David Batchelor


‘Introduction: On Colour and Colours’
David Batchelor

Colour is single ... (Walter Benjamin)
Colour is the shattering of unity (Julia Kristeva)
Colour exists in itself (Henri Matisse)
Colour cannot stand alone (Wassily Kandinsky)
Colour ... is new each time (Roland Barthes)
Colour is the experience of a ratio (William H. Gass)
Colour is a poor imitator (Bernard Berenson)
Colour deceives continuously (Josef Albers)
Colour is an illusion, but not an unfounded illusion (C.L. Hardin)
Colour is like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell (Roland Barthes)
Colour must be seen (Walter Benjamin)
Colour ... is the peculiar characteristic of the lower forms of nature (Charles Blanc)
Colour is suited to simple races, peasants and savages (Le Corbusier)
Colour is accidental and has nothing in common with the innermost essence of the thing (Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner)
Colour seems to have a Queer bent! (Derek Jarman)
Colour can appear an unthinkable scandal (Stephen Melville)
Colour has always been seen as belonging to the ontologically deficient categories of the ephemeral and the random (Jacqueline Lichtenstein)
Colour is the concrete expression of a maximum difference within identity (Adrian Stokes)
Colour ... emphasizes the outward and simultaneous otherness of space (Adrian Stokes)
Colour to continue had to occur in space (Donald Judd)
Colour becomes significant only when it is used as an attribute of form (Clive Bell)
Colour ... even more than drawing, is a means of liberation (Henri Matisse)
Colour is enslaved by line that becomes writing (Yves Klein)
Colour has not yet been named (Jacques Derrida)
[Colour is] a pleasure that exceeds discursiveness (Jacqueline Lichtenstein)
Colour precedes words and antedates civilization ... (Leonard Shalin) Colour is knowledge (Donald Judd)
Colour ... is a kind of bliss (Roland Barthes)
Colour is the first revelation of the world (Hélio Oiticica)
Colour must be thought, imagined, dreamed ... (Gustave Moreau)
Colour is not an easy matter (Umberto Eco)1

The process of collecting texts for this volume confirmed to me that, at least over the last century and a half, the discourse on colour has been, for the most part, a discourse of reflections, observations, asides and remarks. Polyphonic and fragmentary, it exists in the comments of artists, critics and art historians, but also in the reflections of philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, novelists, filmmakers, architects, designers, poets and musicians. It is diverse and divergent; fluid, elliptical and contradictory; often obscure, esoteric or strange; sometimes funny, and altogether fascinating. It is difficult to generalize in any simple way about the nature of these reflections except to say that a great many of them are made in and through practice. That is to say, the discourse on colour is not largely an academic discipline; rather it is generated in the course of making things – paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, films, buildings, novels, songs and poems. It is constituted for the most part in those works and in reflections on those works, both by the people who made them and by others who came into contact with them. And while it has a rightful place in various academies, it is at the same time never limited to the concerns of those institutions or subject areas. Colour belongs both to the arts and to the sciences, both to high culture and to popular culture, both to theory and to story telling. Within the arts vivid accounts of colour occur as much in literature as they do in the remarks of painters, sculptors and filmmakers. Colour has been addressed or ignored both by modernists and postmodernists; and those who loathe colour have had as much to say as those who love it. Colour is truly fluid: it spills over subjects and seeps between disciplines; and no one area can mop it up and claim a privileged or proprietorial relationship with the subject.

