Eye Candy

Julian Bell

  • Colour in Art by John Gage
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £9.95, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 500 20394 1

At the corner of Marsham Street and Horseferry Road stands the new Home Office building, designed by Terry Farrell and Partners. It was opened in 2005 and everything still looks just as it should. Along the Marsham Street frontage big plinths present crisp rectangles of grass and brimming water, orderly packages of the organic. The long, grey slatted façade that rises above them is punctuated by a white lattice over the entrance, a schematic town plan composed of 64 variously chopped-up chequers. And then, overhead, the building’s length is crowned by a further grid, a canopy of large panes looking through to the sky. Acrylic film sealed between the glass sheets turns the daylight scarlet, turquoise, sharp yellow, light green and bluish mauve.

The array seems to distil many of the experiences of colour currently on offer in urban Britain. It translates the patterns of dresses, T-shirts, shopping bags and car paint passing along the Horseferry Road; it’s echoed by commercial and institutional showrooms; it enlarges on the toolbars capping my computer screen. Colours dangle, detached. They arrive as substanceless, causeless, add-on effects in an environment not otherwise deemed to have colour. The ocean in which these arbitrary islands float may in principle be white – that, famously, has been the ideal for interiors where Modernist art is displayed. Or, more likely, in the cooler design manners of recent years, something less absolute – creams, cloud-greys, the self-effacing neutralities of MDF and cement. Such backdrops are the stalls, and bright colours are the goods. They are the quintessential sign behind shopping, browsing, culture-sampling and tourism.

You might read the Home Office street front as an aspirational allegory. On ground level, we are supplied with nature, the raw stuff of the world. Over that, we impose our urban grids, our political structures. Yet, ultimately, we reach up towards ‘quality’, a je ne sais quoi represented by these rainbow intensifications of the London sky. But probably the building’s adornments are not meant to spell out anything quite that didactic. Their creator, Liam Gillick, who graduated from Goldsmiths in 1987, has shaped his practice out of coloured plastic panels and printed texts. His environments and his writings are characteristically centreless and elliptical in effect; at the same time, they are noisy, with a will to provoke. He talks about affecting people through ‘an adjustment of things, which works through default’ and he puts forward his ambiences as catalysts for ‘discussion’. Occasionally, he turns this dialogue inwards, into the artwork itself – discreetly, as you round the Westminster street corner, a succession of angled stained-glass screens at pavement level draws you in to deeper and deeper compounded overlaps of colour. I enjoy that, and I also like the kaleidoscopic glints with which the building’s canopy spangles the tarmac and stone below.

But something about its acid yellow, turquoise and keen green jangles me. Gillick’s array of insistently synthetic tints feels less like a reference to consumerism than a grammar of it. I wish that grammar would express something; I wish it were about something. If only its greens related more to the grass below, if only its blues were not so alien to the skies they refract. Must colour be so set against both nature and transcendence? Doesn’t that make colour a kind of emptiness, not so much an ultimately desirable je ne sais quoi as an anomalous, feelingless nothing-in-particular? I suppose these negative reactions are allowed for by the open-ended principle of ‘discussion’. Probably, Gillick is just the right artist to lend the most hapless of government departments a visual profile loosely suggestive of pluralist benevolence. But the mood of his democracy of colours is quizzical and just a little wry.

Epithets like ‘disenchanted’ come to mind. That is because I have been reading the latest of John Gage’s books, Colour in Art. Gage’s achievement, here and in Colour and Culture (1993) and its successor Colour and Meaning (1999), is to tinge colour with time like no writer before. His curious and scrupulous mind teases out countless nuances in our experiences of visual art. His insights sprawl in all directions, from classical antiquity to Aboriginal culture, from heraldry to neurology to the colourman’s trade, and it is hard to delineate a single dominant theme. But in the present volume, the centre ground is occupied by Modernism, and the various hopes that 19th and 20th-century artists invested in colour. In that light one wants to periodise an artist like Gillick. As with many artists who emerged in the late 1980s, he seems to glance back at bygone cultural positivity in a semi-ironical spirit. Compare Peter Halley and his ‘prison’ paintings of dayglo grids, which revisit Modernist design as a malign scheme of social control, or the affectless mixer-machine colour binges of Damien Hirst’s ‘spin’ and ‘spot’ paintings.

