Color Code is an exceedingly complex and well-curated exhibition featuring works by 35 artists, almost all of whom bring a 21st-century perspective to the exploration and re-examination of color. In the words of exhibition curator Susan Miller, “Color shapes our moods, drives our behaviors and frames our humanity,” speaking to us “with clues and codes.” Scant attention is given to early 20th-century notions of color emphasizing optical mechanics, implying a universalist escape from hidebound cultural narratives. Instead, the emphasis rests on color as a signifier functioning as a wry proxy for the contestation of social space. Most of the works in Color Code were selected from the McEvoy Family Collection, with four more that were specially commissioned. Their interplays are subtle, provocative and delightful, marking a welcome deviation from other group exhibitions that often look like poorly considered flea markets.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition is an untypical piece by the high priest of color-for-the-sake of color, Josef Albers. It is not one of his famous Homage to the Square works, but a record album cover that he designed in 1960 for a musical ensemble called The Command All-Stars, graphically formulated as a dispersed cluster of subtly variated blue, black and gray circles. Two other works also functioned as album covers. One was Yves Klein’s Conference á la Sorbonne (1959), a monochrome field of blended cobalt and ultramarine blue. The other is an infrared photograph by Andee Nathanson from 1968 titled Christina Frka, the ghoulish image on Frank Zappa’s 1969 solo album Hot Rats.
The installation of Color Code sets up interesting dialogs between individual works. For example, Donald Judd’s Untitled piece from 1987 pairs well with Carol Bove’s 2016 Obsidian Mirror. Both feature material juxtapositions of hard and soft components, with Judd’s work advancing a brittle geometry that contrasts with the biomorphic grace of Bove’s sculpture. Both find a kindred spirit in Katherina Fritsch’s Golden Ball (1999), a small sphere covered with multiple layers of translucent gold paint intimating internal illumination. Etel Adnan’s Untitled work from 2013 also glows by juxtaposing a lush field of rust orange against facets of sky blue, demonstrating how a small painting can command more space than its amalgamation of materials might otherwise suggest.
Another shrewd bit of visual dialog appears in the relationship between Wayne Thiebaud’s Lipsticks (1964) and a choice untitled painting on paper by Richard Diebenkorn from 1987. Diebenkorn created it near the end of his longstanding Ocean Park series, this time with visibly different layers of colored gouache that seem to bleed through and break out from a compositional structure that appears to be collapsing.
Thiebaud’s painting is a straightforward still-life depicting metallic lipstick canisters lined up in rigid formation, sporting hues that sardonically approximate a conventional painter’s palate. Exaggerated cosmetic artifice can also be seen in Marilyn Minter’s Spyder (2006), a hyper-baroque chromogenic print based on one of the artist’s well-known paintings showing a bedazzled eyelash, emphasizing the saccharine attributes of glamour and femininity.
Works by Petra Cortright and James Welling activate the machinations of the digital toolbox to create spectacular images drenched in iridescent color. In the case of Welling’s 0075 (2006), a multi-generational image starts from interior photographs of Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, capturing and exaggerating the interplay of light refractions. Cortright’s KRNKNKSSNBTRGVRGLCH (2015) cuts, juggles, pastes and transforms a plentitude of found image fragments into a chromatic whirlwind.
Many works included in Color Coded are photographs, some vintage and others contemporary, all well-chosen. Gordon Parks’ Department Store, Mobile, Alabama (1956) sets the tone for the entire exhibition. It shows an African-American Woman and her young daughter standing outside a store in late afternoon light, both dressed as if they had come from a church service, seemingly oblivious to the red neon sign above their heads stating Colored Entrance. Bruce Davidson’s color photo, Untitled Subway (1980), shows a woman clad in a bright red dress standing in the enigmatic shadow of an outer-borough New York subway stop. Andreas Gursky, represented by a very early work from 1980 titled Gas Cooker, takes a down-market kitchen stove as its subject, surrounded by white walls to make it appear as an archeological specimen. A headshot by Isaac Julian, Emerald Portrait (Playtime) (2014), uses a photographic process called Ultra Endura to capture the calm, reassuring face of a woman set against a desert background, intimating the presence of Buddhist deities such as Guanyin or Amida.
The four largest works in Color Code, each commissioned for the exhibition, summarizes the show’s overarching premise. Works by Sadie Barnette and Angela Hennessy show skewed family trees formulated from clusters of related components. Barnette’s Family Tree II is a dispersed display of about 25 framed works: photographs, collages and typographical fantasies dealing with domestic pragmatism. They add up to something akin to a decorated scrapbook commemorating the trials, tribulations and personal triumphs of an extended post-racial, post-gender community living in a large house in Oakland. Hennessy’s nine-part work, The Crew (2022), consists of an array of circular forms adorned with configurations of synthetic hair to which the artist added black enamel and gold leaf, intimating a tale of fetishized black bodies and stolen precious resources.
Commissioned works include three paintings by Claire Rojas, all frontal portraits of the same impassive face articulated in a cartoonish style. The largest of this trio has the face split into two vertical halves, while the other two display the lower part of the face covered by broad swaths of color, topped by cryptic indications of facial features that may or may not belong to the faces pictured. Zio Ziegler’s commission, The One-Eyed Man (2022), made from colored inks and gouache, is the exhibition’s show-stopper: an undulating phantasmagoria of color and pattern whose cascades of visual incident lead the viewer’s eye through a hyperarticulated virtual space keynoted by abrupt jumps in scale.