Book review: “Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art”, edited by David Batchelor

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

6 February 2017. This review is something I have been planning to write since last summer. My tutor recommended the book “Colour. Documents of Contemporary Art”, edited by David Batchelor. The book contains what the editor calls a broadly chronological collage of texts on colour written by famous artists and thinkers starting in the mid 19th century (Batchelor, 2008, p. 17).
This is no book for casual reading. Whichever text I chose, I noticed how deeply every author felt about colour: Each has their very own personal approach and experience with colour, so no text is like any other. What is shared among most of them, however, and which I did not feel too comfortable about, was most authors’ conviction of being in the possession of some ultimate truth. I was amazed that a seemingly gentle subject like this, colour (!) of all things, could raise such fierce argument, ruthless praising of one’s own position simultaneously with the cruel damnation of others. I suspect that the argument is not about colour at all, but about sailing under different colours, so to speak. The latter is a matter of territory. As in any field which has not yet revealed all its secrets and the contributors have not yet arrived at a common solution, there is a natural tendency for each to put forward and defend their own position, since appearing in the right of course  often comes along with an increase in social rank, influence and material wealth.

7 February 2017. It is futile to try to concoct a summary or essence from the texts contained in this book. They shed light on too many different aspects of colour and its position in art and human life in general. To me it serves as a great source of ad hoc inspiration. It has been lying on my bedside table for most of last year and I keep opening it at random. In order to illustrate the effect, I did just that three times for this review and tried to write short accounts reflecting spontaneously their respective influence on me:

p. 142 Claude Lévi-Strauss (Philosophers.co.uk, 2012): The Raw and The Cooked (1964)

The main argument put forward by the author of this essay, famous French structuralist philosopher and anthropologist, is a rejection of the common, but in his eyes inadequate equation of musical sound with colour in painting. Since musical notes have no equivalent in nature, while colour is all around us available for imitation, he rates the achievements of music higher than those of the visual arts.
8 February 2017. While I can follow his idea in principle, any such attempt at placing one field of art above the other for its degree of inventiveness appears to me as deficient in rigour. If just summarizing the most superficial of arguments, I find among them many upon which I could rest a reversal of “hierarchy” between colour and sound: Working with colour is greatly amenable to the resource of simultaneity, which for reasons I have no clear understanding of, has strict limitations in music: There is only a very limited number of sounds you can hear at the same time before you would classify them as noise, but there is no limit to the simultaneous perception of, say, the number of greens present in a landscape. There also, in my eyes, appears to be nothing in colour which would be an equivalent to the perceived effect of dissonance in sound. Graphical arts are also of course developed way beyond the mere copying of colour in nature. Even only for the above reasons I see no point in raising an argument between these two fields of art. They should best be made use of and enjoyed for their respective merits.

p. 194 Stephen Melville (The Ohio State University, n.d.): Colour Has Not Yet Been Named (1993)

Melville is an outstanding American art historian. I have to admit that I had to concentrate hard to be able to even make sense of his sentences and I suspect that he lost me on the way. If I understand correctly he addresses in this account a phenomenon how colour, despite having been extensively researched and quite fully described regarding its physical and psychological qualities, is an entity much larger than what we find within the boundaries (physical and mental frames, so to speak) set by the workings of the human mind. I hope that this is what he means when saying: “[… ] Colour is then no longer simply contained within the painting but is also that which, within the painting, assigns it its frame, even as it conceals itself as the source of that assignment. In so far as colour is and is not the historical bearer of a certain truth of painting that is and is not the truth of the frame in which it is contained, colour bids to pass beyond itself.”
I know why I will never be an art historian.

p. 62 Oswald Spengler (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010): The Decline of the West (1918)

German historian Spengler wrote at a time, when it apparently was still acceptable and convenient not to question, to split the world into the civilized part (the educated West, where he belonged) and the other, savage and sensuous, historical as well as contemporary rest. In his own world, blue and green are the good, the spiritual, non-sensuous colours, and they rightfully dominate oil-painting. Red and yellow on the other hand reflect the basic elements of the unreflected, raw “point-existence” life of the “crowds, children, women and savages” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010), in that order. Spengler even appears to have concluded, from the reintroduction of the colours of the savage, red and yellow, into painting (God forbid!), that “the West had already passed through the creative stage of “culture” into that of reflection and material comfort (“civilization” proper, in his terminology) and that the future could only be a period of irreversible decline.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010). Although I know that the above was by no means thought up by Spengler alone and I have come across several such accounts before, it still makes me feel very uncomfortable to read such preoccupied nonsense, to say the least.

