Paul Kremer: Color is Space
by Raphael Rubinstein
With their flat single-hued shapes and their evocation, at once loving and sly, of 1960s Color Field painting, Paul Kremer’s canvases are obviously deeply concerned with color. You could say that color is one of the things they are about. You could also say that they are about ambiguity, about the ways in which binary thinking is imprinted in our minds and the ways in which binary structures are imbedded in the world. The realm of numbers, more specifically, the number of colors present on each canvas, is another aspect of his paintings, one that some viewers might not immediately register.
Kremer’s paintings never have less than two colors, that’s to say, he doesn’t make monochromes. A few of the recent paintings contain as many as seven different hues. More usually, he employs four to six colors. Even within a single body of work, the number of colors can vary. In the recent Cast Paintings, for instance, there are canvases with only two colors, while the Window Paintings can have as many as seven.
The number of colors in a painting might seem like a trivial or incidental detail, but in fact it’s crucial to the work, a fundamental part of the artist’s decision-making process. Because Kremer always wants his paintings to oscillate between representation and abstraction, between illusionistic depth and picture-plane flatness, he must introduce at least two colors onto every canvas, otherwise there can be no image. Kremer’s seemingly black-and-white (the “black” is actually Prussian blue or dark plum) Furniture/Animal paintings, compositions pulsing with echoes of 20th century welded-metal sculpture from Julio González and Picasso to David Smith and Ettore Colla, are emphatic visual statements of figure/ground duality, but so, too, is a Cast Painting where an orange square surmounted by three orange rectangles floats on a dark blue field. Geometric abstraction descended from Josef Albers and Peter Halley or a piece of Pop Minimalism? Both, of course, because Kremer always rejects either/or outcomes. It’s as if he purposely overloads his paintings with binary oppositions (abstract/representational, inside/outside, figure/ground, flatness/depth, nature/culture) expressly to undermine them.
As the number of colors increases there are usually intermediate hues, shades and tints: a dark blue next to a light blue or a gray next to a white. Kremer often uses these relations to suggest shadows, to establish volumetric shapes. In his paintings every new color that is introduced means not just a more chromatically complex composition but also a more spatially nuanced painting. It’s not just shadows that additional colors depict, they can also suggest veils and liquids. These are some of the ways in which we are constantly reminded in his work that color is space. Things get especially complicated in the Window Paintings where a fragment of landscape (green hill, blue sky) is seen through a tall window that is flanked by a white wall and pale gray drapes. A horizontal length of darker gray indicates the floor. A dark green strip at the bottom of the window, which at first might seem like a merely formal flourish, eventually reveals itself as the shadow of the building to which the window belongs. (The Cast Paintings can play similar perceptual games: do they show us the shadows of windows on a wall or the view of a lighted window seen from outside at night?) Another binary in play here is that these quickly executed paintings require meticulous planning.
Depicting a window inevitably implies the notion, first articulated by Alberti in the 15th century, of painting as a “window on the world.” (Some of Kremer’s Window Paintings seem to acknowledge this by inviting us to read the composition as depicting a painting hanging on a wall instead of showing us a room with a view.) Of course, this Renaissance ideal was precisely what 20th-century abstraction, from Malevich to Stella, explicitly rejected. One of the marvelous things about Paul Kremer’s work is how he reconciles, not only in the Window Paintings but consistently throughout his work, the legacies of the Classical and Modernist art. Kremer is also keenly aware that today the dominant model is neither Renaissance perspective nor Modernist flatness, but the virtual space of digital screens. Here, too–by sketching his paintings on a computer, then emphatically making them by hand–Kremer deconstructs binary thinking. What makes Kremer’s demolition of binary structures all the more impressive is that he is able to do so with such ebullience, such joy in the sheer facts of color and shape.