Wednesday, January 6, 2010


At the beginning of life, one is only able to distinguish a few colors – red, black, bright blue, and strong contrasting pattern . When one is learning to speak one starts with simple one syllable words: “mom”, “dad”, “dog”, “up”. As infants grow and their vision and vocabulary become more complex, they build sentences, learn grammar, and eventually put complex ideas together into stories. Along a similar trajectory, their vision develops, the colors of the world become easier to distinguish, and they develop visual as well as verbal vocabularies.

The idea of one’s understanding of color becoming more developed over time also translates into art education. As art students, one begins the study of painting with monochromatic studies and limited palettes. Slowly, an artist will add colors and variety to her palette, until as a mature artist, she settles into a selection of colors that best help her to communicate her ideas. The relationship between color and communication is what interests me. How do words and color work together, or not? What is the relationship between color and verbal expression? Color and control? Color and power? These are large questions that artists, scientists and philosophers have been exploring for generations, but in this paper, I will closely examine excerpts from readings that have caught my attention, and in doing so will clarify my own relationship to color in my practice.

In his book, Chromophobia, David Batchelor describes color as “Silent”.

Silence. The silence that colour may provoke is a mark of its power and autonomy. Silence is how we have to voice our respect for that which moves us beyond language (83).
Does color communicate silently? The elements of art (color, line, value, shape, texture, space, form) all have the ability to communicate emotion and ideas to the viewer of a painting. Of these elements though, color carries with it the strongest power to elicit complex associations, both symbolic and sensory, from the viewer. Josef Albers, in his book, Interactions of Color, discusses the symbolic associations with color that are common in Western culture (Albers, 48).

For example, in the United States the color red may express political conservatism, danger, or passion. This can only mean that as a Western culture, we have already helped to form and ingest a language that color speaks. We hear color.

Because of these powerful associations, color is a very effective communicator. Color inspires memories, ideas and emotions, which are often translated into words. Poets throughout history have used color as a descriptive tool to help them paint images and inspire associations, with words. This would not be possible without the strong link between color and verbal language. Color has a voice. The voice of color can be heard not only in the poet, but in the critic, the educator, the passionately moved, and empathetic viewer. Color speaks through us with our own words and is given another life through our verbal expressions.

I read, I see. I see, I speak. Our senses and our mind operate together and we communicate with one another about our experiences. Color’s voice becomes more eloquent and articulate as the maker, the viewer, or we, become more developed through our education, life experience, or practice. The visual vocabularies that we build through looking with our eyes, and remembering with our imagination, hold thousands of colors that are linked to experiences, emotions, and ultimately words. Poets have used the power of these associations consistently over hundreds of years. The following is from Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, The Sphinx:

Sea waves are green and wet,

But up from where they die,

Rise others vaster yet,

And those are brown and dry.

This next poem is from Robert Frost's Sand Dunes:

Up rose the merry Sphinx,

And crouched no more in stone;

She melted into purple cloud,

She silvered in the moon;

She spired into a yellow flame;

She flowered in blossoms red

This poem is from Divina Commedia by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

With snow-white veil and garments as of flame,

She stands before thee, who so long ago

filled thy young heart with passion and woe.

The following is from Winter Memories by Henry David Thoreau:

Within the circuit of this plodding life

There enter moments of an azure hue

And finally, this poem is from From Emily Dickinson's 'n Winter, in My Room:

In winter, in my room,

I came upon a worm

Pink, lank, and warm.

A familiarity with the language of color, and a strong verbal vocabulary, work together to facilitate communication between the arts. The play between word and image enhances our experience of both art forms. We hear what we see. We see what we hear.

