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Take Five: WUSTL professor on seeing 'Red' at the Kemper

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - From lust to anger, the color red evokes a hotbed of emotions. Its vibrancy also figures prominently in popular cultural, with movies such as “The Woman in Red” and songs including “99 Red Balloons.” Now red is the subject of an art exhibit in the Teaching Gallery of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on the Washington University campus.

Through Jan. 6, this powerful stripe of the rainbow is explored in an exhibition entitled simply “Red.” Among its offerings are works by Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger, prints by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and a poster by Donald Judd, juxtaposed with red objects including a typewriter and television.

Some choice words are also on display. Quotes such as “There is something wrong, irresponsible, and mindless about color, something impossible to control,” from 20th-century abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, dot the exhibition space.

Washington University professor of architecture Stephen Leet, who curated the exhibit, talked with the Beacon about “Red,” which was created to enhance a student project but is also of general interest to the public.

Beacon: How did “Red” come about?

Stephen Leet: As you know, the Kemper Museum is part of the Sam Fox School at the university.  For the past three to four years, there’s been a dedicated space at the Kemper called the Teaching Gallery. It gives faculty members the opportunity to propose an exhibit that they curate, and they select from objects in the collection of the museum.

I curated this exhibit to connect to a course I’m teaching on architecture and film. This year, the students are looking at the use of color in film. We’re looking at three directors: Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Stanley Kubrick. Students watch films, we do readings, we have discussions and then they create projects consisting of short analytical films based on those directors, and looking at color.

Roy Lichtenstein, Untitled, from the portfolio The New York Collection for Stockholm, 1973. Color screen print, 12 x 9 1/4Credit Provided

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Beacon: What was the process of selecting from among the Kemper collection?

Leet: Curators go through the collection and just start making decisions about what to include. In my case, very few of the objects had anything to do with one another, historically.

What they have in common is they’re all red. For example, there’s an Ellsworth Kelly painting which is abstract but it’s hovering over an 18th-century portrait which, again, has no historical relationship.

Beacon: What role do the quotes play in the exhibition?

Leet: There are 24 quotes on the wall from artists, philosophers and designers, and every one of the quotes deals specifically with something to do with the color red. But the quotes are not there to explain anything to anyone, in many ways they’re like clues.

Anyone who walks into the room might be baffled by it at first, like, “Why is there a TV in the room -- why is the TV showing images? Why are there books -- why is Chairman Mao’s red book there? What does this have to do with a typewriter?” So the quotes don’t exactly guide them but they provide insight about how philosophers and others thought about color, specifically red.

Beacon: Would you talk about the 12-minute looping video that’s part of “Red?”

Leet: Images are running continuously on a television set, which is also red. It has everything, in a rapid sequence, from the first cave painting, which had red in it, all the way up to the most recent artworks. And then it shows images of brands and logos which have red, and there are film clips.

Beacon: Are any of the objects in “Red” from outside the collection?

Leet: I had to supplement it with some pieces because the Kemper doesn’t seem to collect industrial design. And I wanted to include a typewriter by an Italian designer which is red so I pulled that in. And the television set, which obviously, I didn’t have.

Also, the poster by Donald Judd. Donald Judd has written a lot about color and about the relationship between red and black. And, coincidentally they have the exhibit on his color works at The Pulitzer, and I thought that was a nice coupling.

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