The above three accounts are only tiny snippets from an immense field of research, which can serve both as a source of inspiration as well as desperation. For me, however, the reading of theoretical texts about colour, no matter how hot-blooded the argument and fluid the writing, feels like watching colour on a palette dry up. At the risk of being accused of leading a woman’s point-existence I would rather use the paint ;o).

References:

Batchelor, D. ed. (2008) Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and Cambrige: The MIT Press.

Philosophers.co.uk (2012) Claude Levi-Strauss [online]. Philosophers.co.uk, London. Available at: http://www.philosophers.co.uk/claude-levi-strauss.html [Accessed 6 February 2017]

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2010) Oswald Spengler [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica, London, 13 January. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oswald-Spengler [Accessed 6 February 2017].

The Ohio State University (n.d.) Department of History of Art. Stephen Melville [online]. The Ohio State University, Columbus. Available at: https://history-of-art.osu.edu/people/melville.3 [Accessed 6 February 2017]

Research: Colour – Frank Stella, Hélio Oiticica and Jessica Stockholder

Updated on 6 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

2 August 2016. Off to a marathon session on artist research. In order to broaden considerably my knowledge of contemporary artists, I was given a list of names to look at. First, on the use of colour.

American pioneer minimalist and post-painterly abstract painter and printmaker Frank Stella (*1936) reminds me somewhat of Josef Albers, whose influence is visible in several of his meticulously planned and executed geometrical forms following the “shaped canvas” concept. An example of this is e.g. “Gray Scramble” (Stella, 1968-1969). Wondering about the name of the work I noticed the transition, from edge to centre, a number of nested greys broken by what I guess might be primary blue, red and yellow in real life. Although I would expect the bright colours to stand out from the grey, this is not the case. There appears to be a smooth transition from “front” to “back” of the tunnel-like impression. This may of course be helped by the bright yellow centre, which suggests light at the far end of the tunnel. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the shaped canvas concept and hard edge painting, although I recognize the important contribution to our knowledge about colours and their relationships as well as their influence on the human mind. At the same time Stella intended to lead the viewer back to the notion that a canvas is a flat surface rather than adhering to the old idea of it being a “window onto three-dimensional space” (The Art Story, n.d.). I understand that this is a rebellious attitude questioning the traditional view, but for me, living in a freer art environment many decades later, it is difficult to understand the achievement and why it had to be fought for in the first place. In later years Stella returned to abstract expressionism, where the power and motion in a story is more important than the narrative itself (a famous quote of his being “What you see is what you see” (The Art Story, n.d.)). For example, he produced a series of paintings referring to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, as e.g. in “The Fountain” from 1992 (Stella, 1992).

A contemporary of Stella was the Brazilian Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), a major achievement of who was to extend the above research on the effects of colour into three-dimensional space (Gallagher, 2017). Looking at some of his installations reminds me strongly of interior design elements typically used in the 1960s and 1970s, with a short renaissance after 2000. His artistic endeavour, by leaving the canvas-bound exploration, seems to have been powerful enough to lead to the application of his findings on objects and settings of everyday use. The question that arises here, of course, is whether such installations are art or design in the first place.

Moving on to the Canadian sculptor and installation artist  Jessica Stockholder, who, born in 1959, works a generation later than the former. She is intrigued by colour and the idea that the materiality of a surface bears the capability to hold and transport fiction (Stockholder, 2011). So she started experimenting with the reactions of colour on a variety of surfaces and quickly became aware of the fact that she was dealing with physical and mental boundaries. The latter resonates strongly with me as a a biologist. Boundaries are some of the most profound prerequisites necessary to form life at all and then to keep it alive. We as living organisms are constantly struggling at our boundaries to adapt the inside to the outside and only when we die our boundaries dissolve, both in sheer being but also spiritually. So I was very curious to see how Stockholder approaches the boundary. Her artworks page (Stockholder, n.d.) has an overwhelming array of paintings and installations, which share an indulgence in bright colour.

