Press release

Figuring Color: Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, Sue Williams

Vibrant Exhibition Explores Intersection of Color and the Body

(BOSTON – Dec. 12, 2011) Color is a daily experience; it can communicate our mood, profession, cultural status, nationality and team affiliations—all of which form the basis of our identities and express our emotions. This February, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) opens Figuring Color: Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, Sue Williams, a major exhibition exploring the use of color and form to convey ideas about the body. Using vibrant hues and a touch of humor, McMakin’s fleshy chairs mimic the human form, Butterly’s intricate ceramics are rich with bodily humor and desire, Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of candy and plastic beads abstractly evoke physical absence and presence, and Williams’s electrifying canvases convey the viscera of war and politics. Organized by ICA Senior Curator Jenelle Porter, the exhibition features 51 works, including painting, sculpture, and installation. Figuring Color is on view at the ICA from Feb. 17 through May 20, 2012.

Figuring Color brings the work of Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, and Sue Williams together in a visual conversation about craft and concept, process and product, mind and body,” says ICA Director Jill Medvedow. “Porter’s insistence on challenging traditional polarities of craft and art is both intuitive and imaginative, and her innovative approach to designing space and championing the artist’s voice is evident throughout the exhibition.”

”As we move through the exhibition, we are compelled by how our bodies feel in relation to color and how emotional an experience color truly is,” says Porter. “Each work in Figuring Color uses color to represent a metaphorical body—a body rendered as vessel, pure color, abstraction, line, field, or allegory. At the beginning of the exhibition, color is used to evoke a physical representation of the body that becomes increasingly emotional as you move through the galleries.”

Warm colors from red to peach to beige dominate the first gallery of the exhibition, which includes an extensive selection of Kathy Butterly’s small-scale, ceramic sculptures—one of the largest presentations of her work to date. Her sculptures are characterized by their evocative use of glaze, rendering the surface of her work exceedingly tactile and flesh-like. Butterly’s eye for color charges her “fleshpots” with a sense of physicality, transforming them from playful manipulations of clay to life-like portraits brimming with humor and bawdiness. In the same gallery, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Blood) (1992) spans the center of the room, partitioning the space with a field of red. Composed of hanging strands of translucent red beads, the installation invites us to pass through and touch it, making the experience of color both a visual and visceral one. This visceral sense of color is echoed in the paintings of Sue Williams, which are filled with floating bodies and parts, interwoven in brilliant shades of pink, yellow, red and turquoise. Created in response to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, American Enterprise (2009) presents a collage of human organs in red, white and blue—a body politicized and ravaged in the name of freedom and patriotism.

In the next gallery, artists imagine the color of memory, evoking an absent other though color and form. Gonzalez-Torres said that “if a beautiful memory could have a color, that color would be light blue.” “Untitled” (Lover Boys) (1991) is a sculpture composed of hundreds of white and blue candies poured onto the gallery floor. The sculpture’s ideal weight is 355 pounds, the approximate combined weight of the artist and his life-partner. To see the sculpture, however, is to touch it. By putting a piece of candy in your mouth and ingesting it, you are completing the artist’s intention to share something sweet. For Roy McMakin, color is a manifestation of a state of mind, a mood or a memory. His work Lequita Faye Melvin (2003) is composed of nineteen independent sculptures, each painted a uniform medium gray. Named for McMakin’s mother, the sculptures represent the artist’s recollections of furniture from the homes of his parents and maternal grandparents—all constructed according to sketches the artist drew from memory. McMakin says of the sculptures: “They are gray because that is the color I always saw them in. Gray seemed like memory, and [is] ultimately reflective of the sadness I think is contained within them.”