As far as the visual arts are concerned the discourse on colour has been episodic: there have been moments when the exchange of ideas concerning colour has been urgent and intense, and times when it has been all but dormant. The emergence of Symbolist ideas in the late nineteenth century, notions of Expressionism in the early twentieth, and debates around the idea of a fully abstract art, are instances when colour became a key subject for discussion. At other times the exchange is really more a set of loosely connected monologues sustained by individual artists – such as Yves Klein, Hélio Oiticica, Bridget Riley or Donald Judd – more or less in isolation. And then there are periods of extended silence, such as occurred in the aftermath of conceptual art in Europe and the United States. To some extent that silence can still be heard today, especially in the writings of critics and academics whose critical priorities were formed during that period. Lying behind this silence there is often, I think, the assumption that colour somehow belonged to modernism, formalism and to certain kinds of abstract art; and that as the prominence of those concerns was undermined during the 1960s and overthrown in the seventies, so the issue of withered away as a result. This assumption doesn’t stand up to very much scrutiny. Certainly the types of art admired by formalist critics in the fifties and sixties were often abstract and colourful but, first, those critics rarely had much to say on the subject of colour itself; and, second, much of the work these critics often despised – work associated with Minimalism and Pop – was equally if not more colourful, but colourful in entirely different ways. There is also the irony that many of the philosophers and critical theorists most closely identified with the emergence of postmodernism in the arts have themselves written on the subject of colour, and often in rich and vivid ways. Among them are Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida and Umberto Eco – all of whom have texts included in this volume. One of the aims of this book, then, is to help rescue the discourse on colour from this casual association with modernism and formalism, and to suggest it has a far more complex relationship both with art and with modernity. If some critics have found it difficult to acknowledge the presence of colour as a worthwhile subject, this has clearly not been a problem for many contemporary artists. Over the last decade or more there have been numerous instances of artists experimenting with old and new forms of colour; bringing strange and exotic hues and materials into the traditional mediums of art; and introducing practical and theoretical concerns with colour into installation, photography, film and video. It is with this in mind that, in addition to the published texts collected here, I have invited a number of contemporary artists to participate in this volume by writing on their experience and use of colour.

As far as this book is concerned, having declared the boundlessness of colour, my first task was to impose some practical limits on the subject. I decided the starting point for the volume would be circa 1850, a somewhat artificial date but not an entirely arbitrary one. It is at least convenient in that it coincides with what are generally taken to be the early moments of modernism in the arts. More specifically it allowed me to begin with the writings of Charles Baudelaire and, soon after, Herman Melville, two writers who have, in different ways, made some of the most vivid and enduring remarks on the subject of colour, ones that still cast their shadows across the subsequent years. The end point of the book coincides with another artificial date: the publisher’s deadline, early 2007, which means both that the most recent texts are from around this time, and that this was the date when I had to give up looking for material, new or old. To end the search in this way only leaves me with the certain knowledge that I have missed as much as I have found, but that will never change. By limiting the historical range of the book in this way I have had to exclude a large body of highly influential writing from the early nineteenth century – from Goethe’s theory of colours, the Farbenlehre, to the chemistry of Chevreul, Rood and others – but this work is generally well known and readily available in other publications. As well as setting some chronological boundaries, I have also settled for some more rough and ready exclusions. I have, for example, mainly avoided extended arthistorical narratives about the changing use of colour over the period in question, preferring accounts by the artists themselves or by their contemporaries or near contemporaries. And I have altogether excluded the numerous studies of the psychological effects of colour in the home or workspace, and the related proposals for the harmonious use of colours in such environments. This is simply because, in the end, this work seems to me to be largely at odds with, and it is certainly a lot less interesting than, the more speculative and reflective discussions which are at the heart of this volume. What remains is an unruly assortment of around a hundred and fifty texts. In order to include and convey the range and diversity of writing on colour, I decided to edit each text and cut it, often substantially, sometimes quite viciously. The extracts range from almost complete essay-length arguments to just a single sentence or two. As a rule I have paid little or no attention to the original context of the work; but then I’ve always felt that, in art, the injunction to respect context is often a little overrated ...