3 August 2016. They were not exactly what I expected and to be honest I felt a bit disappointed, but serves me right, this is what happens if I allow expectations to govern what I see. So I had another look. Stockholder seems to have taken on Oiticica’s ideas and expanded his experimentation with colour to everyday objects and situations from tiny to monumental. I guess that I understand now that it is not the real objects I want to pay attention to but their many interfaces with the surrounding space (colour, texture, shape, 3D form, position in space all responding to environmental conditions) and the respective interactions extending to the people perceiving and interpreting them. For an idea of what I mean see the video of an interview with Stockholder (The University of Chicago, 2012).

Which gave me enough to think to make my brain smoke.

References:

Gallagher, A. (2017) Hélio Oiticica: Exhibition Guide [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/helio-oiticica/helio-oiticica-exhibition-guide [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stella, F. (1968-1969) Gray Scramble [oil on canvas] [online]. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/15014 [Accessed 2 August 2016]
Stella, F. (1992) The Fountain [print, relief, intaglio, stencil, collage and hand-colouring] [online]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-stella-frank-artworks.htm#pnt_1 [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stockholder, J. (2011) My Work This January 2011 [online]. Jessica Stockholder, Chicago. Available at: http://jessicastockholder.info/about/ [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stockholder, J. (n.d.) Jessica Stockholder: Art, Writing, Video Documentation [online]. Jessica Stockholder, Chicago. Available at: http://jessicastockholder.info/projects/art/ [Accessed 2 August 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.) Frank Stella. Anerican Painter and Printmaker [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-stella-frank.htm [Accessed 2 August 2016]

The University of Chicago (2012) ‘Color Jam’: A conversation with Jessica Stockholder [online]. The University of Chicago. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcZoGoqDUTg [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Assignment 2, stage 1: Preliminary research – colour and the boundary

Updated on 28 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

19 May 2016. This was another unbelievable day. I only come to realize step by step how some people use their so-called intelligence only to deceive and betray. It makes me physically sick. But it cannot be helped, we need to take care not to swallow too much of the poisonous cocktail, speaking in terms of my next project …

At this point I would like to gain as much insight as possible in the processes involved at the boundaries between colours. As a biologist I am very much aware of the crucial role boundaries have in the formation and existence of life and they are precious things maintained by subtle acts of balance across them. I guess that the boundaries between colours may work in similar ways. If the areas to either side fail to communicate (or avoid communication, that is), a painting or drawing may literally never come to life.

21 May 2016. From the previous experiments I know that both simultaneous and successive contrast work, in different ways, to strengthen existent colour differences. To me this appears similar to solutions of different concentrations separated by a membrane. If left to themselves the initially sharp boundary will become diffuse, because molecules will travel through the membrane from the higher to the lower concentration until concentrations are equal. The more unlike two colours, the larger the “concentration gradient” and the more active the communication across it, if I may say so in lay terms. For examples see e.g. Arend et al. (n.d.).
A number of optical effects is discussed by Grais (2017). Of these I need to remember that a dark background usually serves to enhance the perceived differences between colours, which is very likely the reason why working from a coloured ground is preferred by many artists. Apart from that I continue to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of seemingly similar concepts and technical terms buzzing in my head. As long as I feel I am not standing on solid ground regarding the use of the latter, I will try and keep matters simple and hands-on rather than theoretical. Which is probably, when looking at it, most other artists did and do when trying to make sense of colour relationships:

To start with, I had another look at the work of Josef Albers. Probably I should not say so, but I am not drawn to his squares, no matter how instructive they are. They remind me of the covers of some of the books we used to have at secondary school during the 1970s and 1980s. I remember well that the contents of these books was not made for children and so were those covers. Albers’ squares seem so dry and analytical that I will see whether I can force myself to copy any of them into my sketchbook as I was instructed to by my tutor. There appears to be no communication of the kind I am looking for across the boundaries of his chosen sets of colours. When comparing them to Mark Rothko’s work, I know which I prefer by miles. There is so much to find in his paintings, apart from mere colour relationships, there is tension and space, a feeling of getting drawn into or being repelled by some combinations of colours, so that I cannot help coming back to them. I wish I could put two paintings using the same colours side by side, but copyright restrictions allow only for a tiny public domain selection in both cases. It is mainly from Rothko that I decided to learn, hopefully my tutor will understand. When looking for other sources examining boundaries I also came across the work of hard-edge painter Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015, USA) (The Art Story, n.d.(a)) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) (The Art Story, n.d.(b)). For me they help to bridge the gap between Albers and Rothko, see e.g. the wavelike movement in “The Spectrum I” painted by Kelly in 1953. Moving to viewing what more complex boundaries can do in a painting I found the work of Donald Fox (Fox, n.d.) quite intriguing, and also that of Ian Davenport (Jackisnotdull, 2012), and not least Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944, Russia) famous concentric circles (Fig. 1 below). I ask myself why they had not been chosen for the covers of our art books, they are so wonderfully alive. I guess that the overwhelming number of effects to find in Kandinsky’s circles may be hard to teach, but we kill art by wanting to describe it all. I think that we should not tamper with our children’s innate mysterious connection to art. It has been destroyed in so many of us (and me!) that we struggle to regain it for a lifetime.

Vassily_Kandinsky,_1913_-_Color_Study,_Squares_with_Concentric_Circles
Figure 1. Wassily Kandinsky: “Colour Study with Squares and Concentric Circles”, 1913, watercolours, gouache and crayon on paper. Source: Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
When doing some more research on Kandinsky’s work I found his 1927 painting “Molle Rudesse”, which contains some of the “boundary effects” I would like to have present in my next assignment, including some suggestions of how to handle the flattening-out of cocktail equipment (Fig. 2):

Vassily_Kandinsky,_1927_-_Molle_rudesse
Figure 2. Wassily Kandinsky: “Molle Rudesse”, 1927, oil on canvas. Source: Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
My next steps in the sequence will thus be the following:

  1. Set up a very simple still life consisting of very few items only
  2. Experiment with a chosen pair of complementary colours in preparation for the next exercise in Mark Rothko and Kandinsky fashion according to study guide instructions (p. 69)
  3.  Produce a series of square still life studies as described above and combine on large square canvas
  4.  Repeat the exercise with colours evoking mood, also put on large square canvas
  5. Start preparations for assignment by extending the setup according to intentions

Resources:

Arend, L., Logan, A. and Havin, G. (n.d.) Simultaneous and Successive Contrast
[online]. Colour Usage Research Lab, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field. Available at: https://colorusage.arc.nasa.gov/Simult_and_succ_cont.php [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Fox, D. (n.d.) Portfolio of Windows and Doors [online]. Donald Fox, Texas. Available at: https://donaldfoxfineart.com/collections/65248 [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Grais, S. (2017) Color Context/Simultaneous Contrast [online]. DePaul University, Chicago. Available at: http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/color_context.htm [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Jackisnotdull (2012) Colour: The Language of Ian Davenport [online]. Jack is not Dull, 15 May 2012. Available at: https://jackisnotdull.com/2012/05/15/ian-davenport/ [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Kandinsky, W. (1913) Colour Study – Squares with Concentric Circles [watercolour, gouache and crayon on paper] [online]. Lenbachhaus, Munich. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vassily_Kandinsky,_1913_-_Color_Study,_Squares_with_Concentric_Circles.jpg [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Kandinsky, W. (1927) Molle rudesse [oil on canvas] [online]. Private collection. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Vassily_Kandinsky%2C_1927_-_Molle_rudesse.jpg [Accessed 28 February 2017]

Kelly, E. (1953) Spectrum I [oil on canvas] [online]. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/99.353 [Accessed 28 February 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Ellsworth Kelly: American Painter and Sculptor [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kelly-ellsworth.htm [Accessed 28 February 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Piet Mondrian: Dutch Painter [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-mondrian-piet.htm [Accessed 28 February 2017]