Installation view of Peter Coffin’s 2009 Jane and Marc Nathanson Distinguished Artist in Residence exhibition in the AAM Lower Gallery. Photo: Karl Wolfgang.

Peter Coffin

by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Director and Chief Curator


“Modernism constitutes, above all, the feeling that the aesthetic can only fully be realized and embodied where it is something more than the aesthetic . . . [It is] an art that in its very inner movement seeks to transcend itself as art (as Adorno thought, and without it being particularly important to determine the direction of that selftranscendence, whether religious or political).” – Fredric Jameson 1

Art that seeks to transcend itself as art offers the viewer the opportunity to move beyond the perspective of purely external or distanced looking. One means by which to achieve this is to create a place of interaction, making possible a related intellectual or emotional leap. Such transcendent opportunity is of interest to artist Peter Coffin, whose artistic practice embraces numerous media, including video and sound installation, sculpture, and photography. His artwork often playfully explores both natural and manmade phenomena, paranormal and phenomenological events, philosophy and spirituality, as well as science, pseudo science, and their relationships to subjective reality. Coffin’s Aspen Art Museum installation invites visitors to experience a heightened awareness of basic aesthetic engagement and the sensibilities associated with color. Which colors attract? Repel? Suggest power or the sublime? How do we use color to communicate the non-verbal? Seduce? Disappear? How have these associations evolved or stayed consistent over time? Without necessarily offering any answers, Coffin’s project explores the color blue as a means by which to think about and feel the possibilities. Upon entering the museum’s lower gallery space, the mass and scale of the installation, paired with its seductive luminosity, evoke the sublime.


“Just as we wish to pursue a pleasant object that moves away from us, we enjoy gazing upon blue —not because it forces itself upon us, but because it draws us after it.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 2

The pursuit of visual pleasure is among the most compelling reasons to interact with art. As the Jane and Marc Nathanson Distinguished Artist in Residence, Coffin constructed—one element at a time—an interactive, participatory environment. The structure begins with a blue 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser that Coffin spent his residency driving around the Roaring Fork Valley collecting blue objects. The car is placed in the lower gallery of the museum along with blue bunk beds and a large blue pool slide. Next, the following blue items were added: an inflatable hot tub filled with pit balls, a disco ball, bowling pins, a Christmas tree, some bean bag chairs, musical instruments, and lights. Coffin’s project is additive. Visitors to the museum are invited to share in the aesthetic experience by gathering their own blue items to add to the piece and by actively climbing around, sliding down, resting, making music, and immersing themselves in it. Coffin engages visitors in a basic process of aesthetic evaluation also utilized by the Satin Bowerbird, which creates nests solely from blue objects.


“What is blue? Blue is the invisible becoming visible… Blue has no dimensions. It ‘is’ beyond the dimensions of which other colors partake.” – Yves Klein 3

As is evidenced by Yves Klein’s attraction to the color, blue is often thought to be a color beyond color, a means by which to describe the indescribable. But each color has its own associations and power. Coffin’s research into the color blue includes the following facts: According to several rabbinic sages, blue is the color of God’s Glory. Gauloises (a French brand of cigarettes) Blue was Pablo Picasso’s favorite color. Pepsi Co. had proposed an advertising campaign that included projecting blue light onto the surface of the moon. Blue eyes have become increasingly rare among children—now only 16% of the United States population. The mystique surrounding the use of the color blue in art can be traced to the use by Renaissance artists who ground the precious stone lapis lazuli to make their pigment. The more of the color blue that appeared in the painting, the richer the patron was thought to be.


“Seen from space, the earth is blue.” – Yuri Gagarin 4

Russian astronaut Gagarin’s observation of our world from above attempts to offer a linguistically based description of something that the majority of us will never see. Giving language to experience, his utilization of a common signifier helps to familiarize the unknowable. Coffin is interested in how the spiritual, the esoteric, and the supernatural can be accessed via art. Last year Coffin flew a U.F.O. above a city in Poland. A flying saucer with LED lights, the object was both eerie and seductive.

Also installed at the Aspen Art Museum, in a horizontal band that mimics a psychedelic yet eccentric sunset, are Coffin’s series of prints produced with the Colby Poster Company in Los Angeles. The posters, which are traditionally cheaply mass-produced and plastered around urban centers, also suggest a reconstituted aesthetics. Coffin updates the three-barred color palette absent of the traditional black, stamped ink texts which suggest downscale Mark Rothko paintings of his own design. Coffin created eighty new color variations. The Colby Company liked Coffin’s color patterns so much that they incorporated some into their product range.

Coffin’s project suggests the poetic beauty that can be found in everyday objects through their unlikely juxtaposition. He offers a playful yet significant insight into how the aesthetic choices we make—and those made for us—ultimately effect how we feel in and about our environment.


1 Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998) 101-2.
2 Hannah Weitemeier, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 International Blue (Los Angeles: Taschen, 2001), 16.
3 Ibid., 19.
4 Ibid., 83.