It is better to think of these pages as the basis of a large and expanding collage, rather than an orderly narrative. The tone and form of the contributions vary as much as their lengths. And all of this presented certain problems when it came to devising suitable ways of dividing the texts into sections. Originally I had planned to organize the texts in clusters, sometimes because they resembled one another, sometimes because they resembled a crowd gathered around a traffic accident. But I found it impossible to come up with anything more than approximate categories within which to contain the various texts; some were always left out at the end while others could have fitted into several different groups at once; and it always felt like it could easily have been done differently. So, finally, I opted for the more unimaginative solution of arranging the texts in broad chronological order, within this trying to keep together those texts which have affinities with each other. By doing this I do not mean to suggest there are no links to be made between various texts separated by decades, and no shared or contested positions amongst the authors. On the contrary, there are a great many, but in the end I thought it was better to point to some of those clusters in this introduction rather than impose them on the texts themselves. And this will I hope leave readers freer to find (aided by the index of colours and colour subjects) their own clusters of ideas and routes between different essays, statements, remarks and observations.

One distinction I began to notice as I was collecting the various texts was between those comments that discussed colour and those that dealt with colours. The former category tends towards the general and the universal, the latter tends towards the specific and the particular; the former treats colour as a concept, the latter addresses the contingencies of perceptual experience. It is not that one is more important than the other; they are simply different. And while some texts deal exclusively with one mode of address or the other, some of course shift between the two, and thus threaten to mess up even this simple formulation. Within the texts that deal with colours, it is possible to separate out those that refer to black or white or grey – a significant majority – from those that deal with other colours.2 This is perhaps because within the sphere of colours, these achromatic hues (if that is what they are) are themselves often treated as abstractions, and thus open to more generalized statements about their meaning or symbolic value. Nevertheless, colours are often discussed by way of metaphor and association, in terms of what they are like, whereas colour is often discussed in relation to what it may be distinguished from, in terms of what it is not like. Thus within colours, as well as white, black and grey, there are clusters that make associations, sometimes quite casually, sometimes in the name of a deeper synaesthesia, with, amongst other things, music, dreams and unconsciousness, drugs, sex and pleasure.3 There are also those texts, written for the most part by artists, which deal with specific practical and technical issues concerned with using and mixing colours in painting, sculpture, photography, film and video;4 and there are those, often by critics and poets, that attempt to convey something of the specificity of complex colour combinations, in a work of art or in the world of objects.5 And, occasionally, there is an essay that attempts almost the opposite: to indicate something of the infinitely rich variety of experience and association that is hidden under a simple colour term, such as ‘blue’.6

Amongst the colour texts, by far the two largest clusters are those that have sought either to distinguish colour from language, or to set colour in opposition to line or form. The reflections on language and colour have taken place, for the most part, in the realms of philosophy and anthropology, whereas the consideration of colour and line or form has been more closely associated with the visual arts. For both, however, colour has often been viewed as something of a problem. There are a number of reasons for this and, for me, these perceived problems are some of the things that make colour such a complex and revealing subject. One of the paradoxes of colour is that is at once truly universal and unaccountably particular; it is something vividly experienced by almost all people almost all of the time, and yet our understanding of the nature of this experience remains rudimentary and contested. Above all, it is almost impossible to put the experience of colour into words in anything but the most bland and general ways: of the several million different hues that the average human eye is able to discern, most languages have less than a dozen basic colour terms, and several languages have no term for colour at all. As such colour is, arguably, in a unique position to show us some of the limits of our descriptive powers, which, for the most part, are also the limits of language. And this in turn may be what has made colour so attractive to some artists and writers, and so offensive to others.7

For many who have written on the relationship of colour to form, the problem of colour is often its unreliability, its seeming randomness and its apparent autonomy. While almost always connected to objects, located in forms and bound by shapes, colour nevertheless doesn’t seem quite to belong to these objects. Unlike form and shape, the visual experience of colour cannot be verified by the other senses. We cannot touch colour, even though it constantly surrounds us and we are in some ways touched by it. Furthermore, for many, use value of colour is distinctly questionable – after all, many drawings, paintings, photographs and films appear to survive perfectly well without colour. For these and other reasons colour has often been regarded as the least valuable of artistic resources and the least relevant subject for the critic. Typically colour has often been regarded as superficial, supplementary and cosmetic; attractive to children perhaps, but a potential distraction, or worse, for adults. Often regarded as feminine, as too connected to the senses and the emotions, to the body and to pleasure, colour threatens to get in the way of the more serious, intellectual and masculine business of drawing and forming. Although, having said that, there are always those for whom the disorderly, disruptive and occasionally narcotic character of colour has been its principle asset.8

