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Josef Albers, the Color Czar (for some folks anyway)

“In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”
–Josef Albers

“If you don’t do it my way, I suggest you commit suicide.”
–Josef Albers

How humans perceive color is not dissimilar to how humans raise a child: Even though we have been at it for thousands of years, we still don’t agree on how to do it.

Josef Albers is the artist most often associated with color theory as well as color dogmatism. The battle between the Albers method and other color systems continues in art pedagogy, a discussion I typically watch from the sidelines since I am a dogged nonreligionist on this topic. For me it has and always will be an element of art that is subjective, furtive and unexpected.

But even though I do not subscribe to any one system of thought on color, I love to read about it. I probably have over 20 books in my library on the topic. And recently I found a website that approaches color theory in a refreshingly non-doctrinaire but well informed manner. Color System is based on the research of two professors, Narciso Silvestrini and Ernst Peter Fischer, and brings together illustrated overviews of 59 different color order systems from both art and science. The list starts with theorists from antiquity (Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato) cuts through to Goethe and current approaches. The site also includes a few overviews of the significance of color in a number of cultural systems—astrological, Islamic, Liturgical, Symbolism and Heraldry among others. For anyone interested in color, this is fascinating stuff.

Extra bonus: If you enjoy playing with color and color perception, here’s a great site for you: Color is Relative

Goethe’s color wheel


Kathy Butterfly, Pillow

Sue Williams, Color Pile

Figuring Color at the ICA features works by Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin and Sue Williams. The intent of the exhibit is to explore the use of color and form to speak to the body: McMakin’s brightly colored and quirky sculptures address the human form; Butterly describes her enchantingly miniaturist ceramics as self portraits of a sort, and they are full of fleshiness, sensuality and seduction; Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of candy and plastic beads are his homage to the physical absence of a loved one; Williams’s paintings veer from R. Crumb-like portrayals of violence and war to a wanton sensuality of untethered expression, the body present throughout.

Curated by Jenelle Porter, the exhibition is on view through May 20.

The wall text did a good job of addressing the mystery that is color. A few memorable quotes:

The realm of color cannot be conquered by the intellect; it must be grasped through feeling.

–Rudolf Steiner

As I worked along, making the sculptures as they appeared in my mind’s eye, I slowly came to realize that what I was actually trying to do was to take paintings off the wall, to set color free in three dimensions for its own sake. This was analogous to my feeling for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if is some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.

–Anne Truitt

Color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if is rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

–William Gass

Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed.

–William Gass

We must again find the way to live with colors, to experience their inner life, and not just to look at them and paint with them externally. It will not help, from the point of view of painting, merely to study the play of colors by staring at them. The only way is to enter with our whole souls into the way red or blue moves, and to feel the colors’ living quality. We must bring to life what is in the color…by actually discovering what is in color, in the same way as the power of laughter is in someone who laughs.

–Rudolf Steiner

For anyone who is susceptible to the energetics of color (my hand is up), reading about it can also be intoxicating. Here are a few great books for those who revel in this inexplicably mysterious and lush bennie of life on this planet:


Written by a journalist who travels the world exploring the original sources for artist palette colors, Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay is a fascinating and readable account of everything from the ochres to the bone blacks (which originally came from burned human bone remains…I know, eaw.) Finlay makes her search an adventure.


Amy Butler Greenfield comes from a family of dyers. Combining her family background with an expertise in Renaissance Europe, A Perfect Red traces the rich and varied history of the color in Western culture. I have always loved the story of how the red found in Mexico baffled Europeans for years. Animal or vegetable? As hard as the Spanish tried to keep it a secret, the true source for that highly desirous red—the tiny cochineal insect that thrives as a parasite on the nopal cactus—was eventually exposed.


Blue does not have the ancient pedigree of the reds and yellows. In fact some historians have posited the possibility that ancient people could not decipher the color at all. Blue: The History of a Color is written by historian Michel Pastoureau who also wrote The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric. (What a title—who knew!)


These two books, The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors are written by Alexander Theroux. A literary stylist rather than an artist or historian, Theroux has written an extended poetic meditation on color more than a factual and informative account. I love to just pick up either of these two books and open it at random. Every paragraph is an invitation to a revelry of color.

Installation view of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” at the Hirshhorn Museum (Photo: Lee Stalsworth)

I have been a fan of sculptor Anne Truitt’s writing since I read her book Daybook many years ago. First published in 1982, Daybook is Truitt’s personal journal while working at Yaddo, and her insights into the squirrely nature of the creative process spoke to me. Her style is nonlinear and yet insightful, personal and yet not too. When the book came out all those many years ago, there weren’t a lot of witnessings available of how women artists were navigating that behind-the-scenes art making life. There are lots of them now.

Truitt went on to write a few other similarly styled books, like Turn and Prospect. But none had as powerful an impact on me as that initial exposure so many years ago.

