Uwe Henneken, Chains of Freedom, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

Like color in pictures

by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Director and Chief Curator


In 1873, Walter Pater wrote, “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments’ sake.”1 Pater’s comments about the purpose and value of art reveal a conviction that art has historically served a specific and basic need, exercised a human faculty that nothing else could, and made a unique contribution to man’s understanding of the world. Previously the value of art had been characterized as utilitarian or ornamental.2 The idea that art exists for life’s sake remains relevant now. Why are we, as viewers, drawn to art? How do we feel during these encounters? What do we need or learn from art? While there are advocates for the delineation between art and life, there is a case to be made that each holds promises that the other seeks. The resulting blurring, messiness, and problems are the siren song that seduces us back. Color, in all of its ebullient glory and enigma, is one such problem.


Art has always been rife with philosophical problems. German artist Martin Kippenberger once stated, “Entertainment and art are not isolated. Entertainment is in art like color in pictures.” The implication here is that none of these terms are autonomous. Each—art, entertainment, color, pictures—is inherently linked. They need each other. This is not a bad thing, and I think there is a place in art for the intellectually taboo: beauty, humor, spirituality, entertainment, and color.


In the mid-nineteenth century, a shift from representational to expressive uses of color occurred. Interested in color theories that were becoming prevalent at the time, Vincent Van Gogh began experimenting with the use of bright, unmixed colors to heighten the expressiveness of his work. He wrote to his brother Theo on August 11, 1888, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.” Van Gogh was aware that his use of pure, undiluted color created a more vibrant, energetic effect. But he also realized that if these colors were used consistently, an overall feeling of tranquility would be achieved.3

Around the same time, the French chemist Michel Chevreul observed that “colors seemed to be influencing one another in a way that involves perception itself. Something, as yet unexplained, was happening in the eyes of the beholder.”4 These thoughts affected other experiments into color, including Pointillism, where small distinct points of primary colors were used to create the impression of a wide selection of secondary colors.5 The Impressionists, who gave color primacy over line, used short brushstrokes of unmixed color so that the colors would mingle in the eye of the viewer.6 Furthering the argument for the non-representational employment of color, James A. McNeill Whistler wrote in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890)7, “Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music!...To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.”


The debate about color—from how it is to be used to how it is perceived—ranges across the disciplines of art and science. In 1965, William Seitz curated an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called The Responsive Eye. Artists from Frank Stella to Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley were included. The exhibition addressed the perceptual aspects of art, those resulting both from the illusion of movement and the interaction of color relationships. The next year Riley began her exploration of color to achieve new optical effects. She desired to “treat color and form as ultimate identities [thereby] freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles.”8


When I was eight years old, I unknowingly entered into my first ontological and metaphysical discussion with a young friend named Bobby Sherwood. I asked him how he knew the table that separated us was brown, let alone a table. He insisted that it was brown because it was brown. Therein lies one of the problems around color: how does culture affect what we can see?9 Assertions here are as varied as they are numerous. The American color scientist Ogden N. Rood recognized a natural order of colors. Yellow was placed at the top. The American art historian and color consultant Faber Birren, in his book Color and Human Response (1978), explores the biological, visual, emotional, aesthetic, and psychic effects of color on people.

What does an artist think? More problems. In his book Chromophobia (2000), artist and writer David Batchelor argues that the pure pleasure of color has been unacknowledged or repressed in our culture because it does not fit within our social constructs.10 His central argument is that a chromophobic impulse (a fear of corruption or contamination through color) lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought.11 Hence the alternating cool/uncool role of the use of color in art. This shifting between the poles of esteem and disdain has also occurred, historically, with beauty and spirituality in art. Like color in pictures acknowledges this phenomenon. Why would we not want beauty, spirituality, and color in art?12


In 2004, Laura Hoptman curated the most dire and bleak Carnegie International in years. Offering that the collection of work presented was a reaction to the world after 9/11, Hoptman’s exhibition, albeit timely, was downright depressing. Two years later, while we are still at war and our country has suffered the devastation of hurricane Katrina, artists have abruptly changed tack. Their approach can be characterized as an exuberant use of color. Perhaps it is an irrational exuberance, but it is also color as peace offering, color as joy, color as a search for community.


This exhibition and book are divided into five sections. The sections themselves—color as emotion, color as persona, color as décor, color as environment, and color as humor—are updated riffs on the traditional art historical categories of genre, portraiture, still-life, landscape, and history. The selection of artists, as is the case for most exhibitions, is highly subjective.


Color as emotion examines artists who use the affective associations of color as central elements in their work. Each artist employs color in ways that specifically evoke emotion. While I am not suggesting that they utilize specific theories on how to do so, each of these artists has done so successfully.