Silence is not color’s power. The power of color is within its effective ability to inspire further expression through language. Color has an innate power in this sense, and powerful things are often a threat to those that feel insecure. The need to define and control power is a reoccurring theme in Baxter’s analysis of Chromophobia . Although Baxter cites many compelling examples of efforts to mute or manage color by those that are threatened by its power, I see examples of its selective use by those in power for their own communicative needs. For instance, colors are used by groups of individuals to express identity, ideas, and inspire loyalty. Examples of this type of communication with color are the flags of countries, paper money, and the uniforms of groups from sports teams to fraternities. Coming from countries where money was multi colored, the founders of the United States chose to eschew the chromatic currency in favor of a monochromatic form of paper money. In the context of Baxter’s argument that color is associated with less sophisticated forms of thinking, this switch would indeed make sense (Batchelor 22). The decision to embrace monochromatic currency was made not as a conscious critique of Europe, but simply as a way to stand apart from what was, and create an identity that would not be confused with the past. There is a somberness that is reflected in the color scheme of US currency that also communicate the gravity of leaving all that is known behind for new lives, as of yet to be defined. The colors of the American flag: red, white, blue, are simple, primary, and direct. The symbolic interpretation of these colors communicates the struggles and hopes of founding a new country. Red describing the blood of battles, White for the unknown future, or hope for better days ahead, and blue for the expansive territories that were as of then, undefined, or the endless sky. Of course this is one subjective interpretation, but it illustrates the potential for colors to communicate ideas, and objectives symbolically, and the symbols we use to describe these ideas are words. The monochromatic beginning of the United States currency (which is now, two centuries later adding more color to its paper money), and the primary simplicity of the United States’ flag, bring me back to the ideas of birth and development; the first classes in art school. Lack of color is not where we end after growing more sophisticated, as many of Batchelor’s arguments suggest, but where we start – and develop from.

Color is not Silent. Its voice is a varied as its uses, but it is a compelling voice. Color reminds us. Color creates conversation. Color defines and describes. Color participates. Color is a verb. It is an active process. How does hearing the voice of color help me to communicate with color through my work? Color teaches me to think in a more complex way as I experiment with different palettes. I am beginning to hear the complexity in the arguments that color makes. I can hear color mumble and I can hear color shout. She recites poetry to herself and is a gifted linguist. Color teaches me that there is always another way to say something – a more interesting, compelling choice of words. Of all the lessons that color gives to me through her voice, what I value most are her lessons in listening. Color is teaching me to listen.

Works Cited
Albers, Josef. Interaction of Color. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Print.
Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.Print.
Cagil, Joy. “The Use of Colors in Poetry”. Web. 29 Oct. 2009. Use-of-Colors-in-Poetry&id=214314>.
Hamer, Russel D. “What Can My Baby See?”. The Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. 29
Oct. 2009. Web. .

The Truth is Out There – or is it?

Seventeen years old. I am filled with questions, righteous energy, and creative drive. The world of Art History is presented to me in college, and artists from the Spanish Renaissance, and Modernist movements immediately entranced me. El Greco, Chagall, Franz Marc, Franz Kline, all spoke to my earnestness and emotional involvement with my own work. It is only now, many years later that I am actively exploring why these artists were working in the expressive, representational styles they are so well known for. What were they thinking? Why did they make the choices they made, and what was it about them that still pull me to them, even now, over two decades later?

I see a parallel between my own teenage angst and quest for truth, and the Modernist yearnings for the pure essence of art. The Modernists are as a whole, representative of the teenage years of historical art. Breaking away from the protective parental structure of the Classical and Academic Realist movements, and searching for fresh ways to assert their newly forming subjective responses to change, the Modernists define themselves, like a rebellious teenager, by the past that they push against, and the future that they embrace. In this paper I will explore the essays of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and examine the questions they were asking almost a century ago in the context of my own contemporary culture, and practice. Through this process I will strive to answer the question, “Has Art grown up?”

In my reading of Theories of Modern Art, I was particularly engaged with Wassily Kandinsky’s essay, entitled,“On the Problem of Form”. Kandinsky is addressing the question of which artistic movement, representation or abstraction, best defines the purest essence of art. He argues that regardless of what “form” art takes, it must answer honestly to both its chronological context and the inner life of the artist, two elements that I see as inseparable.

The form is always bound to its time, is relative, since it is nothing more than the means necessary today in which today’s revelation manifests itself, resounds…The form is the outer expression of the inner content (Chipp 156).

This argument is particularly appropriate for consideration in contemporary times, as artists reach across disciplines, cultures, and time lines to find the voices that best display their intention. In their introduction to the 2008 Whitney Biennial Catalog, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin speak to Kandinsky’s question of form, and how the solution to that question has not necessarily been reached in a linear fashion, if it has been reached at all.

