Ricocheting Colors

A retrospective of Peter Young's work at MOCAis a celebration of experimentation and process

In the wild art scene of mid-'60s New York, painter Peter Young was a wunderkind.

He filled canvas after canvas with kaleidoscopes of colorful dots that careened around like so many exploding atoms, apt totems in an atomic age. Or he'd go the opposite route, making disciplined paintings painted a flat blue that echoed the sky, crisscrossed by tidy white lines.

His process was important—and interesting. His energetic darting dots were methodically painted, and those lines on his flat, blue skies owed their regularity to masking tape.

The art world paid attention. (Fun fact: at the time he was married to dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp.) By the age of 25, he was selling his work through a major dealer. By the time he was 29, in 1969, he had become an important artist who "tinker[ed] incessantly with paintings' fundamentals," a New York Times critic would write years later.

But he chucked it all in the early '70s. After living with a tribe in Costa Rica and kicking around in Spain and Morocco, he landed in Bisbee in 1972. He bought himself an old miners' hotel dirt cheap, and has lived there ever since. (Long active in the lively Bisbee art community, Young also volunteers at a migrant aid center across the border in Naco, Sonora.)

In the years since he decamped, Young's work has rarely been seen in New York, or even in Arizona. Then in 2007, the P.S. 1, a contemporary art space run by the Museum of Modern Art, staged a survey of Young's works from the 1960s and 1970s. The show was greeted with rapturous praise. The Times called Young a "maverick Zenned-out hedonist who was also a process-oriented formalist with a sharp painterly intelligence, a genius for color and a penchant for the tribal and spiritual."

Nearly six years later, Tucsonans can see for themselves what the fuss is all about. MOCA Tucson has given over its entire firehouse museum to a retrospective of his work from the 1960s to the 1990s. Called Peter Young: Capitalist Masterpieces (a name Young once gave to a couple of works to critique the New York art market), the show exhibits 20 large-scale paintings.

"We're ridiculously excited about this show," director Anne-Marie Russell said in the galleries last week.

The stark modernism of the museum's Great Hall—a former garage for firetrucks—is an apt setting for Young's paintings. The ricocheting colors and lines hang on pure-white walls, and their hues change hour by hour in the shifting light let in by the big windows. Though it's not hung chronologically, the show documents Young's perpetual experimentation and search for new forms. All of the paintings are acrylics, but he pushes and pulls the paint in a multitude of exhilarating ways.

Two of the blue paintings from 1966 (both in the MOMA show) hang on the west wall. "#5—1966" is a long horizontal stretch, easily 10 feet long and perhaps a foot and a half high. In New York, this restful work must have seemed like a snatch of blue glimpsed between the skyscrapers; here in Tucson, it conjures up the wide Western sky. The white lines that travel over the flat blue are arranged like the lines in a music staff, though there are seven lines rather than the staff's five. Even so, they strike me as an allusion to the music that seems to infuse much of Young's work.

The companion painting, "#4 - 1966," reverses the color scheme, with a white background underneath a blue outline drawing of bricks. The colors allude to clouds and sky, but they're tamed and disciplined by the human-made grid Young found in New York.

Even one of his celebrated dot paintings, "#8—1967," has that limited sky palette of white and blue, though the latter is more blue-jean than cerulean. About 7½-feet square, this acrylic at first glance seems to be a random explosion of painted dots. But a longer look reveals how carefully Young crafted his composition.

The dots skitter along curling lines, but they cluster thickly in some sections and sparsely in others. The dense gatherings of dots suggest shadows, the whiter passages light, and before long you start seeing unexpected shapes coalesce out of the dots, like order emerging from chaos.

Another early dot painting, "#11—1965," is more organic, with messier, more undisciplined painted circles within circles. The colors are more varied too—along with the sky-blue, there's lavender, beige, yellow and green; joining the dots are flowerlike figures in maroon, arranged to suggest a repeating quilt pattern. Young has also stretched the canvas in new directions. Instead of a rectangle, it's shaped to suggest a cape or weaving, presaging, perhaps, the freer "tribal" art that would come a few years later.

One of these tribal works, "#24—1972," is a giant splatter painting, far looser than the dot paintings that preceded it. It's thickly painted, in a proverbial riot of colors—red, mint green, yellow, black, white. But, again, the more you look at it, the more structure you begin to see. Diagonal lines slice through the splatters, and objects and shapes begin to emerge from the colors—including a kind of totem pole. To create these elusive forms, the always inventive Young folded the wet canvas in two, imprinting symmetrical mirror images on the canvas.

And while he was making explosive dots and wild splatters, Young also tackled what must have been the tedious task of making weaving paintings. So intricate they make your head spin, these plaid pictures are composed of thousands of narrow lines that go under and over each other, like the warp and weft of yarns woven on a loom.

The few works from the 1980s are also dizzyingly precise, with rigid bands of color that suggest early computer data cards—or later motherboards. Once again, as he did with the earlier darting atomic dots, Young ingeniously uses abstraction to reflect his time period.

But after the tight plaids and computer cards, it's a pleasure to see the loose and lovely paintings of the 1990s. In these fresh works, Young pencils in wonderfully free lines that zip all over the canvas, their overlapping curves creating a dancing composition of egg-shaped ovals. He never paints the ovals as single, solid objects, though; instead, he paints the crazy semi-triangles that turn up inside them. And all these paintings are double-layered, with seemingly unrelated under-paintings beneath the eggs.

In one of these, "#70—1998," Young once again proves himself a master of color. It has the messiest, drippiest and maybe even the most joyful painting of any work in the show. He's painted the fluttering triangles eggshell white, and beneath them is a symphony of Easter-egg colors, all purple and yellow and bright grass green, and wild stains and drips that are pretty in pink.

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