Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 1, 2001
David Batchelor Chromophobia Reaktion Books, 2000. 192 pp.; 6 color ills. Paper $19.95

David Batchelor’s Chromophobia is a concise book on a large topic: the problem of color in the Western cultural imaginary of the last two centuries. The argument is anchored by, though not limited to, a consideration of color in the discourse of aesthetics and art history. Batchelor also considers literature, Hollywood cinema, television advertising, and architecture in order to bring color’s extremely paradoxical and checkered history to light. Generations of cultural producers, art theorists, and philosophers, claims Batchelor, have treated color as an object of fear and loathing, as an alien invader within the cultural organism. Chromophobia‘s extremely eye-catching cover offers a bold emblem of those cultural prejudices about color: the simple shapes of glossy red, blue, and yellow-green set into a matte magenta field turn out to be a tinted microphotograph of the Hepatitis B virus. Batchelor’s purpose in this book is to anatomize the myth of dangerous color and then to propose a chromophile account of art since the 1960s.

The book opens with an illustrative anecdote. The author visits the home of an art collector in a wealthy district of a northern European city, a home in which the banal facade gives no warning of the disturbing and contradictory décor within. The interior is a minimalist showplace: architecturally austere, purged of homely things, tightly sealed off from the outside, and totally drained of color. Even the art is uniformly gray. The house insists on aesthetic transparency and moral purism with such implacable and manic single-mindedness that it ultimately perverts itself. White, here, is not the color of clarity or elegance. It is not even simply ostentatious. It is, rather, condemnatory, tyrannical, alienating, and inhuman. The collector’s great white interior, Batchelor concludes, is a signifier of an oppressive Western ideology.

The book’s early chapters are devoted principally to deciphering and exposing that ideology. Batchelor begins just where most cultural and intellectual historians of color do, with Plato’s famous validation of philosophy over rhetoric and Aristotle’s recasting of that dichotomy into the opposition between line—the essence of order and the vehicle of rationality—and chaotic, deceptive, inessential color. Batchelor’s main examples come, however, from neoclassical art theory and its aftermath, represented by figures such as Winckelmann, Reynolds, Ingres, Pater, Berenson, Charles Blanc, and Le Corbusier, all of whom treated color as an internal threat to higher aesthetic systems. References to Locke, Kant, and modern perceptual psychology merely add to the record of an old and persistent aesthetic binary dividing primary and objective processes (design) from secondary, subjective ones (color). The inevitable conclusion is that aesthetics, art history, criticism, and the teaching of art in the West are profoundly resistant to color. But Batchelor is also interested in a second, larger claim. He wants to show that the denigration of color is connected to deep social structures. Returning to the standard texts on color, he notes that the old design/color binary never fails to implicitly or explicitly connect with distinctions of a moral, social, racial, and sexual character. Line’s virtue is normatively virile, European, and heterosexual, while color is not only surface-oriented, impure, and deceptive, but is also coded feminine, infantile, queer, primitive, foreign, vulgar, and pathological.

Batchelor believes that color’s role is precisely to challenge established hierarchies; he goes on to sketch a nineteenth- and twentieth-century countertradition. He begins with Baudelaire’s appreciation of makeup as a sublime deformation of a debased nature, Huysmans’s cultivation of color delirium, and Cézanne’s search for painting’s truth in the patch of color. Then, he fast-forwards to Hollywood’s Technicolor fantasies, Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-enhanced apprehension of color, and Warhol’s hyperchromatic world. This heritage is a contradictory one, Batchelor admits; but he nevertheless finds a pattern within it. The most productive forays into color do not simply reverse the classical design/color binary, as we might assume. Instead, they take up the old charges against color and actually intensify them to subversive effect. “On those occasions when colour is given a positive value, what is most striking is how its chromophobic image—as feminine, oriental, cosmetic, infantile, vulgar, narcotic and so on—is, for the most part, not blocked, stopped and turned around,” writes Batchelor. “Colour remains other; in fact, it often becomes more other than before. More dangerous, more disruptive, more excessive. And perhaps this is the point. Chromophobia might not really have its opposite in chromophilia; chromophobia might be seen as chromophilia’s weak form” (71).

Batchelor comes at the problem of color from a variety of viewpoints. Chromophobia is strongly informed by recent studies of the cultural history of color. Philosophical writings on color, from the classic texts to recent deconstructionist approaches, provide recurring points of reference. We learn about the history of color systems—the various wheels, charts, and palettes that have been used to divide and to regulate the color continuum. A whole chapter is devoted to the thorny problem of the semiotic value and contingencies of color. Yet Batchelor does not offer a clear-cut account of any of these perspectives on color, depending instead on the persuasive force of condensed paradoxes and unexpected analogies. For him, color is both a fall from grace and a fall into grace; it represents both decadence and the recovery of innocence, and is both a poison and a cure. Batchelor also turns away dramatically from the laborious and restrained style of most scholarly writing. The text is excited and partial in ways that are very often quite pleasing, even if it rambles in spots and avoids making its points directly or completely. For instance, if color is so hard to pin down, as Batchelor insists, then he might have devoted more attention to the deep uncertainties that exist within the arguments of even those who appear most eager to control it. And yet the ideas of figures such as Charles Blanc, who, as Batchelor points out, was both an admirer of Delacroix and a reader of Chevreul, or Le Corbusier, who certainly did remember that Greek statues were once brilliantly painted and himself painted a cast of an archaic figure in the mid-1930s, are ultimately presented as rather fixed.

But Chromophobia is not a systematic history; it is a piece of engaged criticism. The book’s polemical objective is most clearly stated in the final chapter, where the author proposes a view of the 1960s as a moment of insurrectionary transformation in the history of art. The monochromes of Robert Rauschenberg and Yves Klein, Warhol’s screen printing, Frank Stella’s commercial paints, Donald Judd’s tinted plexiglass, and Dan Flavin’s florescent light tubes: these practices cancel one code of artistic behavior—the 300-year-old easel and oil painting tradition—and establish a new one. The adoption of industrial materials and modular compositional schemes are very important here. But so is a new and experimental approach to color. Pop art and Minimalism overturn the hierarchical and limiting language of the artist’s palette for the ready-made, grammarless, digitized, and antihierarchical logic of the commercial color chart. They liberate art by playing up color’s vulgarity, intensity, and impurity. These arguments about the art of the 1960s extend perspectives already charted by Batchelor in his earlier book entitled Minimalism (London: Tate Gallery, 1997). But they also have another source. Batchelor, in addition to being a critic and professor, is an artist, and the present book began as an essay for an exhibition of his own modular and brightly colored constructions. That aspect of the book’s genesis is nowhere revealed in Chromophobia‘s pages, but it seems entirely relevant to the book’s stimulating, polemical approach.

Matthew Affron
University of Virginia