At the Hirshhorn: “ColorForms” Brings Life to Color

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On a gray day last Thursday, bright color blazed at the Hirshhorn Museum in the form of a new exhibition, "ColorForms." The show  is inspired by the museum's recent acquisitions of the film installation, "Shutter Interface" by the avant-garde filmmaker artist Paul Sharits (1943-1993) and the work “Untitled (Sculptural Study, Twelve-Part Vertical Construction),” a yarn installation by the conceptual sculptor Fred Sandback (1943-2003).  Other works include a floor piece made entirely of pollen from the hazelnut tree and a fiberglass sculpture covered in loose, electric blue pigment. The works define and encapsulate for the visitor the ways that artists use color and space to transform and manipulate their environment.

A collection of four works by Mark Rothko, three of which were borrowed from the National Gallery of Art, fill one gallery and a dialog seems to transpire between the artist's use of vibrant colors and his dense mixture of overlapping dark shapes. "American," one of the loaned pieces, epitomizes the best qualities of Rothko's use of bright transparency and dark opacity. The work's background of vibrant, red color becomes even brighter when amplified by the deep, dark center of the piece.

The Sandback construct transforms one white-walled gallery into an interactive sculpture and architectural design with only a few yards of magically tethered yarn (bought from Wal-mart, the curator Evelyn Hankins told me).  Sandback can be considered a minimalist, but curator Hankins prefers to refer to him as a conceptual artist.

"When you acquire a Fred Sandback piece," she told a group of visitor's at a gallery talk last Friday, "you get a sheet of paper with a diagram on it."  The paper, looking much like a dot-to-dot picture, tells the curator what color to make the yarn and in what proportion the yarn is to be spaced.  The piece can then be installed in any size or space as long as the specified colors and proportions are respected.

The keystone of the show is the miraculous 1975 film installation by Paul Sharits.  In a triumph of film restoration, the Hirshhorn acquired the piece through the efforts of the Whitney Museum and the Anthology Film Archives, who recreated the artwork from archival materials. It was originally thought to have been lost after Sharits' death in 1993.

Bars of color are projected the length of a wall and are accompanied by a cacophony of otherworldly sounds.  The curators had a difficult challenge with the work's noise level.  "The soundtrack," says Hankins, "is supposed to be piercingly loud."  But the noise interfered with the contemplative mood created by Rothko's works in a nearby gallery.  Somehow the museum managed to resolve the problem, because the clicks of an old-school film projector mix with a high-pitched blowing to produce a buzzing that reaches a crescendo of noise in the Sharits' alcove, but is thankfully muted elsewhere.

The static photograph (above) of the Sharits installation does it no justice. In life, it is a fast moving, fully immersible spectacle of color, movement and light.  The viewer is encouraged to walk in front of the projectors and interact with the work.  Making shadow puppets has never been so highbrow.

One cautious tip for any visitors suffering from seasonal allergies. The Wolfgang Laib floor piece that glows with buttery yellow is created entirely of pollen, hand harvested from the artist's own hazelnut trees in Germany.  This reporter's allergy afflicted eyes could not stand looking at it for too long, before she had to exit in search of Claritin and Visine.

"ColorForms" is on view at the Hirshhorn until January 2011.

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