Including work by all four artists, the final exhibition gallery is awash in color, conveying a sense of exuberance, joy and physical abandonment. Williams’s large, gestural paintings—including Swinger (2002) and New Painting / Pink and Blue (2002)—nod to abstract expressionism and color field painting. In these works, paint is applied one color at a time in quick, clean strokes, thus retaining the physical trace of the fluid movements that generated them. Butterly’s captivating use of color is emphasized in a further selection of her vivid, richly hued ceramics. A new work created by McMakin for the exhibition, Use/Used (2012) is composed of two pairs of chairs—one found and one replica created by the artist—which visitors can sit in to experience the exhibition. Located near the gallery exit is Gonzalez-Torres’s blue mirrored work “Untitled” (Fear) (1991), leaving visitors with the memory of their own reflections cast in light blue.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Hatje Cantz Verlag and guest edited by poet Jeremy Sigler. It includes an essay by Porter, an exhibition checklist and poems by 22 writers on the idea of color. Poets who contributed work to the catalogue include:

  • John Ashbery
  • Charles Bernstein
  • Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
  • Jen Bervin
  • Lee Ann Brown
  • Miles Champion
  • Monica de la Torre
  • Marcella Durand
  • Craig Dworkin
  • Alan Gilbert
  • Lisa Jarnot
  • Vincent Katz
  • Robert Kelly
  • Damon Krukowski
  • Tan Lin
  • Dan Machlin
  • Anna Mochovakis
  • Eileen Myles
  • Frances Richard
  • Jeremy Sigler
  • Cole Swensen
  • Matvei Yankelevich
  • John Yau

A new video by ICA Director of Film and Media Branka Bogdanov brings viewers inside the studios of Kathy Butterly, Roy McMakin, and Sue Williams. Including in-depth interviews with the artists and ICA Senior Curator Jenelle Porter, the documentary can be viewed in the Poss Family Mediatheque at the ICA.

Media preview
A media preview for Figuring Color will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 9:30 a.m. RSVP to Colette Randall at 617-478-3181 or

The media sponsor for Figuring Color is The Boston Phoenix.

Exhibition-related programs

Roy G. Biv: A Series of Colorful Evenings
All talks are held from 6-8pm
Friday, March 2: Red
Friday, March 16: Orange
Friday, March 30: Yellow
Friday, April 13: Green
Friday, April 27: Blue
Friday, May 11: Indigo/Violet
Enhance your perspective of Figuring Color: Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, Sue Williams! Join us on select Friday evenings where each night will be devoted to a different hue in the color spectrum. Stroll our galleries; delight in a series of short, humorous lectures featuring irreverent viewpoints and physical perceptions of color; participate in hands-on demonstrations about how we perceive color. Free with gallery admission.

Color Workshop with Artist Kathy Butterly
Sunday, April 29, 10:15 am–1:15 pm
A featured artist in Figuring Color: Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin, Sue Williams, Kathy Butterly uses glaze to create bright and luscious ceramic sculptures. Join the artist for an introduction to her creative process and to the centuries-old tradition of glazing. Participants will work with premade clay forms to experiment with different glazing effects, and kiln-fired for participants to take home at a later date. Tickets: $80 members and students; $100 nonmembers

Gallery Talks
All gallery talks are free with museum admission

Kelly Sherman, artist
Sunday, February 26, 2 pm
Boston-based artist Kelly Sherman—and winner of the 2006 James and Audrey Foster Prize—discusses Gonzalez-Torres’s work on view in Figuring Color.

Jenelle Porter, ICA senior curator
Sunday, March 25, 2 pm
Porter walks us through the exhibition.

Elizabeth Essner
Sunday, April 1, 2 pm
Modern and contemporary ceramics specialist Elizabeth Essner discusses Butterly’s artistic process and mastery of clay.

Steve Locke, artist
Sunday, May 6, 2 pm
Boston-based painter Steve Locke shares his perspective on select works in Figuring Color.

About the ICA
An influential forum for multi-disciplinary arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art has been at the leading edge of art in Boston for 75 years. Like its iconic building on Boston's waterfront, the ICA offers new ways of engaging with the world around us. Its exhibitions and programs provide access to contemporary art, artists, and the creative process, inviting audiences of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the excitement of new art and ideas. The ICA, located at 100 Northern Avenue, is open Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 am - 5 pm; Thursday and Friday, 10 am - 9 pm; and Saturday and Sunday, 10 am - 5 pm. Admission is $15 adults, $10 seniors and students, and free for members and children 17 and under. ICA Free Admission for Youth is sponsored by State Street Foundation. Free admission on ICA Free Thursday Nights, 5 - 9 pm. Free admission for families (2 adults + children 12 and under) on last Saturday of the month. For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit our Web site at




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