If language and form have been the main points of reference for many discussions of the nature and value of colour, there are other clusters of writings that have, in one way or another, sought to place colour in the world. One of the most intriguing is the way in which colour has been mobilized within a variety of myths of origins, stories of how and in what order the gods made the world. Put at its simplest, these myths of origins have taken two basic types. In the first, the world begins as colourless form, onto which colour is added at a later stage, sometimes as an afterthought, sometimes as a result of an accident, often involving parrots. Its distribution through the world is random, but nonetheless pleasurable. In the second group, the world emerges first as formless colour, an undifferentiated haze of dazzling light, that is gradually and incrementally divided, categorized, classified and repressed in the development of language, line and shape. Here colour is primary, not secondary; in the beginning the world is colour and step by step is made increasingly grey, dull and orderly.9 At the other end of the world, so to speak, are a number of reflections on the relationship of colour with modernity. These have often taken place within the discourse of architecture and design, or in the comments of artists with related interests and, again, they vary widely. On the one hand there are those who have imagined modernity entirely stripped of colour and reduced to a pure, antiseptic field of white; on the other hand there are those for whom the production of new materials such as plastics have, for better or worse, made our cities replete with a vast array of vibrant new shiny, glowing, luminous coloured surfaces.10 Finally, there are several smaller clusters of texts that have sought to place colour in the world in a number of other ways. Some view colour as belonging to childhood; some associate colour with a primitive or undeveloped culture; for others colour is allocated a home in the Orient rather than the West. In another group colour is located in the realm of the artificial and cosmetic, and in yet another, colour is like a descent into dream or unconsciousness. Then there are those for whom the value of colour is in its autonomy, independent from any functional or utilitarian concern.11 Inevitably there are some texts that don’t fit into any of these groups; they are included for their own sake, simply because what they say about colour is worth hearing.

Finally, it should be said that, contrary to appearances, this is not a book about colour. Rather it is a book about ideas about colour: what colour is, where it belongs, when it occurs, what it does, and whether it matters. Clearly I’m not neutral on this last point. I wouldn’t have spent my time putting together these pages – and the rest – if I hadn’t been convinced that colour does matter, if I hadn’t come to believe that, in looking at colour and at the ways we place it in our minds and in our worlds, we can in turn find out something about ourselves. Colour lets us look at some of the ways we grade, order and group our experiences, our sensory experiences in particular, at some of our often unstated habits of thought, some of our preferences and some of our cultural prejudices. If the texts in this volume tell us anything in general it is that our relationship with colour is truly ambivalent. That is implicit in what I wrote in my earlier essay on colour, Chromophobia (2000), but perhaps I didn’t state it very clearly back then. By ambivalence I mean a simultaneous and powerful attraction to and repulsion from the same thing, a coexistence of contrary emotions. So if there are many texts that display an overt love of colour and equally many that can’t contain a loathing for the subject, there are as many others that display this more complex relationship, in one way or another. These may be some of the most interesting and insightful comments about this strange and unverifiable fact of our sensuous world.

