Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 18, 2012
John Gage Color in Art New York: Thames and Hudson, 2006. 224 pp.; 167 color ills.; 29 b/w ills. Paper $18.95 (0500203946)

Color—its optical properties, its physiological effects, its natural and human origins, its cultural and emotional associations—has been John Gage’s subject of choice for several decades, and no one has worked in this area more, or more fruitfully, than he. Gage’s most recent book is apparently narrower in scope but turns out to be more comprehensive in its claims than his Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (New York: Bulfinch, 1993) and Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Those earlier studies explored the symbolic and practical functions of color throughout recorded history. In Color in Art Gage makes good on his proposition in Color and Meaning that art history is the discipline through which color can be most thoroughly understood. This is because visual art is the cultural expression that unites all the fields of inquiry—philosophy, chemistry, physics, psychology, and others—that concern themselves with color in theory or practice. Moreover, artworks and their colors have survived from past times more persistently than other human-made colored objects, owing to the cultural esteem in which art is held, and often to the value and high quality of its materials. Artists have also contributed significantly to the theoretical side of color perception and use. Their interrelated visual and verbal expressions form an important part of Gage’s subject and his motivation for treating it because he intends his book both to benefit from the work and thought of artists and to contribute to them.

In some ways Color in Art distills and remixes Gage’s earlier studies, but it is no less important and useful for that. As with other volumes in Thames and Hudson’s popular and dependable “World of Art” series, a compact and copiously illustrated text is supplemented by a glossary, bibliography, illustrations list, and index. There are no footnotes. Readers committed to following a thread can consult the excellent annotated bibliography. Most of the illustrations are at least adequate in quality, but a few are dreadful (e.g., the painting by Wassily Kandinsky in fig. 109).

Gage’s subject is the history of color in art, but he emphasizes that his book is not a history. It does not systematically tell a long-arc story or describe developments in detail. Instead his chapters are based on themes related to the other disciplines concerned with color. They are, from chapters 1 to 8: physics; psychology; form (in art and as theoretically intrinsic to colors); chemistry; linguistics; symbolism; synesthesia; and chromophobia, the fear of color. If there is a story here, it might be oversimplified as follows: in antiquity color was largely mistrusted; in the early middle ages the pigment primaries of red and blue dominated, but color mixing was still generally avoided; Renaissance artists began to exploit the capacity of art to match pigment mixtures to colors in nature; and in the early modern period to the present, color in art moves from being naturalistic and symbolic in intent toward the potential to be an entity in itself (8–9).

At the outset Gage does not ease readers into his subject—some hard science appears on page 2. This sends a signal that his book will be dealing with the other fields in a serious way. Not to worry—his touch is light throughout and the text is well written. In each chapter he moves rapidly among historical periods, which makes for a lively but disjointed dynamic. I don’t think this is a drawback. The modest price and small format of this volume, intended for the general reader and for artists, make it the more likely to be smeared with paint in the studio. Perhaps Gage’s insistence that he has not written a history is in the same spirit of accessibility to those who might actually make practical use of the book. The brisk pace, the emphasis on modern painters’ work and thought, the non-sequitur transitions from one artist or topic to the next, and the trans-historical leaps and links might all be very stimulating for readers whose thought runs less to historical causes and consequences than to how to think about and what to do with color.

These choices regarding format, procedure, and tone are Gage’s solutions to a dilemma. At the heart of the enduring fascination with color—for historians as well as artists—is the paradox of color’s apparent immutability, on one hand, and its historical specificity, on the other. Gage is able to dispense quickly with any idea of physical essentialism in color with the observation that perception of color involves the interpretation by an organic visual system of reflected wavelengths of light, which in themselves are invisible. Color is not physically anywhere. We interpret, contextualize, and name what we see as “colors.” A central thesis of Gage’s book is that perception of color is above all psychological. So there can be no accounting of the “origins” of color and no resolution of questions about color’s different appearances and meanings, only an endless and fertile chain of interpretations. Among Gage’s goals in Color in Art seems to be to suggest the presentness of the past, the eligibility of the historically specific for adaptation and re-use under new conditions and contemporary needs. (Some of the most interesting passages in the book for this reader concerned Australian aboriginal artists’ adaptability when offered modern acrylic paints, whose brilliance and expanded color range was assimilated to traditional formats and palettes.) Among other things, Gage’s emphasis on the psychological basis for discussions of color underscores the idea that questions of color will never be settled and close attention to color will never be irrelevant.

