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Most designers, I'm guessing, would find it hard to imagine
voluntarily giving up control of color in their work. Yet that
notion is being explored at several museums right now. Color Field
painting, with its restricted use of brushes, is the subject of a
show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as
well as a citywide festival in Washington, D.C. Despite its name,
the “Jasper Johns: Gray” exhibit at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers other new thoughts about color
as well. Meanwhile, “Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today” at the
Museum of Modern Art is all about artists who reveled in color as
“found object.” Curated by Ann Temkin and running through May 12,
“Color Chart” is about color out of the can, out of the box and off
Paul Klee's New Harmony (1936).
I love color charts. They recall for me the color matching
samples of stamp collectors, from my childhood. I can't resist
grabbing those paint strips found in hardware stores, in
particularly irresistible hues.
The artists in the MoMA show seem similarly attracted. They let
chance or commerce pick their colors by using the colors as they
come from the factory. In part, their use of color belongs to the
century-long effort of art to escape from craft and become more
intellectually respectable. The jokes about color found in the show
are similar to jokes played with subject matter and materials by
Duchamp or Johns or Warhol.
The chart—like the target or map, the photograph, the number or
letter—is a document. In the show are several paintings that seemed
to resemble color charts themselves. Jim Dine pays homage to the
Red Devil enamel chart, seen in many main-street hardware stores.
Damien Hirst covers a wall with bite-sized color samples of house
paint. A Donald Judd piece randomly deploys colors from the
European RAL paint system. Both Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly
produce what look like color charts but use chance to deploy color
in a grid.
(from left) Jim Dine's The Studio (Red Devil Color Chart No. 1)
(1963) and Ellsworth Kelly's Colors for a Large Wall (1951).
The commercial color chart made it possible for an artist to
“phone in” one's performance, as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy did in 1922. He
ordered up five paintings from a maker of porcelain sign panels
using a color chart and graph paper. He compared the process to
playing chess by phone or mail.
Surrendering control over color in this way was anathema to the
Bauhausers, like Joseph Albers, working in the tradition of Paul
Klee to seek the harmonies among colors. But other artists followed
Moholy-Nagy: Sol Lewitt was happy to restrict himself (or actually
those who executed his instructions for drawings) to three
Koh-i-noor pencil colors or to the eight crayon colors in the basic
Porche's 1957 color swatch book.
Another piece in the show made me think of crayons and the
limits of color out of the box. Byron Kim plays on Crayola's
pre-Civil Rights era “flesh” crayon in Synecdoche, some 250
variations of tans and mochas suggesting human skin colors.
I was struck by how many of the artists in the show used paints
from my area of interest: automobiles. Cars began with famous
limits to color: Henry Ford's Model T came in any color you wanted
as long as it was black. The Model T came in black because black
was the only color that dried fast enough for Ford's factory. So,
one of the most important color charts—and one included in the
catalog—was that of DuPont's Duco enamels. Introduced in the
mid-1920s, the brightly colored auto paints for the first time
dried fast enough for the assembly line. Duco made the Model T
chromatically obsolete. (Ford reluctantly added a dark green.)
John Chamberlain's Orlons (1963).
Artists themselves have used auto paints. Billy Al Bengsten in
California and Richard Hamilton in the UK applied them to canvas.
Hamilton used auto paint in 1958 in Hers Is a Lush
Situation, whose subject includes a 1950s Buick. (Alice Twemlow
tells the painting's back-story.)
John Chamberlain is best known for his sculptures made from crushed
parts of cars, often with the paint still clinging to the metal. He
is represented at MoMA by paintings from the 1960s made by spraying
auto paint onto masonite. The titles come from pop music groups of
the day, like Orlons and Dion, suggesting the limited
palette of popular taste shared by auto buyer and record buyer.
In 1971, the Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti juxtaposed two
very similar reds used by two competing Italian motorcycle makers,
Guzzi and Gierli (the latter now defunct), in Rosso Palermo.
The two brands had fervent fans, whose rivalry was reflected
humorously in the slight, yet passionately felt variation in
The idea of the palette as readymade, like Duchamp's urinal,
something therefore “undesigned,” underlies the show. But the more
you look, the more designed that palette looks. Of course, Martha
Stewart and Ralph Lauren design palettes for house paints. And
artistic movements have their own palettes, just as Picasso had his
roses and blues.
With color comes a sense of play, which the show grasps well.
Frank Stella's 1962 Gran Cairo, with its rainbow palette, is
riffed off of by Jim Lambie's Zobop!, a work executed for
the MoMA show, splayed across the floor in colored vinyl tape.
(from left) Frank Stella's Gran Cairo (1962) and Jim Lambie's
The day after I saw the show, I visited a design class where
students used similar material. They could dream up any color they
wanted on the computer, then print it onto adhesive vinyl.
Whereas for the last century or so, as MoMA seems to suggest,
the commercial color chart, created by technology, was all about
limits, today's industrial technology promises to color without
limits. Could it be that the challenge to the designer and artist
alike is to limit the palette? Coloring within the self-imposed
Has the ubiquity of those brilliantly colored bars rendered them unnoticeable? Not so for Patton, who sees test patterns everywhere he looks.
Section: Inspiration -
photography, packaging, Voice
This essay is part of "Centennial Voices," a series
initiated as part of AIGA's Centennial celebrations to spark
conversations about the past, present and future of design within the
design community and beyond.
Section: Inspiration -
communication design, identity design, personal essay
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Section: Why Design
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