Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 20, 2000
John Gage Color and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 320 pp.; 37 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0520220390)

John Gage’s book Color and Culture appeared with considerable acclaim in 1994, and it won that year’s Mitchell Prize for art history. It was a dense, ambitious, yet readable exploration of color in Western art from the Classical era to the 20th century—or rather, of ideas about color, since Gage gave more attention to writings about the subject than to actual examples of practice. For instance, he devoted far more space to Matisse’s “Notes d’un peintre” (1908) and other written and spoken observations about his approach to color than to the painting Red Studio (1911), used to illustrate Matisse’s notions.

Gage’s new book, Color and Meaning, would appear, thanks to its equally ambitious-sounding title, to be a sequel to the earlier one, but it would perhaps be better described as a series of extended footnotes to it. For that reason it may disappoint many of its predecessor’s admirers. Whereas the earlier book was, as its author warned straight off, “for all its baggage of scholarly apparatus… not an academic book,” this one certainly is. Furthermore, the twenty-one essays it collects are quite separate and self-contained. Many of the topics it covers are of specialized interest, and furthermore, specialists in some topics may be uninterested in others. This is testimony to the breadth of Gage’s curiosity, which (despite a focus on late 18th to early 20th century European painting) ranges widely, from the pre-Colombian Americas to German Romanticism and well beyond, certainly, but something that should have been made clearer in the book’s presentation. Maybe all that’s to complain that the glass is half-empty. Many of these essays are admirable. I would particularly call attention to Chapter 14, “Mood Indigo – From the Blue Flower to the Blue Rider,” which swiftly and efficiently sketches in the route from German Romanticism—both literary and artistic—to Kandinsky and Schwitters, by way of Goethe’s Farbenlehre. As Gage shows, nineteenth-century German color theory was primarily based on symbolism and “moral associations.” But there were also “more perceptually-oriented tendencies” in German color theory, though they remained exceptions, and it was at the Bauhaus, Gage implies, that the two tendencies were at last synthesized.

As one would expect, Gage also has some fine pages on Seurat, who may have been less au courant with current color theory than has often been thought—less so, too, than some of his fellow Neo-Impressionists—but who is undoubtedly the greatest painter to have been seriously concerned with scientific color theory. As Gage shows, however, he was not wedded to a single theory, but was rather “a highly experimental artist who modifies his methods from picture to picture.” More important, Seurat was “close to Symbolist attitudes in his color,” which is to say that, as was the case in German art, a scientific approach to color was inseparable from the echo of Romanticism.

Later on, his meditations on the work of Seurat would prompt Matisse to admit that “I am a romantic, but with a good half of the scientist, the rationalist, in me, which makes for a struggle from which I emerge sometimes triumphant, but breathless.” For painters, the scientific study of color has sometimes been felt necessary, but has always remained secondary. As Gage notes, it is the “subjective effects” of color which have been “the central concern of painters,” and these remain rather resistant to rational inquiry. The question remains, then, whether the study of color has any fundamental importance for art. Reading an old interview between the poet and critic Edwin Denby and the painter Neil Welliver, who’d been a student of Josef Albers, I was struck by Welliver’s remark that Albers “was an incredibly good teacher and most of the teaching and conversation and so on was outside of art. It had to do with color and how colors interacted, the optics of color.” So what Welliver learned from Albers was a lot about color, and also the fact that all this was somehow tangential, not central, to painting. What may be the inadvertent lesson of Color and Meaning is much the same.