Can I interest you in some old art-world romance and art-cultural weirdness? I'll try. It jitters my nerves still, more than 30 years on: inside dope and outside hype of Color Field painting, a hallucination of a movement conjured out of nothing much by a mighty critic who once loved a young woman painter. He taught her a lot. She left him. Think of Otto Preminger's noir classic Laura minus the shotgun in the clock. There's your romance. Your weirdness concerns young men whom the critic inseminated with the young woman's mojo. You with me so far?
In the 1960s, Clement Greenberg spent credit that he had earned from being right about Jackson Pollock. He invested it in dogmatically correct, decorously formulaic abstract painters and allied sculptors whose greatness, he said, exposed contemporaneous Pop art and Minimalism as contemptible fads. In reality, meaning my experience of art, the work in question was as boring as Pop and Minimalism were not. But, young as I was and crazy as the '60s were, I couldn't be sure that reality was a good enough excuse. There was Greenberg's rhetorical majesty to contend with. He sounded so certain.
Back up. In 1950, when 41-year-old Greenberg met 21-year-old Helen Frankenthaler at Bennington College in Vermont and told her that her painting in an alumnae show was no good, Abstract Expressionism was establishing New York as the world's art capital. Flocking tyros desperately sought the next big thing. Two years later, with Greenberg at her side, Frankenthaler had a notion: Mountains and Sea, a large, raw canvas bearing puddled pastel stains of oil paint and a few swift charcoal lines. The picture was landscape-like but abstract in a Pollock way. It transposed the offhand spontaneity of watercolors to a grand scale. Go see it at the Guggenheim. It is still and forever very fine.
So are other paintings in this 15-item show, organized by Julia Brown, from Frankenthaler's heyday, mostly in the years immediately after she split from Greenberg in the mid-1950s. There are duds, too. Frankenthaler's early brilliance was fitful, a sometime intuition of fugitive and vast, delicately jazzy bliss. Later her stuff would become more consistent -- and much less interesting. You might not think that so unstable a foundation could support a revolution in art, but you wouldn't be reckoning on Greenberg's resourceful willfulness.
In 1953, the critic took a couple of aspiring out-of-towners, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, to Frankenthaler's New York studio. They beheld Mountains and Sea. Bands of angels may or may not have surfed down, singing, on floods of aureate light. You get the idea. Louis and Noland went back home to Washington, D.C., and started staining -- the compulsory technique for Greenberg-approved pictures until, a decade later, Jules Olitski supplemented it with spraying. Such punctilious fuss seems inane now. It had a commanding, strange logic then.
Named for a 1966 puff piece in Vogue by Alan Solomon, "The Green Mountain Boys" reunites '60s work by Noland, Olitski, Anthony Caro and Paul Feeley that was made at or near Bennington on a rural scene that owed its existence to Greenberg's relationship with Frankenthaler. It is a blast of halcyon Color Field hubris. Painted a dazzling white for the occasion, the Emmerich Gallery is like a time capsule unearthed in mint condition. Except for things by the relatively unknown Feeley, who died while Solomon's article was in the works, all the paintings sport the gold-strip frames that Greenberg insisted on. The colors of three steel sculptures by Caro look fresh from the can.
It was an upper-middle-class cult, is what it was. Its quotient of thought was given in advance by Greenberg, boiled down from his formal analysis of Pollock to shibboleths of flatness and "pure opticality" that left the artists little to do beyond making it bigger, cleaner and prettier. The payoff was a reliably predictable esthetic buzz brought on by intellectual and emotional equivalents of sensory deprivation. Greenberg had a word for this antiseptic pleasure -- "quality" -- which excited a market of yearning, timid collectors who were scandalized by Pop's insolence and Minimalism's rigor. Long after Color Field lost cachet in New York (by 1970, terminally), it sold like mad in rich provincial bailiwicks.
Frankenthaler was not a Color Field-er. She never forsook line and complexity, and even figurative and landscape references, for the supergraphic logos of a Noland or the sugared fog banks of an Olitski. Not always wisely, she stayed open to contemporary impulses that Greenberg scorned, such as her generation's histrionic "Action" gesturalism. The forced lyrical spunk and spatter of Las Mayas (1958) and Autumn Form (1959) wear badly. But when the same qualities were tethered to an inspired scheme of drawing and composition, the result could be the one-of-a-kind marvel Before the Caves (1958), whose vision of a looming shape made of skittery marks suggests a promising stylistic road not taken.
In truth, all roads that continued the lofty attitudes, not just the innovative forms, of Abstract Expressionism were dead ends. American culture shifted out from under American high modernism in the very hour of its triumph, demanding and soon getting fresh new kinds of art. In the '50s, Greenberg's superb description of art's recent past proved a wet noodle for art's near future. But such was his prestige that a cohort of ambitious artists would exhaust itself in flogging his theories. On the early '60s Bennington scene, it briefly seemed to be working, as Greenberg's good boys unfurled canvas on the floor and took welding torch to steel with the righteous euphoria of the elect. He told them what to do. They did it.
It was a look. The then novel, racy properties of acrylics gave avant-gardish glamour to objects that were arbitrarily, mindlessly tasty. Today the dated hues of plastic paint are perfectly insipid. At their most nearly lively, in Feeley, they anticipated a trend in plastic educational toys. Try imagining that the work at Emmerich shared a world with television and rock 'n' roll, with Vietnam and social upheaval, with Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Joseph Beuys. You can't. The work was about being hermetically safe from knowledge, thought and passion. Beholding it, one all but smells suburban air-conditioning and hears tinkles of ice in the evening's first vodka martinis.
"After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959," Jan. 16-May 3, 1998, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128.
"The Green Mountain Boys," Jan. 8-Feb. 28, 1998, at Andre Emmerich Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.