By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; WE23
Robert Weingarten tells the following story about his recent series of close-up photographs of paint taken in artists' studios, 21 of which are on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in "Robert Weingarten: Palette Series." As a thank-you to each painter for allowing him access, the photographer sent everyone a small, framed print. Chuck Arnoldi took one look at his gift -- a blowup of the West Coast painter's pigment-smeared scraper -- and called up Weingarten, asking him why he'd just received a print of one of Gerhard Richter's squeegeed abstractions.
The anecdote seems to tickle Weingarten no end. His aim, he says, was neither to mimic, document nor illuminate the studio practice of his subjects (an art world who's who that includes Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, Julian Schnabel and Robert Ryman) but to produce his own idiosyncratic imagery.
That end has largely been accomplished. I challenge anyone to go through this show, armed only with a list of participating painters, and to successfully match up more than a handful of names with the photograph of their palette.
"I wanted to create my own abstract art," says Weingarten, using the palettes of the world's most respected painters as inspiration. Despite the exhibition's title, the photographer also shot such "raw materials, detritus and incidentals" as David Salle's wall, Ed Moses's sink, R.B. Kitaj's sock, Monique Prieto's apron, Robert Kushner's floor and a yellow-pigment-infused cotton ball belonging to Ed Ruscha.
There wasn't much else in Ruscha's studio to shoot, recalls Weingarten, whose "Ed Ruscha #1 (Cotton Ball With Pigment)" could easily be mistaken for one of those fluffy toilet seat covers some people still like to use.
That's partly because of scale. Working with a 16.7-megapixel digital Canon camera outfitted with a macro lens, Weingarten typically focused on tiny areas no more than a few inches across, ultimately blowing the pictures up to 44 by 64 inches, until they sometimes lose any connection with the original material. "Jonathan Lasker #1," for instance, a rare all-white composition, could be toothpaste, caulk or even unfired porcelain, whereas "Laura Owens #1" resembles microscopy, or a view from the Hubble space telescope.
The "Palette Series" began as an outgrowth of another of Weingarten's series. Called "6:30 a.m.," that project documented a year's worth of chromatic changes in the light and weather over Santa Monica Bay, looking south from the artist's Malibu home. Shot every morning at 6:30, from January to December, the 2003 series is filled with dramatic individual images while making for an even more powerful whole in its implicit commentary on the passage of time and the insignificance of man.
No such lofty aspirations underlie this show. One notion Weingarten quickly abandoned was that "the light that you live with" might play a large role in determining how -- or what -- an artist paints. In his research, that idea didn't play out, leaving him to conclude that what he calls the "psychological palette" was, in every case, more important than the physical one.
Both Weingarten and Philip Brookman, chief curator of the Corcoran, deny that the show has any didactic agenda, having deliberately avoided juxtaposing Weingarten's images with corollary works by his artist subjects. "Palette Series" should stand alone, Brookman says, not as a footnote or teaching experience about the state of painting today, but as photography.
As to whether there could be some small insights to learn about the art whose making is examined, however obliquely, even Brookman admits that would not necessarily be a bad -- or unintentional -- thing.
"After all," he says, sweeping with his arm in the direction of the rest of the museum, where "Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Art From the Collection" has also recently gone on view, "it's not by accident that contemporary art is also showing upstairs."
ROBERT WEINGARTEN: PALETTE SERIES Through Oct. 1 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700.http://www.corcoran.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 to 5; Thursdays to 9. $8; seniors and military personnel $6; students $4; guests of members $3; members and children younger than 12 free. Admission on Thursdays after 5 is "pay as you wish."