Within the vast, variously differentiated field that we (perhaps absurdly) continue to yoke under the single term contemporary art, certain prevalent, often interrelated practices to us seem particularly germane to the moment. Many of the projects presented in the 2008 exhibition explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political, and economic contexts, often aiming to invert the more object-oriented, ends-driven operations of the art market. Recurring concerns involve a nuanced investigation of social, domestic and public space and its translation into form-primarily sculptural, but also photographic, cinematic, and so forth- which in turn catalyzes social practices extending beyond the exhibition space (Huldisch, Momin 32).

Paul Klee foreshadowed this contemporary concern with systems of exchange and interrelated practices in another Modernist essay. In his “Creative Credo” of 1920, Klee speaks to the interconnectedness of all things, an organization of movements that converge in the act of creation. Klee goes so far as to call art, a simile of [the Biblical act of] Creation (Chipp 186). Klee’s perspective, while heavily biased toward graphic art, joins Kandinsky in his quest for truth in artistry through a filter of morality and spiritualism.

By including the concepts of good and evil a moral sphere is created. Evil is not conceived as the enemy whose victories disgrace us, but as a force within the whole, a force that contributes to creation and evolution. The simultaneous existence of the masculine principle (evil, stimulating, passionate) and the feminine principle (good, growing, calm), result in a condition of ethical stability (Chipp 185).

I am intrigued by this quote and the emphasis that Klee’s search for the truth of art seems to put on balance. The formal elements balanced against spontaneity, the narrative balanced against abstraction, and here, the balance of male and female energy, framed in language reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. This quest for stability makes sense as I learn more about the competing influences within Modernism, of which Klee’s practice was centered. Far from having outgrown these concerns, questions of balance are often in the forefront of contemporary artists’ thought as well: technology versus tradition, inclusion versus alienation, public versus private, nationalism versus diversity. How we balance ourselves against these competing influences and more, is where our truth is revealed.

Another interesting tangent from the 1920s that reaches across the boundaries of generations into current times and my own contemporary art practice is Klee’s awareness of art as a mediated form of communication.

Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely and isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities. Things appear to assume a broader and more diversified meaning, often seemingly contradicting the rational experience of yesterday (Chipp, 185).

Yes, we are revealing the “reality behind the visible things” today as well, but that is a subjective interpretation now, as it surely was in Klee’s time.

Despite my nostalgic and emotional connection to the Modernists, I ask myself what my art means beyond its visual and emotional echo of the Modernist aesthetic. I am currently trying to communicate beyond the pictorial references that I have become so attached to – I want the surface to hold marks that evoke memory and imagination in the same way that the dreamy narratives of Chagall, or the energized woodcut portraits of Max Beckman evoke responses. I want to jump from the launching pad of so much history into the arms of my own moment’s very contemporary longings. Yes, the same questions of essence and purity are present for artists working today, including myself, but these questions are mediated by the quickly changing definitions of what essence and purity really are. With so much of our reality being mediated by technology, industry, commercialism, and cultural exchanges at the speed of light, how we define Truth has becomes nearly impossible to describe beyond our own personal boundaries.
As I explore Modernist essays and read academic reactions to contemporary art, I wonder if Art continues to be in the wild throes of adolescence? As artists we continue to ask and re-ask the same questions of ourselves. What gives what I do meaning? Where is the Truth in my experience? How do I best communicate my intention? The form may change, but the questions do not. The problem of Truth is best considered as a circular quest that begins and ends with the artist. We are the mediators for the viewing public. The public and all that surrounds and comes before, mediate us. We can only take responsibility for our own truth, and that truth is not out there, but inside each artist.

The Truth that a 20th century seventeen year old yearns to release is primitive in its relationship to the centuries of history that attracted it, but it is that connection between generations that is worth examining now. The effect of the Modernists is still being felt by working artists today. For myself, I know that I am pushing back against different things than they were, due to the expanse of time that separates us, but many of their questions are familiar and resonate with me. I thank the Modernists for leaving behind the path of their search, for reflection, as I work through both philosophical and technical questions of meaning and communication for myself. The History of Art may never completely outgrow adolescence, but in my lifetime I look forward to the continual maturation of my practice of art.

Works Cited
Kandinsky, Wassily. “On the Problem of Form.” Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B.
Chipp. Berkley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.155 – 171. Print
Klee, Paul. “Creative Credo.” Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Berkley, Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.182 – 187. Print
Huldisch, Henriette; Momin, Shamim M. Introduction. “2008 Biennial Exhibition.” New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 32 – 36. Print.