movements. Color Field artists stained unprimed canvas, allowing the paint to soak into the textile which provided beautiful planes of color. AbEx artists like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt pushed painting to the very edge. “Galaxy” encapsulates Newman’s austere canvases that are nonetheless conveyers of deep emotions and mysticism. Through careful selections of color, hues, and composition, Newman presents direct sensory impact. This focus outside of subject matter would shape future Minimalist and Post-Minimalist artists.

Newman has often been cited as paving the way for the second wave of Color Field painters and with Newman in the exhibition, we can see the threads of history from Newman to Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland and even to Post-Minimalists like Richard Tuttle.

Ad Reinhardt’s famed black paintings were the culmination for the “ultimate” painting. What the painting requires is one of the rarest qualities – time. Look closer and the canvas reveals deep, rich tones of purples, blues, and greens. Reinhardt brings us to the brink of absolute abstraction and purity produced through layered tonalities.

How do we approach Barnett Newman alongside Ad Reinhardt? Both looked for painting beyond painting, that is beyond previous American and European movements like Cubism or Surrealism. Yet, both held antagonistic view of the other. Bringing these works together, we can see both the similarities and differences in their approaches, a rare opportunity.

Art critic Clement Greenberg categorized Kenneth Noland as being part of the “Post-Painterly Abstraction”. Inspired by and working alongside Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Noland utilized simple geometric forms – concentric circles, stripes, and chevrons – to develop a visual language of color. Noland used these shapes not as symbols or representations but as tools to study color. How does one color relate to another? How does it change in different arrangements? What is the relationship of paint to canvas, viewer to painting? Like Reinhardt, the viewer does not just look at or into the painting but co-exists with it as it occupies the same physical and conceptual space. The longer the viewer observes the work, the more they can pick up the subtleties of color and paint quality.

Adolph Gottlieb’s works straddle the line between the dynamism of Action Painting (another branch of Abstract Expressionism) and Color Field. Other Color Field artists that grew from Gottlieb and Newman include Paul Jenkins and Jules Olitski. For more on these artists, view our exhibitions “Paul Jenkins: Coloring the Phenomenal” and “Jewish Modernism: Part 1”.

These inquiries into color and the quality of paint were not isolated to the U.S. Occurring concurrently in Japan, Sadamasa Motonaga, a member of the Gutai Art Association, poured paint onto canvas; he enjoyed the free-flowing movement of the paint and the colors as they mingled. Despite the simplicity of the surface, the mixing and fluid quality of the paints produce a work of joy and energy, an examination of the quality of the materials themselves beyond visual representation. The works in the exhibition demonstrate the breadth with which Motonaga could manipulate paint and the diverse possibilities that paint can produce.

One of the most hermetic of artists in the exhibition, Agnes Martin stands as one of the most important and influential American artists. Martin originally started her career in New York but a move to New Mexico altered her approach. The environment of the desert and the effect of light permeated her canvases. Her paintings are resistant studies of complexities. They are at once silent meditations of line and color, opaque examinations of life and nature, and totems to a singular artistic vision. In this piece, Martin diluted her acrylic paint to mix with the gesso of her canvas so that the colors absorb and reflect light in equal measure. Her restrictive color palette is not so much color but the effect of light. This painting and Martin’s body of work are a node connecting Minimalism and the Color Field School of Abstract Expressionism. The viewer, on observing the painting, enters a conversation with the piece, with Martin, and with the environment.

In all of the works in the exhibition, the artist either pursues, transforms, or questions austerity to develop works of intense splendid meaning. These paintings and artists do not keep an audience at arms-length but rather invite longer contemplations and meditation. Materiality of the paint is exalted, and simple geometry becomes a celebration. These paintings are rich in concept and meaning. Opulence goes beyond material abundance into emotional, philosophical, and poetic abundance.