1 Benjamin, notes, in Selected Writings, vol. 1: 1913–1926, 50; Kristeva, ‘Giotto’s Joy’, Desire in Language, 37; Matisse, in Matisse on Art, 116; Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 28; Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, 166; Gass, On Being Blue, 67; Berenson, Aesthetics and History, 78; Albers, Interaction of Colour, 1; Hardin, Unweaving the Rainbow, 159; Barthes, op. cit, 166; Benjamin, op. cit, 50; Blanc, Grammar of Painting and Engraving, 4; Le Corbusier, The Decorative Art of Today, 135; Gabo and Pevsner, ‘The Realistic Manifesto’, Art in Theory, 298; Jarman, Chroma, 58; Melville, ‘Colour has not yet been named’, 141; Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Colour, 63; Stokes, Colour and Form, 27; Stokes, op. cit, 19; Judd, ‘Some Aspects of Colour in General and Red and Black in Particular’, 113; Bell, Art, 12; Matisse, op. cit, 100; Klein, Yves Klein, 50; Derrida, Truth in Painting, 169; Lichtenstein, op. cit; 154; Shalin, quoted in Riley, Colour Codes, 6; Judd, op. cit., 114; Barthes, op. cit, 166; Oiticica, The Body of Colour, 202; Moreau, quoted in Benjamin, Matisse’s ‘Notes of a Painter’, 29; Eco, ‘How Culture Conditions the Colours We See’, 157; please see individual texts in this anthology for the full bibliographic references.

2 On white, see especially the texts on pages 37–8, 82–4, 88, 118, 126-7, 211–12, 216. On black, see pages 100, 107, 135–6, 151–2, 157–8. On grey, see pages 35, 107, 145-6, 166–7, 210. See also the index for further references to individual colours and colour-subjects.

3 On colour and synaesthesia, see pages 18, 31–2, 38–9, 57–62, 73, 142–4, 153, 201. On colours and emotions, see pages 54–5, 151–2, 215–16. On colours and music, see pages 31–2, 57–62, 142–4, 157–8.

4 On colour and painting see pages 24–7, 31–2, 32–4, 35, 44–7, 48–9, 50–1, 51–2, 53, 55–6, 57–62, 66–8, 68–9, 69–72, 72–4, 75–6, 76–7, 77–8, 79–81, 88, 89–91, 93–4, 100, 112–14, 118–22, 125–6, 128–30, 131–3, 134, 135–6, 136, 137, 138–40, 142–4, 166, 167–71, 175–8. On colour and sculpture, see pages 65, 135, 166, 168-9, 195-8. On colour and photography, see pages 44, 89–91, 107, 108, 174. On colour and film, see pages 101–3, 175. On Colour, sex and pleasure, see pages 62, 158–62, 163–4.

5 On the specificity of colour combinations, see pages 24–7, 32–4, 39–42, 51–2, 65, 72–4.

6 On the diverse associations of single colours, see pages 152–5, 111–12.

7 On colour and language, see pages 18, 38–9, 103–8, 121, 158–62, 164, 175–8, 178.

8 On colour, line and form, see pages 24–7, 27–9, 31–2, 32–4, 50–1, 51–2, 54, 55–6, 65–6, 76–7, 77–8, 79–81, 92, 108–10, 110–12, 112–14, 118–20, 122–3, 126–7, 134, 135, 138–40, 142–4, 172, 201–7.

9 On colour and myths of origins, see pages 19, 144–5, 145–6. On colour and primitivism, see pages 62, 83, 98, 221. On colour and orientalism, exoticism, see pages 34, 39–42, 46, 49, 85, 98, 108–9, 202, 221, 233.

10 On colour and modernity, see pages 20, 55–6, 79–81, 82–4, 84–8, 88, 89–91, 94–7, 124, 144, 147–9, 172–3, 199–201, 219–20.

11 On colour and childhood, see pages 28, 31, 63–5. On colour and artifice, see pages 39–42, 163. On colour, dreams and the unconscious, see pages 31, 39, 57–8, 91, 140–2, 158–62. On colour and autonomy, see pages 19, 65, 75–6, 110–12.

David Batchelor, 'Introduction: On Colour and Colours', in Colour, Whitechapel: London / MIT Press: Boston, 2008, p. 14-21.