Two examples of the psychological basis for understanding color are instructive, one having to do with language, the other with form.

When two people look together at something red, how do they know that they see the same color? They don’t; they can’t know, but they assume it. We take this agreement for granted. When we begin to describe a color, trying to specify the experience of it in language, we often have recourse to analogy: brick red, cherry red, etc. Such analogies are cultural in origin. To call something fire engine red may mean nothing, for instance, in places where fire trucks are yellow. So we should reject the assumption of a uniform perception of a given color, since it may be culturally specific. But with what should we replace it? If we begin with language, the situation may become even more atomized. The only thing that may be irreducible, Gage suggests, is the subjectivity of ideas about color. He cites Kandinsky’s assertion of the neutrality of the German word “rot,” red, but then approvingly notes that Kandinsky’s former Bauhaus colleague Josef Albers stated that in a group of fifty people the word would suggest fifty different reds. What we have here is in part the difference between recognition and recall, recall being the more subjective function in general. But also we learn how much our language of color influences what we think we are seeing, which is the theme of Jasper Johns’s False Start (1959; fig. 122), a painting that would have repaid a more extended analysis in this context than Gage has given it. Here, and at other points when a thicker description might have been productive, Gage’s cat’s-feet approach doesn’t place enough pressure on the object of study.

The question of how form and color are related has exercised imaginations for centuries. Are there particular forms appropriate to specific colors? That is, is a given color most expressive of itself when it is presented in a certain form? The inverse of these questions—can color exist without form?—has also stimulated artists. After showing how intimately color in art has always been bound to form, Gage adeptly debunks the idea that such “Color Field” painters of the 1950s and 1960s as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman had “liberated” color from form in their large color areas. While it may be true that color had become the “subject” of much abstract painting from Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich to Ad Reinhardt and Yves Klein, it was always dependent on form—even if it was the form of the stretched canvas itself—to convey its effects. But one development contained the potential of a serious threat to the dominion of form—stripe painting. Here Gage shows a particular affinity for the art of Bridget Riley. In the presence of her work and thought he becomes more expansive than elsewhere in the book. Riley believed that the stripe was as close to a neutral vehicle for color as possible, allowing color to “develop uninhibitedly” (104). In some of her canvases (e.g., Song of Orpheus 5, 1978; fig. 92), Riley created an optical illusion of three dimensions in the wave-like shapes made by undulating and tapering stripes. This illusion has the effect of distracting the viewer temporarily from the relationship between stripe and color. Other Riley paintings with straight stripes emphasize the properties of certain colors to optically advance or recede within a strict system; even though the stripes are of uniform width, some are more prominent than others depending on their neighbors.

Although the analogy is imperfect, the stripe might be to color what the grid (theorized in this way by Rosalind Krauss in her 1978 essay “Grids” [in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985, 8–22]) was to composition in this period. The grid has the potential to deny composition in the same way that stripes of color might attempt to deny that color needs a form to bear it. The key is the repetition that produces a lack of hierarchy, which seems in both cases to function independently of the “needs” of composition or color, but instead to be imposed from the outside, like a system. Yet the stripes are also clearly forms; it’s just that they don’t seem to be the forms “of” the colors. Surprisingly, Gage does not proceed in this vein to the work of Agnes Martin or Fred Sandback, in which the stripe is reduced to a practical minimum in their chosen materials. Here color approaches line. Yet the colors of these lines can make a big difference in the effects created by the artworks—especially Sandback’s yarn installations, since the third dimension is brought into play and impressive spatial illusions can be created, which sometimes vary according to the color of the yarn. Even as two dimensions approach one, the effect of color is still dependent on its form, and the viewer’s perception of color still depends on the conditions in which she or he processes the experience of it.

This seemed like a rare missed opportunity in Color in Art. So much else about the book feels well judged. But even though Gage himself has prolifically and astutely studied the subject of color in its psychological and historical dimensions, he closes by compellingly making a contrary case—that so much more needs to be done to further our understanding of color, not as a specialist branch of inquiry, but in full partnership with our histories of art.

John Klein
Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis