A Room With a Hue

Jim Lambie's "ZOBOP!" looks like a personal-injury lawsuit waiting to happen. "ZOBOP!" is a dizzying installation of meandering parallel strips of colored tape laid on the lobby floor and up some stairs of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It's the perfect welcome mat—and you can walk on it—for an exhibition called "Color Chart: Reinventing Color 1950 to Today." The show (up through May 12) features more than 90 paintings and sculptures, plus a few films, videos and installations, documenting how much of art of the past 50 years, as curator Ann Temkin says in the catalog, has used color conceptually, to make some larger, intellectual point, rather than for its own visual pleasure. So the work in this show wasn't created by artists standing around in their studios, as you can imagine de Kooning once did, and saying, "Wow, these colors would look great together!" Instead, they used some predetermined system—or sheer chance—to select their palettes. Which may be one reason the piece is called "ZOBOP!"—a nonsense word that kind of echoes Mondrian's title "Broadway Boogie-Woogie." It's more about jazzing up MoMA's walkways—this may be the first piece of art that comes with WATCH YOUR STEP signs—than it is about what the work really looks like. And what it looks like, by the way, is irritating.

Which is a shame, because the underlying question of this show—what ever happened to color, anyway?—is worth exploring. Color is the most relative of all the ingredients in art. Unlike mass or height or materials, it can't be verified by one of our other senses. If your eyes make you doubt a certain sculpture is hard steel, you could try running into it. But if you think a painting's greenness isn't really green, touching it won't confirm or deny its color. And there's no way of knowing whether you and I are even seeing the same color. As Josef Albers's color course at Yale in the 1950s so brilliantly demonstrated, any color can look wildly different depending on its context. A spot of plain yellow looks like a vibrant headlight on a black background, but like a dull old egg yolk when set against white. Finally, to understand an artist's use of color in the service of personal expression or beauty, you have to see it, not just read about it. While the phrase "a big pickled shark in a glass tank" conveys a good deal of the impact of Damien Hirst's sculpture, the words "floating fuzzy rectangles, orange over blue" gives you almost no feeling for a Mark Rothko painting.

Actually, beauty hasn't been a prominent factor in art for the past 30 years. Although color has been a gorgeous pillar of modernism, from van Gogh to Helen Frankenthaler, and in the kind of color photography practiced by William Eggleston, it hasn't been the big subject in contemporary art since op art back in the 1960s. Painters such as Bridget Riley covered their canvases with hard-edged arrays of eye-boggling colors—turquoise bang up next to vermilion, say—in order to explore the nature of visual perception, and to have a blast, psychedelically speaking, while they were at it.

Since then, artists have been concentrating more on spectacles of form (Jeff Koons is going to suspend a real railroad locomotive from a crane at the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles) or jumping into issues of sexual politics, celebrity culture or hybrid identities. All that can be done perfectly well in black and white, or with a who-gives-a-damn attitude about pretty colors. In the MoMA show, Andy Warhol—who else?—emerges as the bellwether artist. His 1962 "Do It Yourself" pictures—parodies of paint-by-number kits—practically shout the accusation that painting isn't nearly as fluid and romantic as old-fashioned palette daubers would have it. Painting, Warhol was saying, is just another lowbrow craft of interchangeable, off-the-shelf parts.

There's always been an element of the ready-made in painting—of taking what you could from industrial ingenuity. J.M.W. Turner was able to paint those stunning sun–and-mist sea pictures only because bright yellow oils came on the market in the 1820s. Impressionism was made possible by the 19th-century introduction of bright synthetic colors in portable metal tubes. In 1964, when Frank Stella said, "Straight out of the can—it can't get better than that," the color wheel turned forever. No more preciously mixing just the right shade. (Incidentally, "Color Chart" is sponsored by the paint company Benjamin Moore—its marketing-department folks sure are clever.) The German artist Blinky Palermo went Stella one better. He made fun of Ellsworth Kelly's exquisitely executed two-color abstract paintings by mimicking them in stretched colored fabric he bought in a department store. In such ways, Temkin writes, conceptual artists "underscore their desire for independence from the history of several centuries of bourgeois painting."

"Color Chart" is dryly premised on a jokey objectification of the most subjective element in art. But the show feels like a book on improving your sex life that's illustrated with charts from Masters and Johnson—technically carnal, but kind of cold. There are a few exceptions to the visual brittleness, such as Byron Kim's installation of 265 eight-by-10-inch panels, each painted in a single different color—the skin tones of specific, racially diverse people. The work is unpretentiously handsome and makes a social point in the bargain. The last work is Sherrie Levine's 2007 piece featuring horizontal row of two-foot-square panels painted with unique colors concocted for decorators by the architect (and artist) Le Corbusier, in 1931. The panels—subtle, creamy and calibrated not by scheme but sensibility—are the best-looking things in the show. Straight out of the '30s—it can't get better than that.