Chromatherapy

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I’ve been reading David Batchelor’s book “Chromophobia” in which the author argues that high culture has long been anti-color (chromophobic) except for the portion that has been wildly pro-color (chromophilic). The book is well researched, the writer, who is also an artist, is witty (not only did he coin the snarky word “chromophobia,” but there’s a chapter about color as cosmetic and it’s titled “Apocalypstick.”)

Apparently the philosopher Kant, for one, is a typical chromophobe. Quoting Batchelor: “For Kant, colour could never participate in the grand schemes of the Beautiful or the Sublime. It was at best ‘agreeable’ and could add ‘charm’ to a work of art but it could not have any real bearing on aesthetic judgement.” Rousseau and Joshua Reynolds, likewise, believed colour gave sensory pleasure but that art’s gravitas resided in form, shape and line according to Batchelor’s book.

Of course my reading this book has directly to do with the Olafur Eliasson’s Your Colour Memory” at Arcadia, a chromophile work for the 21st Century. We’ve sung its praises here and here. (image at top is of Eliasson‘s “Your Colour Memory.” Photo by Aaron Igler.)

Batchelor spoke at Arcadia in October as a corollary to the exhibit. A quiet Brit with a sense of humor, his slide lecture laid out the book’s argument and was particularly notable for its number of slides — one, a grey on white illustration from an early edition of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Libby and I enjoyed the somewhat mumbled talk in spite of the lack of color slides. The whole idea that color is a cultural outcast — other and not to be trusted — seemed right.

And it got me thinking about how artificial our colors are now. Fruit, flowers, everything has been jiggered to produce extraordinary shades that are sold as natural. But when push comes to shove, we want our walls white; the art on it subdued shades we can “live” with. And our favorite clothing is…black. While Batchelor’s theory applies to art, which has mostly if not entirely been divorced from world events, all the talk about color made me wonder about chromophobia as applied to skin color. I guess you could argue that chromophobia in that realm has never not been a force driving world events.

I wasn’t really thinking about color when I ran up to the PMA to see the Pontormo, Bronzino and the Medicis exhibit. But color, in all its seduction, was one of the high points of this wonderful, edgy portrait show. (Here’s my PW review if you didn’t catch it. )

If color wasn’t integral to the works of art here (and not just there to add charm) I’ll eat my pencil. “Lady in Red” by Bronzino (shown above) encased in her voluptuous lava flow of a dress was female power incarnate. Just try to separate that color from the form. In fact, from flesh tones to the indefinite colors of the walls behind her, color is part of the story and inseparable from the composition and the meaning.

Pontormo‘s “Youth in Pink Cloak” is another piece in which color is meaning, form and chromatic pleasure. Here, the (again) mountainous cloak is a foil for the slender teen whose cocky, hand on hip posture belies an uncertainty that’s quintessential child on the verge of adulthood — all self-doubt and self-consciousness. Pink — a color that’s a compromise, a color that’s almost there, is perfect for this cloak and for this sitter. Whether there’s artistic license in the cloak’s color choice is doubtful, according to the write up in the show’s catalog (a great book by the way, full of stories of the homicidal powerbrokers the Medicis and their topsy-turvy times of plague, war and insecurity perhaps more like our own than we’d like to think.) The cloak might be ceremonial and the youth might be a page at the court. Regardless, the portrait is a triumphal wedding of color and subject.

Pontormo and Bronzino weren’t chromophobic. They were free with their use of color and lathered it on generously. I’m wondering now about color field painters who serve up generous portions of out of the tube color in works so large they are off-putting. Could it be that those ’50s and ’60s painters were actually chromophobic and that their paintings do more to distance and separate the viewer from the idea of color than they do bring the viewer and the color into dialog. (Paintings of that era send me running from the room and I like to think I’m a chromophile.)

I heard another talk last week that wasn’t about color but did remind me of the Pontormo show. Jed Perl, critic for New Republic, spoke at UArts Friday night in conjunction with the school’s second year MFA exhibition (up now at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery and in the lobby of Hamilton Hall, and, I believe, also at the Icebox). Perl’s topic was tradition and how artists can mine traditions without being traditional or conservative. The argument was about how studying a tradition and looking hard within it artists could adapt it for a new generation. It reminded me of the new wave of portraiture by young artists who, knowingly or not, are distilling from an old traditions (that include Pontormo and Bronzino), in ways that don’t seem conservative or traditional.

(“Your Colour Memory,” by the way, is up through Jan 9. and Arcadia’s Richard Torchia wrote to say they’ll have hours over the holidays — like New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day! (but no Christmas or Christmas eve). Don’t let this one slip away without seeing it.

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