Landon Metz and
the Legacy of Color Field Painting

by Alex Bacon

Originally published in Landon Metz, Mousse Publishing, 2015

Landon Metz begins every painting in the same way–on the floor. He unrolls a bolt of canvas and demarcates the dimensions of his picture. He then takes a pencil and sketches the boundaries of the forms he will dye into the raw cotton duck, using a foam brush as a tool of sorts to flatten ever so slightly those segments of the fabric he has delineated, much as a vacuum cleaner does when it passes across carpet. This minute indentation allows Metz to establish the general area in which the pigment will pool. Thus, when he begins to pour heavily thinned acrylic paint and move it around with brushes, sponges, rags, even his hands, it soaks into the canvas in a contained and controlled way. Once the paint is applied, the majority of Metz's energy and attention is spent evening out the puddle of pigment as it is steadily, but rapidly absorbed into the weave of the canvas, as he has only a few minutes before the paint sets irreversibly. The results are fields of color that vary from light and washed out, to dark and saturated.

When Metz began making paintings with this methodology they consisted of expressive, Helen Frankenthaler-esque swathes of stained color.1 At this point he was experimenting, in a pragmatic yet purposeful manner, with the different ways his materials interacted with each other and their support.2 Significantly, something similar can be said about Frankenthaler's exploratory approach to materials and form in seminal early paintings like Mountains and Sea (1952), as she worked out of the example of Pollock's late work, especially that of 1951, when he stopped dripping commercial enamel paint and instead began thinning it down and staining it directly into raw canvas in paintings characterized by their stark black-and-white palette and looping compositions out of which vaguely anthropomorphic forms slowly emerge.

For Metz, as a young artist without formal training, it must have been very significant to discover an art historical precedent that gave him permission to investigate the potential of materials.3 As such, Metz likely had something of the same intuition that Morris Louis, a central figure in Color Field painting, had with regards to Frankenthaler's example that, rather than an endpoint to emulate, she was instead, in Louis's words, a “bridge [to]…what was possible.”4 For Louis, Frankenthaler was a bridge from Pollock, who was figured as not only a key, but also the only key capable of unlocking future directions in art. While, for Metz, a child of the digital age, when he started making art he was confronted, not only with the whole range of work produced out of Pollock's example, from Louis's stains through to Richard Serra's splashes, Warhol's piss paintings, and Cy Twombly's elegant scrawls, but he also had the ability to engage simultaneously with an infinite range of artistic practices from various times, places, and cultures, which he discovered both on the Internet and in books. Further, this material was encountered by Metz as already leveled and mixed in with everything from fashion, to craft and design, to pop culture.

As such, he could not be anything other than active in selecting out of the endless tumult of digital images and ideas those strands of aesthetic production that affected him most emphatically. His exploration of predecessors like Frankenthaler and Louis was thus both purposeful, and stemmed more from his intuitive response to flattened jpegs of their works and concise descriptions of their methods circulating on the web, than through the received dogmas of art education; which has, for the most part, downplayed the relevance of Color Field painting. In a certain sense, for an artist like Metz, the weight of history has been lifted. Which is not to say that he takes the relevance and content of history lightly, but rather that his access to it is somehow more unfettered. For, of course, none of this would mean anything, if not for the rigorous and considered response that his art represents.5 Having thus undertaken an education that was based as much in thorough study and examination of a selective art history, as an exploratory engagement with the potential of painterly materials, as Metz has steadily gained facility with his technique, the marks made via his methodology of controlled chance have been refined, moving him ever further from the orbit of his art historical touchstones into territory of his own, establishing in the process a new relevance for the aesthetics of Color Field painting. At this point Metz can more directly influence the kinds of forms he makes on the canvas and, as a consequence, with time, he has shifted away from gestural splashes of color to arrive at a reduced, yet lyrical language of nebulous, biomorphic shapes that progress across the picture plane. Metz's paintings have also moved in the direction of reducing any specific compositional interest, and by extension a viewing experience contained within the literal boundaries of the canvas, in favor of an expansive formal vocabulary that is premised on a kind of balanced neutrality, and directed at introducing a dynamic relationship between the space of exhibition, and the beholder whose experience of that space the painting mediates. From color choices, to spacing, to size, Metz's forms are deployed so as to set off a certain syncopation in the movement of the viewer's eyes; one which, by extension, affects the overall quality of his or her movement through space.

