Coloured Variations

David Batchelor draws on an apparently unending list of thinkers in his introduction to On Colour (2008) including Julia Kristeva (‘colour is the shattering of unity’), Josef Albers (it ‘deceives continuously’), Roland Barthes (‘like a tiny fainting spell’), Matisse (‘a means of liberation’), Derrida (‘has not yet been named’) and Umberto Eco (‘is not an easy matter’).

But ‘colour precedes words’ according to Leonard Shlain in The Conflict Between Word and Image and colour also can’t be owned but in 2009 a new man-made blue (the first for 200 years) which reflects ultraviolet wavelengths but absorbs green and red ones was patented by a paints company. YInMn bluehas been added to the Forbes Collection at the Harvard Art Museum, ‘a library of colour’ containing pigments which date from the Middle Ages to the present.

In The Eye’s Mind (2009) Bridget Riley reflects on the colours in the Cornish landscape: ‘the white of foam, rough grass in the wind in silver pennants, the green of tamarisk against the blue of the sea and the greys of the landscape; narrow streaks and ruffled water – violets, blues and many shades of grey in a sudden squall over the sea.’ Or on how her mother pointed colours out to her as a child: ‘in the sea; the sparkle of dew; changes of colour when the dew was brushed away.’ In The Pleasures of Sight (1984), she writes about how her childhood experience of Cornwall formed the basis of her visual life – ‘Swimming through the oval, saucer-like reflections, dipping and flashing on the sea surface. Different coloured clouds … the golden greens of the vegetation on the cliffs … the red-orange of the seaweed on the blues and violets of adjacent rocks. The glitter of bright sunlight … the tiny pinpricks of black shadow … the minute grey and yellow world of lichens; bright blue patches of sky…’

YInMn blue is technically not a colour, but a material whose molecular structures behave in such a way as to appear to be a certain colour. It’s a ‘colour effect’ – how structures or wavelengths scatter light in particular ways. This colour effect and how we see colour is also bound up with language.  Russian speakers for example, have distinct names for light blue and dark blue and can distinguish between them more quickly than English speakers (Anjana Ahuja). Other languages do not have different words for blue and green, which has some interesting implications on the nature of vision.

Gerhard Richter’s series of colour chart paintings were initially inspired by a visit to a Dusseldorf hardware store where he saw a range of paint sample cards – industrially formulated and devoid of aesthetic purpose. In the first colour chart works made in 1966, he copied the cards exactly. Later, his friend Blinky Palermo, in visits to Richter’s studio, arbitrarily called out the names of the colours from the sample cards which Richter then incorporated into the work. In works made in the 1970s, primary colours were mixed with grey according to a mathematical formula, resulting in 1,024 colours which were then arranged over a grid.

Richter’s colour chart paintings are both abstractions and hypothetical representations of objects, ie: the colour charts themselves, whilst each painting simultaneously exists as an object. Both the referent and its representation is captured in the same image which also has the appearance of an abstract Minimalist object with its emphasis on objecthood. Richter has also stated that these works are influenced by Conceptualism, although in Duchamp’s Tu m’ (1918), a row of receding coloured squares is framed by the painted shadows of recognisable objects (some say, a comment on illusionism). The colour chart paintings have also been considered as Pop art in their rendering of multiples as originals, in their manipulation of commercial media and their critique of the possibilities and limits of authenticity.

A recent exhibition at John Hansard Gallery of Richter’s work included four tapestries based on the work Abstract Painting 724-4 (1990). Each tapestry reproduces a quarter of the original painting, mirroring it and repeating it 4 times resulting in complex symmetries of blues, reds, yellows, lilacs, charcoal and white. Tapestry is a hand-woven textile made on a loom – a technique of manufacturing a hand-woven material that allows for the creation of pictures. Historically colour dyes in tapestries were made from plants, fungi, insects and shellfish. Indigo, woad, greenweed, saw-wort, chopped madder root, barks, nuts and galls were all used to produce dyes which made limited colours but produced a wide range of shades but which all fade unpredictably over time. Commercial dyes produce stability which is made at the expense of nuance as stable colours don’t necessarily change with the light or the kind of surface of the object. Although woven on a mechanical jacquard loom using contemporary materials Richter’s tapestry works suggest a mutability in the extraordinary painterly detail of their surface.

According to Benjamin Buchloh, colour acts both as substance and sign, simultaneously referencing something in the world and differentiating from something else through variation. In Gerhardt Richter Tapestries (2013) Francesco Bonami compares the tapestries to John Cage’s composition Roaratorio, a musical work involving multiple elements based on another of Cage’s works consisting of an instruction on how to translate a text into a performance (i.e: Finnegan’s Wake). In the same way Bonami describes the tapestries as primordial, timeless and beyond language.


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