Such sardonic palettes backhandedly acknowledge some past age of innocence, a heyday of fervent belief. When was colour? Should we think back to the passion of postwar Americans for acrylic and metallic surfaces, for keeping the ‘paint as good as it was in the can’, in Frank Stella’s phrase? Or to the trenchant insistence on primary red, blue and yellow in the interwar Modernisms of Mondrian and the Bauhaus? The usual consensus is to place colour’s prime in the forty years from 1880, the era when chemistry’s heftiest products came forward to dominate the canvas: cadmium yellow, alizarin crimson, viridian, cerulean. A clamour of innovators – Gauguin, Van Gogh, the Fauves, the Expressionists, Kandinsky – all pitched in to intensify colour experience, to subsume all other aspects of art within it, to charge it up with spiritual content.

Their initiatives form the dispersed highlights of Gage’s text, which is organised by theme – colour in relation to psychology, language, shape etc – rather than chronology. The period is one of art history’s most heavily worked veins, yet approached from these angles it still yields riches. What fabulous chimeras they chased after, back then. In the wake of Baudelaire dreaming up his ‘correspondences’ of colour and sound, artists began to cherish the notion that every kind of sensory input might converge, so as to pitch participants onto some indefinable plane of transformed consciousness. Synaesthesia became a sign of spiritual election. Scriabin’s colour keyboard of 1915, each key triggering a different hue to be projected in a melody-dependent light show, may be the best known synaesthetic extravaganza, but, as Gage drily records, Scriabin had been outdone twenty years earlier by a Symbolist production of The Song of Songs at Paris’s Théâtre des Arts:

The opening scene, presenting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was decorated in purple, the score was of C-major chords and the perfume was incense. Later scenes matched yellow with the scent of hyacinths, green with lily, and so on. The poet Paul Fort remembered that ‘the projections changed colour with each change of scene and followed the various degrees of emotion rhythmically, while all the sweet scents flowed out.’ They flowed a little too abundantly for some of the audience, who found them nauseous, and the work had a very short run.

Another quasi-Symbolist scheme that flowered in the 1910s was the identification of colours with shapes. The essential form of red is square; that of blue, circular; of yellow, triangular. So proposed Kandinsky in On the Spiritual in Art (1912), and in his great abstract Compositions which followed, thereby departing from his mentor, Adolf Hoelzel, who had associated red with the circle. Malevich picked up on Kandinsky’s notion (‘I have arrived at pure colour forms,’ he declaimed in his Suprematist manifesto of 1915). Looking back over these whimsical doctrines, and sniffing the banal analogies (red bricks, blue domes of heaven) that probably underlay them, you might reckon that the whole line of speculation was a daft non-starter. The value of Gage’s steady inquisitiveness is that he can persuade you to be patient with it. He comes to his interdisciplinary expertise from a background in painting, and retains an informed sympathy for the elusive, not wholly attainable objectives that have drawn artists forwards.

Arguably, the ur-objects behind 20th-century art are the ‘gifts’ that Friedrich Froebel, founder of the kindergarten, devised in the 1830s to help children learn through play: an innovative system of abstract building blocks, some of them brightly coloured, intended to symbolise the fundamental constituents of experience. Froebel’s elemental schemes definitely influenced Frank Lloyd Wright, and also, so Norman Brosterman has conjectured, Mondrian and Klee. His blocks at least provide a concrete milestone on the winding pathways connecting studio practice and scientific speculation, an elusive network that Gage does his best to map in all three of his books. Previously, in Germany, Goethe had tried to outline a Theory of Colours grounded wholly in viewers’ perceptions. His approach was broadly prescient of later Impressionism, psychology and phenomenology, though it fell foul of most physicists, who stuck by the text Goethe wanted to undermine, the authoritative Opticks, published a century before by Isaac Newton. Did either have an effect on painting? It’s true that the elderly Turner read Goethe with critical sympathy, and Gage also shows that Newton’s spectrum features here and there in 18th-century iconography. But these major theorists of colour sidled their way into the studio by the back route, if at all. There is hardly any such thing as Newtonian or Goethean art.

So what kind of a history is there? There are the chromatic resources supplied by science, starting with Newton’s unification of natural light and colour in 1704, followed by the late 18th-century growth of inorganic chemistry – and, eventually, by electricity, film and holography. And then, starting rather later, there comes a time when those resources seem expressive and content-filled; when artists don’t hesitate to read science against the reductionist grain, co-opting cadmium, chrome or neon with full-hearted zeal as if these glowing materials could embody the soul’s desires. But somewhere in the course of the 20th century, the hegemony of the hueless – the rule of white and grey, the ‘chromophobia’ on which David Batchelor published a lively essay in 2000 – creeps in. The promise of bright colour retreats or gets privatised, and a patch of fierce scarlet here or vibrant viridian there henceforward becomes little more than a trigger for consumer salivation.

