…Eugene Delacroix, occupied one day in painting yellow drapery, tried in vain to give it the desired brilliancy and said to himself: “How did Rubens and Veronese find such brilliant and beautiful yellows?” He resolved to go to the Louvre, and ordered a carriage. It was in 1830, when there were in Paris many cabs painted canary color; one of these was brought to him. About to step into it, Delacroix stopped short, observing to his great surprise that the yellow of the carriage produced violet in the shadows, He dismissed the coachman, entered his studio full of emotion, and applied at once the law he had just discovered, that is, that the shadow is always slightly tinged with the complement of the color, a phenomenon that becomes apparent when the light of the sun is not too strong, and “our eyes,” as Goethe says “rest upon a fitting background to bring out the complementary color.”
Charles Blanc, The Grammar of Painting, and Engraving, translated by Kate N. Doggett, Chicago, 1889.
When artists started using paint straight from the can in the 1960s and early ’70s, they forfeited their personal take on color and gave themselves over to the dictates of the mass market…With the arrival of fast-drying acrylics and other mass-produced paints heavily marketed to a nation of do-it-yourselfers, art began to resemble a ready-made commodity, taking its hues from packaging, billboards, magazines and comic strips.
Paint By Numbers, Li Edelkoort
“Well then, my friend,” said he, “to begin with, the earth when seen from above is said to look like those balls that are covered with twelve pieces of leather; it is divided into patches of various colors, of which the colors which we see here may be regarded as samples, such as painters use. But there the whole earth is of such colors, and they are much brighter and purer than ours…
In the above quotes we begin to understand the difference between vision and optics, between the color wheel and the color chart. For Delacroix color brilliance can be found through the complimentaries and values of shadows, in the vision of experience. In our Postmodern age we find our color in the hues of commerce, through the optics of desire. The first is sloppy, fleshy, messy, natural – color found in life and in memory. The second is clear, clean, manufactured, ‘real’ – color found through a collective and through programs. And finally, there is the surprising Platonic idea that runs beneath our electronic world of light speed and light screens – heavenly color – color unimaginable – brighter, purer, seen from above. You’ll find that sort of color on your flatscreen – pulsating and irradiating into your eyes. It is hyperactivated color, direct color, color better than that in the can, color of light and speed.
The other day as I looked from my window onto Times Square, projected color was slashing around from the mirrored buildings and electronic light screens onto everything and everyone in the area creating a spectacle of Socratic godly hue. And all of it, ALL OF IT, was the brilliant color of advertising. ADVERTISING! These jewel-like colors, floating in the air, this vast sensate factory of hyper-activated optical hue, is nothing more than advertising by corporations done to stoke one’s desire to consume something. I am transfixed by it, I’ll admit, but I can not get past the feeling that Socrates’ idea of celestial color seen from above is a sham – nothing more than a come on for Toshiba or Coca-Cola. It’s here that chromophilia becomes chromophobia – the meaning of color, the need of color, is reduced to buying and selling – pure electronic color IS pure commerce. I recognize this as the legacy of Postmodernism and the 1960s. “As good as it is in the can…” was revolutionary and radical then – today, it is institutional, mannered and expected – something that one purchases.
Bronzino, the Florentine Mannerist, loved his jewel tones and dressed his subjects in Neo-Platonic other-wordly hues. He would lay these colors against dark grounds and glaze them over grisaille forms, building up the layers of hue until the painting really began to hum with optical clarity and deep-set values. This sort of color is like our flatscreen color, but it’s still tied to the reflective, the materiality of paint, glaze and varnish. Today our paints are saturated with hue, bound in new chemicals that don’t dilute the optical kick. The paint in the can is nearly pure color, and it binds to every surface, every structure without a loss of intensity. The paint can be glossy or dull, bright or dark, translucent or opaque and each of these tonalities gives the color a different luster. You name it, the applied color and the application surface become one and the same thing, and because of this, one need not develop relationships of color – the hue remains independent of other hue. We do not look to the shadows for luminosity or brilliance. The optical independence of one color from another creates a sustainable brilliance and independent sheen – every hue remains differentiated, self-contained – a readymade. That brilliance comes right out of the can, and more tellingly, it comes right out of our flatscreens. Color as readymade, color as color chart, color as pure light – this is the final outcome of Modernism’s colorist legacy of emotion and spirituality. This is Postmodernism’s endgame – color divorced from physical meaning. POMO color is chosen for its optical impact, but mostly, it is used to create a simulacrum, a real unreality of hue.