Her sculpture was harder for me to connect with. A Truitt was always easy to spot because almost every piece in a public collection is a slender wooden column painted with care and artfulness. Most collections have one. I liked her essential idea—a minimalist, Supremacist project that combines 3D and a feathery fine-tuned sense of color—but my “in the flesh” experience of the work just never held me in awe.

But that all changed when I visited Truitt’s retrospective, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. This is her first major show since the 1970s and includes both paintings and sculpture from her 50 year career. (Truitt died in 2004.) In the literature that accompanies the show (curated by Kristen Hileman), the column sculptures are referred to as Truitt’s “profoundly focused practice. Acting as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist wrapped color around the corners of these sculptures, creating visually poetic relationships between structure and surface. Throughout her work, she investigated proportion, scale and color, as well as perception and memory.” Profoundly focused practice is a perfect phrase. The work has a meditative, disciplined, higher state of mind quality to it.

This is work that needs to be seen with its full gaggle of siblings. Placeholder pieces, token Truitts, cannot do the job. This is not one-up work. It is a body of art that demands your complete and undivided attention. You need to be able to lift out of the gallery, out of the museum, out of this terrestrially bound existence so that you can levitate in and around these silent, slender plinths, listening for the hum of their ethereal subtlety.

Truitt was a color ecstacist, a superlative neologism that goes beyond the everyday concept of being an ecstatic. At one point she says that the columnar format dominated her efforts to “set color free in three dimensions for its own sake,” a pursuit she saw as “analogous to my feelings for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.” That’s the language of spiritual ecstasy, of finding oneness with god. Which in Truitt’s case is the Polychroma itself.

In a video that accompanies the show, Truitt talks about her process of choosing colors. It is like listening to someone channeling in an altered state. I sat and listened to her rapture with a sense of awe and amazement. If you go, take the time to sit and hear what she is saying.

Talking about her extremely minimalist painting series called Arundel, Truitt had this to say:

In these paintings I set forth, to see for myself how they appear, what might be called the tips of my conceptual icebergs in that I put down so little of all that they refer to. I try in them to show forth the forces I feel to be a reality behind, and more interesting than, phenomena.

The reality behind and more interesting than phenomena. That nails it.

Here is a comment made on yesterday’s post that is too good not to share. Thank you Elatia Harris for this entertaining variation on “accusatory white”:

I had a friend in San Francisco who was committed to this look, but not in white. Her palette was taupe to Rymanesque ecru, this being around 1980, when very pale neutrals were elbowing “gallery white.” Designers then reasoned that absolute white was an effect you could get with paint rather than taste and money, and was therefore too achievable-looking. My friend had the thinking but not the money, so her palazzo of pale neutrals, a converted industrial space, was a project that took many years to complete. For several of those years, she stood up to watch television, because the furniture she needed for living was always just a bridge too far. I particularly recall in the early stages, when there was nothing but sheet-rock and paint, one entered an environment that was a complexity of beiges — an outlaw word, that. It’s easy to conceive of a beige surround that’s boring, but this was somehow edgy, and so thought out it could never be the usual beige that results from capitulation. I dropped in for a look with a printmaker, who told my friend, “I get it. Your house is the color of rich people’s clothing.” Leaving, the printmaker said, “It’s very dry-clean only.”


I have had a small book titled Chromophobia on my shelf since it was published in 2000. After dipping in and out of it over the last few years and being delighted and intrigued, I finally read it from stem to stern. It is a terrific, terrific book.

The author, David Batchelor, is a sculptor whose work is focused on color (or, because he is British, colour.) He also happens to be an insightful and articulate thinker, and this small book has been feeding my thinking for days.

Batchelor’s basic premise is this: “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that, in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded…As with all prejudices, its manifest form, its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable.” Drawing from sources that range from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and the philosophic writings of Aristotle, Charles Blanc, Le Corbusier and Roland Barthes among others, the book unmasks our cultural discomfort with colour.

In the process of this uncovering, Batchelor has assembled some memorable references to art and colour. Here’s a few I found particularly provocative:

The poet Joachim Gasquet, reporting some remarks made by Cezanne about looking at painting:

Shut your eyes, wait, think of nothing. Now, open them…One sees nothing but a great coloured undulation. What then? An irradiation and glory of colour. This is what a picture should give us…an abyss in which the eye is lost, a secret germination, a coloured state of grace…Lose consciousness. Descend with the painter into the dim tangled roots of things, and rise again from them in colours, be steeped in the light of them.


Cezanne, it has been argued, subscribed to the idea that a new-born child lives in a world of naive vision where sensations are unmediated and uncorrupted by the ‘veil of…interpretation.’ The work of the painter was to observe nature as it was beneath this veil, to imagine the world as it was before it had been converted into a network of concepts and objects. This world for Cezanne, was ‘patches of colour’; thus ‘to paint is to register one’s sensations of colour.’


Gustave Moreau: ‘Note one thing well: you must think through colour, have imagination in it. If you don’t have imagination, your colour will never be beautiful. Colour must be thought, imagined, dreamed.”

So much more to share from this slender volume. I will do so in upcoming posts.

Sculpture by David Batchelor