When paint is dyed into canvas, color can be said to be one with its support. The critic Clement Greenberg wrote of Morris Louis, that he,

spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But ‘underneath’ is the wrong word. The fabric, being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color.6

This means that the sort of form that results from this method of bleeding pigment directly into canvas impresses itself on us as materially integral to its support–color and canvas are experienced as one and the same. Working from this essential convention, the particular relationship that Metz establishes, in terms of scale, between his forms and the dimensions of the canvas is such that the painted passages and the raw fabric around them feel like two aspects of one thing, locked or fused together.

In part this is due to another aspect of the staining technique identified by Greenberg, who noted that this means that, most often, these forms do not “cut” into space, as those bounded by a linear, drawn gesture do. In Metz's particular use of this method, form is perceived as sutured with the material of its support, rather than imaginatively transmuting it into something else, as the drawn mark typically does–a passage of blue paint becoming sea or sky, for example. Metz's peer Sarah Crowner literalizes this relationship, at a material and technical level, when she sews her stained forms into raw canvas.

Out of this formal phenomenon Metz seems to have arrived at much the same conclusion Frankenthaler did when she introduced staining into her artistic practice. For, what Frankenthaler recognized, consciously or not, in Pollock's classic all-over drip paintings of 1947-50 is that, in these pictures, raw canvas is as if not there, being wholly surrogate to the painted activity atop it. As art historian Michael Fried has famously characterized these works,

In Pollock's finest paintings of this period…line is no longer contour, no longer the edge of anything. It does not, by and large, give rise to positive and negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure, whether abstract or representational, against another part of the canvas read as ground…the illusion established in these paintings is not of tangibility but of its opposite: as though the dripped line, indeed the paintings in their entirety, are accessible to eyesight alone, not to touch. This is not to minimize the sensuous, often opulent materiality of their surfaces; it is to claim that materiality is subsumed within a pictorial whole which, in an important sense, is based on the negation of materiality as such. 7

Frankenthaler pushed this aspect of Pollock's work forward, using the unity of marked and unmarked areas not so as to reduce the physical impact of the latter in favor of heightening the optical intensity of the former, but by making the raw canvas an element that is equally as active as the painted forms that are quite literally soaked into it. As Frankenthaler told filmmaker Emile De Antonio,

When I first started doing the stain paintings, I left large areas of canvas unpainted, I think, because the canvas itself acted as forcefully and as positively as paint or line or color. In other words, the very ground was part of the medium, so that instead of thinking of it as background or negative space or an empty spot, that area did not need paint because it had paint next to it. The thing was to decide where to leave it and where to fill it and where to say this doesn't need another line or another pail of colors.8

This is something Pollock seems to have flirted with in his works from 1951, but was able to accomplish only incompletely due to his reliance on representational elements that, with prolonged looking, emerge out from the rest of the composition–the eyes and reclining animal form in Number 18 (1951), for example–which subdues both the materialism and non-hierarchical composition the picture otherwise promises.

Working from this tradition, Metz emphasizes the totality of the canvas as a sort of object, while activating the forms within it. However, it is not that the painted passages somehow optically detach from the canvas ground, such as the pulsating bands of one of Kenneth Noland's target paintings or the seeming forward advance of Pollock's skeins of paint. Instead, when Metz repeats a form in one of his paintings it is to the end of creating a sense of movement, but one which is abstract, like the tempo established in our body by music.9

Metz establishes a lyrical sense of movement with his abstracted, vaguely biomorphic language of forms. These he isolated out from his experiments with all of the kinds of marks that are possible with dyed pigment–from washy splotches to the defined, contoured fields he has, for the moment at least, selected as his favored way of working. These forms tend towards vertical and horizontal orientations, and then repeat and progress up and down, left and right, emphasizing a directional movement of the eye across the picture plane at varying velocities affected by various formal factors.