Color when used like this derails meaning, connection, or visual understanding. Now in my severe misreading of David Batchelor’s wonderfully brilliant book Chromophobia, I’ve come to understand that POMO color is anti-color. It is color used as a camouflage or cosmetic to disengage or discount the meaning and visual force of color. To put it simply we have replaced natural color, the color we encounter in our physical natures with the color of the simulacra, the color of the “real.”
“Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of color is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Color is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.” (italics are mine)
Postmodernism’s use of color, however, encompasses both of these forms of chromophobia in order to drain the force of meaning from our encounter with color. We’ve discussed this in the examples of Richter, Heilmann, and Yuskavage. In their works we are swamped with color, but it is color that goes no further than the surface. This color is part of the critique of Modernist color, the critique of visual meaning. It does not emote or inspire – it is there to entice, to show, to consume, while it remains wholly on the surface. It doesn’t move beyond the optical, it remains a product, straight out of the can, self contained and isolated. This color is about design, customization, decoration. It is the readymade found on the color chart. This is how Postmodern color differs from Modernist color. In Modernism color was about an emotional or spiritual connection, color was chosen specifically to appeal not just to a sense of design, but to a deeper experience of visual interaction, one tied to meaning. The Postmodern world is about context, about the impossibility of meaning or narrative, and so, the color remains inscrutable. It develops discontinuities rather than relationships.
Postmodernists, like Peter Halley, instinctively understand this idea. In his work Halley has tried to reconnect abstraction to meaning, and he has done so through a post-structural critique of meaning derived from signs, plans, flowcharts, and simple schematic structures. His abstract imagery, a turn away from Postmodernism’s critique, contains a subtext of the fear, conformity and isolation that happens in these grids. His geometric allusions, the cell and the conduit, refer to the endless self-referencing that are the products of these graphs and flows. But even as he tries to reinvest meaning into the Modernist paradigm of geometric abstraction, he uses color in the accepted, expected Postmodern way – the customizing chart rather than the flowing wheel – straight out of the can. Color plays a major role in Halley’s work, but it remains a cosmetic color, a consumerist color of application, as series after series of the same abstract structures arrive on the wall in every color, for every taste (like choosing color chips in Home Depot’s paint department) – sucking the meaning out of the abstract structures of the paintings. In these paintings “color is either dangerous or trivial or it is both.” This is Postmodern consumerist color at its zenith. It is the intense, brilliant, wonderful color of a true Chromophobe indulging in optical hue, and it keeps Halley trapped in the simulacra of the Postmodern tradition.
Both Bronzino and Halley approach meaning and color in the same way – both are Mannerists. They are involved in the artificiality of experience, the unreal in Bronzino’s time and the hyper-real in Halley’s. The artificial defines the expected reality, and in turn, the simulacra replaces the natural. Reality is constantly in flux, it is redefined through our culture. We accept reality or change it as we go along. The natural, on the other hand, remains tied to our bodies and our physicality. I find this point to be imperative as we struggle to understand a new idea of color – it is the idea that the natural has been, will always be, replaced by the “real.” This is where I start my painting in the studio. What part of my natural experience, my physical experience can I impart through the “real” of culture? We live in the world of the flat screen and the color chart. Color is everywhere but it is no longer specific to our physical natures, it exists outside of our experiences. Unlike Pollock, I can not claim to be nature, that is no longer the case, and I can’t live for color in his way. But neither am I a machine, like Warhol, and I can not replicate the color of the lens/machine world. I do not believe the Postmodern ‘reality’ of the replicating lens, nor can I fully engage the natural color of Modernism. When I pick up my brush I must always find a way between the two.
So I leave you with this from David Batchelor’s book –
“Colour is both a fall into nature, which may in turn be a fall from grace or a fall into grace, and against nature, which may result in a corruption of nature or freedom from its corrupting forces. Colour is a lapse into decadence and a recovery of innocence, a false addition to a surface and the truth beneath that surface. Colour is disorder and liberty; it is a drug, but a drug that can intoxicate, poison or cure. Colour is all of these things, and more besides, but very rarely is colour just neutral.”
This states the idea that color is not neutral, that color can be meaningful, and for me, this is the sand in the oyster.
Color will continue…