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Chromophobia: as several exhibitions in London show, colour obsesses many artists--so why do critics dismiss this interest as decorative--or worse?

'Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue?' inquired the titles of a celebrated series of paintings by Barnett Newman. Weil, the answer might be that part of the western tradition is, if not actually frightened of colour, then at least hostile, dismissive and suspicious of it. This attitude goes back to ancient Greece, and continues up to the present day. But what is it about red, yellow and blue, and for that matter purple, green and mauve, that elicits such antagonistic feelings?

Sir Howard Hodgkin--whose retrospective is currently in Dublin and comes to Tate Britain next month--is one living artist who has frequently complained that there is a prejudice against painters who concentrate on red, yellow, etc. rather than politics or ideas, for example. Of course, colour--theorising about it, exploring it--has been a major strand in the art of the last century and before.

Nonetheless, venerable antipathies remain. In the art world, confronted with a work dependent for its effect on blue or green, there are many who will mutter the deadly word 'decorative'. Even Matisse's paintings have been dismissed with the D-word.

The artist David Batchelor has coined a word for this enmity to colour: chromophobia. This is the title of a book by him, published by Reaktion in 2000, which investigates the phenomenon. For many centuries, he argues, there has been a tendency to link colour with femininity, orientalism, pleasure and other disreputable associations. If drawing, as Ingres famously claimed, is the probity of art, colour has long been regarded as the irresponsible self-indulgence of the visual world. Pliny worried that the rectitude of Graeco-Roman art might become corrupted by the allure of sensuous eastern colour.

Batchelor's own art (Fig. 1)--recently exhibited in the Bloomberg Space--often features swooningly beautiful artificial hues that bring to mind the title of Tom Wolfe's book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. But the swoon-factor is offset by the grungy nature of the found objects--such as old bottles, warehouse dollies, and commercial light boxes --that emit the delicious hues.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This ironic undercutting of chromatic delight is typical of several contemporary artists. In his spot paintings Damien Hirst simultaneously revels in colour, and indicates various doubts about it. Because the colours in these pictures are chosen by a system (no two colours are the same), 'no matter how I feel as a painter or artist, the paintings always end up looking happy', so it's a mindless, automatic euphoria the paintings express. Also the fact that there is no repetition means there is no chromatic harmony. 'So in each painting there is a subliminal sense of unease, though the paintings project so much joy it's hard to feel it.' A classical mind would have recognised this disquiet. 'A painter', Plato observed, 'Is just a grinder and mixer of multicoloured drugs.' Hirst said something similar, although less dismissive: 'I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz.'

Part of the problem has always been that colour is stubbornly unsusceptible to rational analysis. It is, you might say, not entirely necessary. One could live reasonably efficiently--as some animals do--in a monochrome world. While watching a black and white film, you scarcely miss colour. In Aristotelian philosophy it belongs not to the essence of things--their substance--but among their secondary, or accidental, characteristics. It is also almost universally regarded by mankind as delightful--which is also perplexing to the rational mind. Why gain such enjoyment from what is inessential?

In contrast, form and line have always been comprehensible, even geometrical--ergo, some have thought, of higher moral and intellectual worth. Such an attitude lay behind Michelangelo's belief that his own Florentine disegno was intrinsically superior to the colore of Venetian painters such as Titian.

To this current of chromophobia, however, there has long been a counter-tradition of chromophilia. Where some have been suspicious of colour because it seems immaterial, irrational and deeply pleasurable, others have exalted it for those very same reasons. When the religious and artistic traditions of Greece and Rome began to wane in late antiquity, they were replaced by an other-worldly faith and an art that placed less emphasis on form and line than on light and colour (which is one reason why it was regarded as decadent by the classical revivalists of the renaissance and its aftermath).

Light is of course both scientifically and emotionally inseparable from colour. The first creates the other in reality, and in art it is colour that most often creates the illusion of light. It is, in Byzantine art, and later in the Romantic art of Turner, Friedrich and their contemporaries, the supreme spiritual metaphor. Whether or not Turner's last words were actually 'The sun is God', that sentiment was apt. The heirs of romanticism, as they lost faith in representational art, gained a new trust in colour. An abstract language of red, blues, greens and yellows, Kandinsky believed, would create 'vibrations in the soul'--or at least the souls of the sensitive.

All these hopes proved vain--although the pictures that they prompted remain beautiful. There is no language or keyboard of colours that creates vibrations in the soul, since experience of colour is both radically subjective and highly relative.

This was the conclusion of Josef Albers--whose work is currently on show at Tate Modern--after a lifetime's study and teaching of the subject at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. As Michael Craig-Martin--a former student of Albers--recalls, he came to realise that colour was inherently unstable. The same colour appears utterly different in diverse contexts, and also to different people at different times. Also, there are not just the few hues that we think we know by name, but an infinite range within the rainbow. Consequently, 'theoretical, systematic and intellectually based attempts to organise and determine the use of colour were bound to fail in practice'.

What remained was patient research of the kind documented in Albers's classic manual, The Interaction of Colour (reprinted in a new edition by Yale University Press), and his album Formulation: Articulation (Thames & Hudson). Albers's work (Fig. 2) has its own ascetic beauty--though it can come dangerously close to the kind of diagrams psychologists use in tests. But it is somewhat lacking in fantasy. Albers's wife reported that he was once reduced to utter fury by a fie-salesman in a shop who told him that he had 'no colour sense'.

It is probably nearer to the truth that he had no sense of humour--a prerequisite for someone who made over 1,000 paintings with virtually identical compositions (the series entitled Homage to the Square, such as Fig. 3). The point of always painting three or four rectangles was to focus on the experience of colour alone. About those chromatic sensations, essentially there was nothing to be said.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

Albers was right about that, although, as David Batchelor said recently, there is emotion in colour. You can't escape it. The problem is that you can't entirely analyse, explain or even describe it very satisfactorily either. We still don't know what it means or why we like it any more than Plato did. That is the fundamental reason why colour has such a lurid reputation.
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Title Annotation:CONTEMPORARY ART
Publication:Apollo
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:1194
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