He can play with, and adjust the sense of velocity his work establishes by tuning a few different variables. These include scale, vertical versus horizontal orientation, and location and spacing of forms. In terms of scale, if Metz increases the size of his painted passages relative to the canvas (as well as the overall size of the work) it changes our sensation of the movement of those passages. Essentially, the larger the form, and the more of the canvas it occupies, the more static it is, while smaller forms, occupying a lower percentage of the pictorial field will generate a higher sensation of velocity.

Part of this is due to our optical immersion in the larger painted fields, versus a relation to the smaller forms as, if not of course objects in their own right, as having something of the close-at-hand tactility we associate with smaller entities in the world. Comparatively, they become more imagistic through a sense of being as if placed at a distance from us. A smaller form in one of Metz's canvases does not impress itself upon us like a rock sitting right in front of us, but more like a boulder seen from a distance. The connection this has to the image is via a photographic logic, in that this is essentially what the camera does, making the distant feel proximate by fixing it.

In the work since his exhibition last year at Retrospective Gallery in Hudson, New York, Metz has typically utilized three ways of orienting his forms–most often as a relatively even progression of similarly sized shapes moving across one or more canvases, somewhat less often as located at the edges of the canvas, and least often as centered in the composition. This is related to the spacing of forms, as Metz places them closer or farther away from each other in different works. When the work in question has the form placed along the edges, this is a direct correlate of the literal size of the canvas. The placement of forms at the left and right hand sides of the canvas also creates an internal play in the works between positive and negative space. This formal activity is not unrelated to how, in Louis's unfurled paintings, the raw canvas in the middle feels as if it is being pushed forward optically by the painted passages at the margins.

Metz's forms, with their vague suggestions of organic matter and, by extension, the various ways in which it moves, do not so much suggest any specific references but, nonetheless, do lead us, in our attempt to make sense of them, to unconsciously summon past experiences, such as watching fish dart through a pond, or leaves rustle on a tree, or clouds pass across the sky. If Metz was of a different mindset he might think of his work along the lines of how Agnes Martin envisioned hers–as an abstract realization of the experience of the perfect harmonies and geometries of nature.10 For, just as Martin's grids are clearly not representations, however abstracted, of trees, a beach, or an ocean–as some of her titles suggest–even by the biggest stretch of the imagination. They are instead a realization of the sensation that Martin experienced communing with such natural forms, which she found she could evoke abstractly through formal devices like a penciled grid on a six-foot-square canvas.

Just as the tree in Martin's work is not any actual tree, but rather an abstract suggestion of the experience she had looking at a tree, so Metz is trying to enable the viewer to have a sensorial experience. This is why both utilize an “abstract” pictorial language, which is based on the idea that we all experience things differently. The same tree is not going to be perceived in the same way by you as by me. So if I want to convey to you something of my experience with that tree I have to try to set up a situation by which you might have an experience that is as close as possible to the one I had. It's a highly imperfect science, and there's bound to always be a distance, however slight, between one person's experience and another. But therein lies the excitement of making an art object for artists such as Martin and Metz, who embrace the subjective nature of experience and use it as a ground for making non-objective art. If there was some way to accurately convey experience to another person then they would probably find making art unnecessary.

