come on, you reds by morgan falconer

morgan falconer writes about contemporary art and culture. i enjoy reading this article of his – he talks about a past exhibition of klein.

Come on, you reds . . .

. . . and yellows, pinks and blues. As a Barbican show reveals, colour has had to fight hard for its place in art

In 1666 Isaac Newton took a glass prism and separated sunlight into its constituent colours. In so doing he disproved Aristotle’s contention that all colour was a mixture of black and white, invented the modern notion of the colour spectrum, and showed what rainbows are made of. Four hundred years later French artist Yves Klein was still airily proclaiming that “colour is sensibility in material form, matter in its primordial state”. This doesn’t say great things for art.So it may be a surprise that the Frenchman is being heralded as an innovator in the Barbican’s new exhibition Colour After Klein.The point may be that he designed and patented his own colour: in 1956 he collaborated with a chemist to create an artificial and particularly brilliant ultramarine, which he titled IKB, or International Klein Blue. But the point might also be that Klein was just kidding around: his first exhibition following this invention featured monochrome canvases of identical size, shape, hue and value — only their prices were different.

If colour before Klein was a mystical, emotional essence — and it certainly was for artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko — then one could say that colour after Klein was a little less serious. Sophie Calle made an amusing game of it in 1997 with her week-long project The Chromatic Diet. Each day she confined herself to eating foods of a certain colour: on Tuesday she ate red, and had tomatoes, steak tartare and pomegranates; on Wednesday she ate white, and had flounder, potatoes and fromage blanc.

But as some of the 20 artists in the exhibition demonstrate, colour after Klein has also been different in other ways. With the career of the American photographer William Eggleston, colour finally arrived in art photography, which previously had been an austerely black-and- white affair. And with the career of the light sculptor Dan Flavin certain technical matters altered as well, since light behaves differently to pigment: mix colours across the spectrum in pigment and you get black; mix them in light and you get white. But in some ways colour after Klein has stayed the same serious affair as before. Even in the hands of Andy Warhol colour has evoked moods as sombre as those of Rothko. Just listen to his titles: Red Race Riot, Five Deaths on Orange, Silver Disaster.

Art has remained resistant to the blandishments of science, and that is hardly surprising when it would seem to threaten to demystify colour. But art has also had to face another long tradition of resistance to colour — chromophobia, as the artist and writer David Batchelor has described it — going back to Aristotle, who held that even the most beautiful colours were inferior to a clear outline. Insofar as medieval thought was dominated by Aristotle, that attitude was influential. Since then science has mounted a sustained attack on the magic of colour with a tool-kit of terms and ideas — yardsticks such as hue, brightness and saturation, measures of wavelengths and frequencies — designed to grasp hold of the ineffable. No wonder some thinkers are stumped by colour: when Wittgenstein tried to theorise on the subject, he said he felt like “an ox in front of a newly painted stall door”.

This gulf between language and colour, between concept and experience, has thrown up intriguing problems for art history. In the Middle Ages its nomenclature was mixed up with theological ideas — certain colours and materials were understood to convey certain ideas. Light was considered a metaphor for divine grace,claritas (clarity) being a quality of beauty, hence the value attached to shining surfaces. The gold ground in Simone Martini’sAnnunciation (1333), for example, is a metaphor for the incorporeal light of God. In modern times the American National Bureau of Statistics has tried to tighten up the language of colour, compiling a dictionary of names and coordinating 7,500 terms in 14 recognised systems of nomenclature — but of course that names only an infinitesimal proportion of the colours perceptible to the human eye.

What the bureau can’t keep tabs on, of course, are colour’s meanings and associations, which on the one hand can be subjective, and on the other are grounded by traditions that vary across the world. Understandings of colour in China, for instance, are bound up with the history of use of mineral pigments. Perhaps the earliest to be used was cinnabar, a naturally occurring mercuric sulphide used to make a brilliant red. Corpses were daubed with it to symbolise the return of the soul. Later, transformed into mercury, it became the principal ingredient in a toxic liquid “gold” which was consumed as an “elixir of immortality” by Taoist adepts. And to this day red is the colour of good fortune and fecundity in China, while white is the colour of death and is conventionally worn at funerals.

The West, meanwhile, waited until the likes of Leonardo to dispel some of the superstitions that had built up around colour. Arguing that “what is beautiful is not always good”, he advised artists to use darker colours to suggest brightness, for luminosity is best suggested not through use of bright colours but through contrast.

The body of theories and knowledge about colour has grown over the centuries, through the advent of colour wheels in the 18th century (to aid in the arrangement of harmonies) right up to the ideas of such as Mondrian and Albers in the 20th century. So when Seurat painted the Pointillist masterpiece La Grand Jatte in 1884-86, he based his use of harmonising complementaries (yellow-green/ blue-violet and red-orange/ blue-green) on the observable effects of optical vibration and luminosity.

Nevertheless, those ideas could also be turned on their head: Van Gogh was keenly interested in colour theory, but his explanation for using clashing hues in Night Café in 1888 was hardly scientific: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”

Ultimately, it seems that art’s tradition of rational thought about colour has always taken second place to superstition. It wasn’t long after Leonardo tried to spread some common sense that the opposing philosophies of Rubens and Poussin sparked a centuries-long contest between the adherents of line and those of colour. Poussinistes argued that “the colours in painting are blandishments to the eyes”, while for the Rubenistes colour promised life.

The history of art in the 20th century was in many ways the victory of a Romantic kind of Rubenism, with colour coming to be associated with spiritual properties. For Matisse these were joyful, restorative qualities, but equally they could be darker. Rothko believed that Matisse’s exuberant Red Studio (1911) was the source of his art, and yet still felt that colour could spell out “tragedy, ecstasy, doom”. Ideas about the intrinsic emotional and symbolic qualities of colour lent themselves to preoccupations with signature colours which seem positively medieval.

For his part, Joseph Beuys adopted Braunkruez (Brown-cross), a reddish brown made up of house paint, rust-proofing material and hare’s blood. What he meant by it, however, is subject to debate: some say that it denotes an earthiness, an urge to grounding after the trauma of the war; some that it is an attempt to exorcise the Nazi’s, for whom brown was also a signature colour; while others just point to the toilet and say it is all rather infantile.

Those same people would no doubt say the same things about Yves Klein’s IKB, and you can’t blame them. In May 1958 Klein held a party at a gallery in Paris to celebrate the opening of an exhibition with no discernible content other than the audience themselves. But there was a little blue — in the cocktails. Apparently it turned everyone’s pee blue.

Colour After Klein is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2; May 26-Sept 11 (0845 1207550)