Chiho Aoshima uses a giant printer to create large-scale digital works featuring a unique world of big-eyed girls, hybridized nature, and candy-colored environments. She devises astonishing, highly artificial palettes. The spaces she creates have a disorienting, fantastic quality: up and down cannot be distinguished, and the locations—orbital, sub-aquatic, or purely imaginary—cannot be determined. Strawberry Fields (2003) is seductive, sweet, and savvy.

Byron Kim’s Sunday Paintings (2001) are part of an ongoing conceptual project. The term “Sunday painter” connotes someone who is not a professional artist but rather a dabbler. Kim’s paintings can be located within an art historical continuum of serial explorations of a specific location or subject. He paints these works when he feels inspired to do so, and not all of them are done on Sundays. For example, one was painted on September 11, 2001, a Tuesday. The works are nearly monochromatic studies of the color of the sky. They are also diaristic, recording his feelings, thoughts, or actions in the handwritten pencil texts along the bottom of the image. They are intimate and moving.


Peter McDonald’s paintings and drawings feature big-headed figures teaching about art, making paintings in the studio, or traveling through airports. The emotions these scenes evoke range from creative inspiration to trepidation to love. In Winnebago (2004) , the colors of the heads imply gender. They overlap to denote a shared thought—that they would rather be somewhere other than driving in the car. The good news is that the place they desire to be—the studio—is also shared.


In color as persona, the relationship between color and portraiture is explored. Traditionally, portraits represent a specific person or group of people. They are usually an attempt to create an accurate likeness of the viewer, as well as to reveal something about the subject’s personality or psychology.


The figures in Hernan Bas’s work are often self-portraits, multiple renditions of his physical likeness repeated over and over. At the same time, they are also highly stylized—sullen, otherworldly, and aloof. It is the palette—deep blacks, regal purples, and pearly whites—that creates this effect.


When Basil Hallward, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, states, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,”13 he could be describing the practice of Elizabeth Peyton. Peyton’s own persona is revealed through her obsessive, fan-like rendering of friends and celebrities. Stylistically consistent, her use of color displays a sense of reverence and worship through its intensified hues.

Brett Cody Rogers’s portraits take the form of classical male portraits, similar to those of heads of state or major corporations: a bust-centric, three-quarter view of a man in a suit and tie. Rogers’s figures have their facial features replaced by abstractions. Each is unique. Despite the unconventional pictorial use, color is employed here toward the traditional ends of capturing personality and essence.


In Andro Wekua’s Schwarzmerrbewohner / Black Sea Habitants (2004) , colored lines are used to convey the thoughts and internal energy of the sitter. In another work, the artist has erased the face of the sitter, highlighting the importance of his gesture and framing devices. The hand and role of the artist are thereby projected into the picture itself.


The ornamental qualities of color are investigated in color as décor. Differing from the nineteenth-century definition of the ornamental in art, here the term is used to illuminate the intentionally fine line between art and design.


The laying of patterns in Ernesto Caivano’s work evokes the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement and artists such as Robert Kushner, as well as pre-modern Japanese ink drawing. Caivano’s use of color is deliberate and spare. In Arbor Axis (Body of Leaves) (2006), color is used as overlay, as punctuation. Henriette Grahnert can be similarly reductive. Color is used for its functionality in Grosses Gewaechs (Big Plant) (2005), a graphic two-dimensional color study.


Mark Grotjahn’s paintings and drawings often employ a form that he refers to as a “butterfly,” a vertical column with a series of diagonal lines radiating outward. His use of color is dynamic and mesmerizing. As Shamim Momin writes, “The percussive cadences created by the use of color and form reverberate with a tension alternately pleasurable, anxious, or melancholic.”14 In Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn) (2004), Grotjahn uses a contrasting color that peeks out from underneath the finished, monochromatic overpainting. The negative space peeled away from the surface of the painting reveals the artist’s signature. A comic play on self-aggrandizement, it also evokes a reference to the fabulous 1970s designer Vera.


Mindy Shapero’s drawings and sculptures were one of the original inspirations for this exhibition. An unabashed, orgiastic display of amalgamated color, her work is simultaneously beautiful and alarming. Burnt Rainbow (2004) is telling, a freestanding sculpture with an erected, charred rainbow form rising above a rainbow platform. As rainbows are special, fleeting mirages of promise, why would, or could, one ever be subjected to fire? Here, in addition to its formal application, color is used to achieve a metaphorical and narrative complexity.


Color as environment brings together artists for whom color has the potential to contain, delimit, and characterize space. These spaces become metaphoric, fantastic, futuristic, and seemingly functional, providing contemporary takes on the meaning of imaginary and real space.


In Polly Apfelbaum’s Townsville (2000), the connection of hundreds of small, dyed circles of velvet placed one upon the other implies a path. Visually following it into the center of the spiral, one ends up in a place not much different from where one began. The title re-emphasizes this generic quality.


Torben Giehler’s Circling Overland (2002) depicts a fifth-dimensional space. He devises a city-like grid with hot spots and color coding where specific places are designated by different colors. Tomorrow World (2001) envisions a future where things get upended.


Uwe Henneken’s Chains of Freedom (2006) is another work with a dichotomous title. The work depicts colorful chains floating in space, referring not only to chains of freedom, but also to DNA and other structures that offer both connection and opportunity. In Walter (2006), the area around the figure suggests his psyche as well as somewhere fantastic and imaginary.


Kelly McLane’s spaces also seem hallucinatory and impossible to inhabit. “L.A.R.P., Almost Beautiful” (Brine) (2005) contains elements that are difficult to identify. Perhaps there is a blue ocean? Or fabric? Or carpet? The white streaks appear to be beacons of light. “L.A.R.P., Almost Beautiful” (Where Ophiliacs Go to Die) (2005) is a similarly seductive, unknown environment where color is used to achieve a phantasmal quality.


The color in Jim Hodges’ Untitled (Border) (2000) is subtle. It is the color of memory, already faded at the moment of formation.


Jessica Stockholder’s Untitled (2003) and Untitled (2006) create seemingly nonsensical sculptural relationships. They are idiosyncratic amalgams, works that could easily fit in any of these categories.


Color as humor comprises artists who deploy color for ironic or comedic purposes. I am using the notion of humor in a playful way—work that is light, amusing, engaging, and fun. While my implication is in no way derogatory, this is the one category that was questioned by every artist included. One artist even demanded re-classification. Inherent in this discomfort is the idea that if art is funny or humorous, it is consequently less serious or sincere.


Tony Feher told me that it makes him nervous when people laugh while looking at his work. I often find myself smiling more than laughing around Feher’s sculptures, mostly because they bring me great pleasure. Sis (2006) is made of potato chip bags turned inside out to literally reveal their silver lining. Feher has punched holes in the bags, adding an air of lightness and grace. Around their openings, each coyly suggests a glimmer of what it once was, teasing with a bit of its true color.


Trenton Doyle Hancock has created an elaborate, idiosyncratic narrative system. His mythology is far-ranging, involving three sections with differing identities based on food consumption, sexual conquest, and color. Both hilarious and creepy, Hancock’s work becomes an entire written and illustrated theory of color and how it is disseminated.


In like a willow bends (2006), Sarah Cain paints vibrant colors onto dead leaves. Strewn in a corner as if having recently fallen from a tree and arrived with a gust of wind, the color is surprising and playful.

Because color is elusive in art as well as in life, it is a subject that allows talk of harmony as well as of difference. Because there are so many shades of gray, there is the possibility to acknowledge that full and complete understanding and agreement are perhaps unnecessary. Because if we can come close to seeing things in a similar—albeit not the same—way, then there exists great hope. Problems afford opportunities. It is in this pursuit that perhaps art still continues to exist for life’s sake.



1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance (Oxford, 1873), 238-39.
2 Iredell Jenkins, “Art for Art’s Sake,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas,
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv1-18, accessed January 4, 2007.
3 Norm Nason, “Vincent Van Gogh and Aesthetic Guilt,” The Scream Online, April 2004, http://www.thescreamonline.com/art/art4-2/vangogh/vangogh.html, accessed January 4, 2007.
4 Calvin Harlan, Vision & Invention: An Introduction to Art Fundamentals
(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986), 86.
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointilism, accessed January 4, 2007.
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressionism, accessed January 4, 2007.
7 James A. McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (London, 1890), 142-43.
8 http://www.mishabittleston.com/artists/bridget_riley/, accessed January 4, 2007.
9 Peter Eleey, in an email conversation with the author, January 5, 2007.
10 Joe Fyfe, “The Horrible Hues,” www.artnet.com, February, 2001,
http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/index/fyfe/fyfe2-13-01.asp, accessed January 4, 2007.
11 Reaktion Books (October 1, 2000), Chromophobia, Press release.
12 With differing approaches to the topic, there have been some other recent exhibitions and publications that also explore color in contemporary art: What Sound Does a Color Make?, curated by Kathleen Forde; Pink: The Exposed Color in Contemporary Art, edited by Barbara Nemitz; and Chromophilia: the love of color, a visual response to David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, curated from his own collection and presented in his home by Mark P. Addison.
13 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London, 1891), ch. 1.
14 Shamim M. Momin, “Mark Grotjahn,” Whitney Museum of American Art, September 15, 2006 – January 7, 2007, exhibition brochure, n/p.


The excellent research done by Matthew Thompson and the email dialogue I shared with Peter Eleey on art and life as well as the problems of color informed this text. I am grateful to them both.