Perhaps this is how, consciously or otherwise, Metz responds to music, which forms a constant background hum in his studio while he works. This lyricism is what Metz is trying to convey visually in his focus, in his paintings, on abstract sensations of tempo, velocity, and rhythm. This is, I imagine, the reason for his interest in John Cage, as both a musician and theoretician. Especially the Cage of 4’33”, with the open-ended structure of its score–during which the performer goes through all the motions of a musical performance, sitting at the piano, opening the cover, etc., but does not play anything, such that the only sound that occurs for the duration of the piece is that which happens to filter in from elsewhere, from the fidgeting of the crowd, to activity outside of the auditorium. Metz shares with both Martin and Cage this interest in the work as a container for experience, and consequently as a launching pad for new sensations. This is also shared by Carl Andre, whose floor works made up of squares of lead and copper more so charge the space over and around them, than are themselves sites of interest. Metz and Andre share this balance between specific forms–dyed shapes and carpets of lead or copper squares, respectively–and an activation of the viewer via abstract sensations related to bodily movement.

Having activated the body, it is logical that Metz would, with time, want to see how he could deepen and render more complex the kind of experiences this body could be directed through. Consequently, over the past year Metz has been steadily developing an architectural approach to his work. Instead of simply executing discrete series' of canvases, related in concept, but each separate and autonomous from the other. Lately, while not site-specific, strictly speaking, many pieces have been realized as a designated group expressly intended for a particular space and context. In his exhibitions at Retrospective Gallery and the ADN Collection (Bolzano, Italy) Metz engaged with the architecture of those places in a lyrical fashion, responding to them, neither by taking them over, nor by neutralizing them, but by working with the architecture's eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. Activating them in ways that make the viewer more conscious of both the paintings and the space in which they are installed, as well as their own body as it moves through that space.

Most recently, with his show at James Fuentes in New York City, Metz had the opportunity to engage with an architecturally “neutral” space—a classic white cube. For this context Metz devised a series of outsize, twenty-foot-long canvases that progressed across the walls of the gallery. By taking the form of painting, rather than, say, a mural painted directly onto the wall, Metz introduced a tension between the canvas and the wall on which it was hung. If the work had been painted directly on the wall then the wall would have been rendered passive, simply the work's support, a ground for a painted figure.

In these latest works Metz has dissolved the literal contours of the rectilinear frame traditional to painting. Of course, this is not, in itself, a new development. Indeed, it is one with a long history, especially within modernist painting. However, Metz has managed to use shaping in a different way from his predecessors. Instead of either setting up a heightened tension between the literal shape of the canvas, and what is depicted within it, like Kenneth Noland, or activating the wall behind the canvas, making it a figure on the ground of the wall, like Ellsworth Kelly, Metz has managed to give the paintings enough material presence to set them off from the wall, but has integrated them enough into the total space of the gallery (rather than just its walls) so as to make them active occupants of that space.

My intuition is that what Metz seizes upon, more or less consciously, as the field of possibility for his work is the contemporary relationship between actual space and its imagistic representation, the distinction between which has steadily been dismantled over the past decades. Today digital prostheses such as smartphones, tablets, and high definition screens mediate, and in many cases determine, how we interact with the world around us. In some cases we even trust what we see in images more than what we perceive directly. This has been a steady development, which I see foreshadowed in the initial move, in certain work of the 1960s, out into actual space.

That generation of artists, such as Serra, Michael Asher, Lawrence Weiner and others, saw new opportunities in dealing with real materials and sites, and over time this rendering of such materials and sites into figural elements has found its correlation in how today in many cases we treat images and their real-world subjects on an equivalent level. Of course, this is not what Metz's work is about. Far from it. However, he works off of this situation as a way to motivate his latest series of canvases. These are able to draw on a painterly vocabulary of form without overly insisting on either the material presence of the paintings in space (though they are large and the stretchers have a palpable thickness) or their imagistic qualities. Much as things exist in the world today, somehow these two qualities are combined together in a way that would have been impossible in the 1960s.

