To address the question of colour in art is, sooner or later, to encounter a strange and deep kind of loathing. For example:
The union of design and colour is necessary to beget painting just as is the union of man and woman to beget mankind, but design must maintain its preponderance over colour. Otherwise painting speeds to its ruin: it will fall through colour just as mankind fell through Eve.
The passage was written by the influential nineteenth-century critic and colour theorist, Charles Blanc, it is interesting on a number of counts. First he identifies colour with the ‘feminine’ in art; second he asserts the need to subordinate colour to the ‘masculine’ discipline of design, or drawing; third he exhibits a reaction typical of phobics: a massive overvaluation of the power of that which he fears; and fourth he says nothing at all original. In aesthetics and art theory colour is very often ascribed either a minor, a subordinate, or a threatening role. The devaluation of colour expressed in the phrase disegno versus colore has a very long history. The idea that adequate representation through line alone is both possible and preferable was revived during the Italian Renaissance from ancient Greek and Roman sources, and continued to inform academic training until the nineteenth century. When colour was admitted to the equation of art it was, as Blanc indicated, usually within a strongly disciplinarian regime marshalled by the more ‘profound’ art of drawing. Even Kant, writing in 1790, maintained that while colours may give ‘brilliancy’ and ‘charm’ to painting and sculpture, ‘make it really worth looking at and beautiful they cannot’. Again, only drawing was ‘essential’.
Chromophobia, the fear of corruption through colour, is not inherent in all devaluations of colour in aesthetics, but it is visible in many instances. Associated with decadence, exoticism, confusion, lack of clarity, superficiality and decoration, colour has been conscripted into other more well-documented racial and sexual phobias. Taken as a marker of the feminine by Blanc, others as far back as Pliny have placed colour on the ‘wrong’ end of the rhetorical opposition between the Occidental and the Oriental, the Attic and the Asian, the rational and the irrational. For Aristotle, colour was a drug (‘pharmakon’); in rhetoric itself ‘colores’ came to mean embellishment of the essential structure of an argument. If colour is not a contaminant, then it is more often than not treated as an addition, embellishment or supplement, relating to ‘mere’ appearances rather than to the essential structure of things.
A suspicion of colour persists in certain types of art, particularly the kind which aligns itself with the more cerebral, intellectual and moral aspects of experience. A commitment to one or another variety of Realism has almost always been marked by a fondness for brown; Conceptual Art made a fetish of black and white. To this day, ‘seriousness’ in art is usually available only in shades of grey. The idea that strong colour is the preserve of primitives and children may not be stated much these days, but it appears still to have a strong silent presence.
One of the reasons for the continued devaluation of colour in much art and theory is perhaps that both conceptually and practically it is extraordinarily hard to contain. Conceptually colour has proved irresistibly slippery, constantly evading our attempts to organise it in language or in a variety of linear, circular, spherical, or triangular geometries. For Plotinus colour was simply ‘devoid of parts’ and therefore (literally) beyond analysis. When the twenty-two-year-old Newton revolutionised the scientific understanding of light and colour, the subordination of colour to a system of laws also became an imperative. But the rationale for Newton’s division of the spectrum or rainbow into seven primary colours was based less on any inherent divisions within the colour continuum that on the desire to make it match the seven distinct notes in the musical scale. Evidence of the sheer contingency of colour-systems and colour-concepts has been produced by a number of ethnographers, linguists and cultural historians in recent decades. But only a relatively few philosophers and theorists have found the awkwardness of colour at all suggestive. Kierkegaard identified intense colour with childhood, as others had before him, but lamented its loss: ‘The hues that life once had gradually became too strong, too harsh for our dim eyes’. The problems of matching the experience of colour with available colour-concepts became the basis of Wittgenstein’s last main preoccupation. For Barthes, colour, like other sensory experiences, could only be addressed in language in terms of metaphor: his answer to the question ‘what is colour?’ was: ‘a kind of bliss’. Barthes’ sensualising, or rather his eroticising, of colour is a very striking inversion of Blanc’s Old Testament foreboding. In a way there is no disagreement between them: colour has a potency which will overwhelm the subject and obliterate all around it, even if, for Barthes, this was only momentary, ‘like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell’. The potency of colour presents some real problems for artists: colour saturation tends to knock out other kinds of detail in a work; it is difficult to make it conform to the spatial needs of bodies, be they abstract or figurative; it tends to find its own level, independent of what is around it; colour is, in short, uncooperative. The advent of monochrome painting during the 1950s and ‘60s might seem like a logical, if extreme, solution to this difficulty: here, for once, colour would not have to cooperate with drawing. And yet, with some important exceptions (such as Klein and Fontana), monochrome painting has often proved oddly shy of chromatic intensity, preferring instead of the quieter waters of tonal value and variation (Ryman, Richter, Charlton, for example). The reasons for this are various and complex; but they may have something to do with painting’s unavoidable relationship with the (usually white) wall-plane and the need to tune painting to this given of the gallery environment. And this, in turn, may explain, in part, why in many instances during the post-war period a preoccupation with colour has found its form in sculpture and three-dimensional work. But there are also other, stronger, reasons for this change of direction and dimension.