That would be one very streamlined reading of colour’s trajectory. There could be any number of counter-histories, of course. In the earlier 20th century, even while Matisse and Bonnard were at their most chromatically lyrical, there was a subversive scatter of wised-up, down-in-the-mouth colourists – Sickert, Orpen, Hopper – who clawed a poetry out of acidity and dirt. Turning to the present day, Gage remarks the fact that technophilia persists in computer artists’ exploration of ‘intense and bizarre’ colour effects like those produced by thermal imaging. Or turn to a point in between and think of 1960s painting: Warhol, Stella, John Hoyland. Is one to describe their use of acrylics as expressing sheer exuberance, or alternatively as signalling a complete, anaesthetising annulment of emotion?

The historical strands that Gage has to consider concerning colour weave in and about one another in complex tangles, and discussing an issue that involves so many appeals to sensibility is inevitably a delicate task. Keeping his assertions in suspense, entertaining all points of view with scholarly courtesy, Gage shows in his three books how substantive statements can be made in this slippery territory. The new volume, it should be said, is part supplement, part layman’s lead-in to Colour in Culture, Gage’s magnum opus. (As such, it is marred by an indigestible attempt to compress all the basics of optical science into its second paragraph. Otherwise Gage’s prose is lucid, but prevalently medium-paced: his argumentation is too scrupulous ever to gather much speed.) I take his discussion of Modernism in this book to provide a special case of the larger-scale histories he has pursued elsewhere.

The ur-objects behind all colour in art would seem to be the chunks of red ochre left at palaeolithic campsites, long before cave painting started. (Red is the only part of the spectrum that all languages concur in demarcating roughly alike.) Humans find something that stands apart in the visual field and that will mark skin and other surfaces and transform them. Precious stones later joined ochres in currency, along with native gold. The relative rarity, hence the strangeness of such substances, and the prospect that contact with them will somehow change the bearer, are fundamental to the deployment of colour in art. The development of ancient technologies such as dyeing, gilding and glass-making only compounded and complicated this psychology of material allure; and industrial technologies fed the same pattern of response.

In some ways the late 19th-century colour explosion was a recursion to the love of rich, absorptive colour seen in medieval tapestries, mosaics and jewellery. But another aspect of chromophilia must be factored in. Because colour has always been the stuff of transformation and transcendence, its many hues must be set in place and invested with meaning within whatever myths preside. That agenda prompted ancient schemes of chromatic harmonisation, hypotheses that would eventually be honed into modern science. And thus, in the past two centuries, theory has created its own new artifices of hue: yet more enticing, yet more alien, at first. Now, though, they have become mass-available; and – as Gage observes, apropos of the ‘community art’ of twiddling the contrast enhancement button on the TV – ‘freedom devalues.’

Yet ochre was nothing other than a kind of earth, and there have always been urges to ground colour, to reunify it with nature. There is both the instinct to tie down pigments to the bodies they represent and the wish to locate them firmly as properties of a certain terrain. Interacting with these is the anxiety about the exotic that can arise among cultural elites: the ancient chromophobia of Roman orators denouncing ‘Asiatic’ luxury, or of the Chinese literati despising Mongol gaudiness. One tactic that plays to these feelings is the recourse to an intentionally earthy palette, such as occurs in Spanish painting: a virtuous austerity of hue. The problem today is that such a sense of authentic locatedness is far to seek. Gage casts an eye over the Aboriginal painting boom that started in the late 1970s, when buyers flocked to an art whose tawny sand-chalk-and-charcoal harmonies truly seemed to belong to the outback. It is maybe not surprising that the artists themselves had few such sentimental feelings and were keen to embrace vibrant paint-store synthetics as fast as they could.

They joined the flow towards excess, which is where the currents of colour habitually head. The whole subject is, as Batchelor remarks in Chromophobia, a ‘scandal’ in terms of logical economy. Why has evolution been so prodigal in resourcing the retina? We could make our way around the world with far fewer hues. That has long been the fastidious intellectual’s reproach to nature. Witness Charles Le Brun, warning the class of 1672 at the Académie royale not to approach ‘the ocean of colour, wherein so many seeking refuge have drowned’. Gage has a larger and more wondering mind. He is that rare thing, an instinctual complexity theorist, roving the ocean’s endlessly fractal coastline and staring out to sea.