Ultimately the differences that emerge, even more than the similarities, when we make these historical comparisons are the reason for investigating them in the first place. We perceive that the materiality of these canvases somehow resides in the very image they construct, and again this is what leads us to our engagement with the space in which they are installed and which allows for them to both affect us, and for us to feel as if they still nonetheless rely on our presence and our particular character to complete them, without them being merely passive props awaiting our manipulation and activation.

New York City
February , 2015

Notes Many thanks to the organizers, other participants, and audience who heard a version of this essay presented at the Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis on April 11, 2015 as part of the symposium Natural Disasters, Free Speech, and the Death of Painting.

1 It should be noted that Metz started his career, around 2010, executing densely material works consisting of linear skeins of paint applied straight from the tube, with results that suggest both the impastoed density of Dubuffet and the lyrical pictorial language of Miro. He began working with a staining technique in 2011.

2 Incidentally, this is not unlike Robert Ryman when he began painting in the mid-1950s. See Suzanne Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

3 This effectively confuses the distinction between the self-taught, “outsider,” or “folk” artist and the academically trained one. Now that more and more artists are forgoing a professional art education, but nonetheless encountering the history of Modernism, among other things, and making work that enters those spaces, discursive, institutional, and commercial, access to which traditionally required formal training, the role of arts education must necessarily change.

4 Morris Louis, as quoted in Gerald Nordland, The Washington Color Painters (Washington DC: Washington DC Gallery of Modern Art, 1965), 12. This statement can be interpreted as a gendered evaluation of Frankenthaler as more important as a crux between the past, which she opens up, and the future, which she suggests, than for her work, which has been most often analyzed–by a range of critics and scholars, from Greenberg to Fried to Barbara Rose–as a blown up version of watercolor. I do not have space to go into an evaluation of that claim, but recent reevaluations of Cezanne's watercolor practice, such as by Matthew Simms and Carol Armstrong, suggest how we might also reconsider Frankenthaler's particular brand of Color Field painting. However, I certainly see the evolution of Metz's practice as signaling his own disinterest in the watercolor-like effects that potentially emerge from a staining technique.

5 This is not unlike the ways in which artists coming of age in the late 1950s and 1960s often encountered the work of preceding generations in the form of reproductions in art magazines. For example, this was Frank Stella's initial acquaintance with the work of Jasper Johns. Fast forward a few years, and it was how, in turn, Mel Bochner encountered Stella's paintings. In both cases this was to have a significant impact on each artist as they were able to both assess the elder artist, making productive misreadings in the process–Stella's understanding of the flag motif's structural breakdown of the flat painted surface, and Bochner's conception of seriality in Stella's deductively structured formal terms.

6 Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” Art International (May 1960). Reprinted in Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, edited by John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 99 and 97, respectively.

7 Michael Fried, Morris Louis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1971). Reprinted in Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 106.

8 Helen Frankenthaler in De Antonio and Tuchman, Painters Painting, 82. She goes on to tell De Antonio: “A red-blue against the white of cotton duck or the beige of linen has the same play in space as the duck, or that duck assumes as important a role as the red shape. Every square inch of that surface is equally important in depth, shallowness, and space.” I have no doubt that it is Frankenthaler who transmitted this idea to Greenberg, who then took it up as a central component of Color Field painting, as did Michael Fried after him.

9 In this way Metz links himself to the historical avant-garde's interest in music as the most directly affective artistic medium. For early abstract painters like Kandinsky and Kupka the power that music had to both arouse and direct emotion was located in its non-referentiality, and served as a push in that direction for the plastic arts around 1912.

10 Though they share an interest in what Metz describes as “ideas of non-duality and mindfulness that I address in the work [and] are things I try to practice in my daily life.” Metz in Adam O'Reilly, Interview Magazine . Metz goes on to say, “Both in and outside of the studio, it's about trying to be fully present, to accept things as they are, to frame your experience in terms of a continually unfolding moment. I feel like that's directly reflected in my formal approach: utilizing a literal use of materials, emphasizing the more ephemeral aspects of the artistic process, and so on.”

Video of lecture at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis