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What I'm Reading: Chromophobia & Interaction of Colour

Though these are two very different books, I chose to read Chromophobia and the Interaction of Colour at the same time. David Batchelor's Chromophobia discusses the social and political responses to colour, particularly the "chromophobic" impulse of Western culture and society. Josef Albers, on the other hand, writing in the 1960's, is concerned entirely with the subjective and illusory nature of colour. He provides technical exercises and experiments, intended for art educators. These appear alongside descriptions which seem almost poetic on review.

"Colour deceives continuously."

Interaction of Colour by Josef Albers

Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color was conceived as a handbook or teaching aid for artists, instructors, and students. In this text, Albers presents a variety of colour theory principles. Some consider it an essential resource on colour. During my time in art school, I was introduced to colour theory and common principles, but we didn't spend much time on the more complex and nuanced principles such as color relativity, vibrating and vanishing boundaries; and the illusion of transparency and reversed grounds. This book comes across as very technical at first, and yet it is almost poetic - more like a manifesto or treatise than a colour theory handbook. Where you desire more technical explanations, he insists you simply move on and look for yourself. I think this accounts for some of the more negative online feedback for this text - it's not what you expect. It's a different style of learning from a book, or from an instructor. On reading this book, at first I have a strong desire to spend time and create extensive colour charts and recreate Alber's experiments in a false desire to truly Know colour, but Albers himself notes that colour is "suspect." Knowing how something works in your head is different than knowing what is physically in front of you on the paper. Knowing what is physically on the paper is different than knowing what the light is doing, what information your eyes are receiving. This is different from what you feel, where your emotions sit upon considering the colour and composition. What is useful, then, is seeing. As Albers describes:

"Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing."

'Seeing' here implies the German term Schauen and is coupled with fantasy and imagination rather than the English definition. In this, Albers is asking us to dissipate the boundary that insists that what we see is real, and that what we know is always stable. Instead, we are asked to look, to see, and imagine, all at once.

The notion that colour is bound up with the fate of Western culture sounds odd, and not very likely. But this is what I want to argue: that colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture.

David Batchelor, Chromophobia

A chromophobic impulse, as Batchelor describes it, is a fear of corruption or contamination through color. Batchelor's primary argument in this book is that chromophobia "lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought."

I heard of this book while reviewing the videos and writing of Isa Segalovich, an illustrator and arts writer who describes herself as a anti-authoritarian art historian. Her focus on folk art, cultural erasure, and minimalism, and the references she lists provide a wonderful starting point to consider Batchelor's work.

I haven't finished this book yet, but I've enjoyed the first few chapters immensely. Batchelor begins by emphasizing that minimalism and whiteness (a project of white supremacy as well as an aesthetic goal) are often carelessly associated. Batchelor claims that the minimalist art movement was rich in colour, simplified and abstracted, but particularly through found textures - such as wood and metal, industrial paints, etc., Even the whites, when used, were white(S) - not an idea of whiteness, but multiple, distinct white colours. This is, I think, an important note from Batchelor -- but I bristled at this claim that the minimalist movement's association (presumably by contemporary historians) with whiteness is careless. Could it be a misinformed association? Yes. Certainly. There are a lot of nuances to such a discussion (Check out Isa Segalovich's video series on her social media for details), but as Segalovich notes, the minimalist artists of the day were primarily white American men who fostered an aesthetic that reduced and simplified, and aimed to kill the decorative and personal in art. The American exceptionalism within that movement was influenced by the European architecture of the previous decades, fascist architecture which aimed to do away with folk and "low" arts, as a way to raise the esteem of 'intellectual' art ("intellectualism" being the sole property of only certain types of people). So, while Minimalism as an art movement was not about creating the generalized whiteness that Batchelor describes, it certainly contributed to an overall aesthetic which engaged with the project of whiteness. I think this is hard to deny, but, I am only a few chapters in, and I'm curious to see if Batchelor comes back to this statement.

Batchelor connects the chromophobic impulse in an intersectional manner to other forms of social and cultural rejection - he states that there are two strategies in this, which are commonly used in other types of oppression. First, the 'thing' (e.g. Colour) is regarded as alien, foreign, non-neutral, and therefore dangerous. It is marked as "other."

Second, the thing (colour) is perceived as merely a secondary and lesser quality of experience, and so is unworthy of our consideration.

Imagine the festival of Pride - the colour, the spectacle of joy, all this is considered 1) abnormal/foreign/alien (dangerous), and 2) childlike, silly, frivolous. That or those which are prejudiced against are dangerous, but not to be taken seriously. These strategies are traded back and forth, so that we can point to someone and say Don't talk to them, they are dangerous. And when this doesn't work, we say Don't talk to them, they aren't serious or worth talking to. We can see these strategies across so many groups; women (dangerous seducers; childlike emotions, not to be taken seriously); trans people (dangerous predators; don't know their own minds), etc. etc. Batchelor sees this happen with colour.

The danger of putting 'whiteness' on a pedestal, is that with this generalized whiteness (the removal of colour, and not the colour of white itself), as Batchelor says, we are "open to contamination by terms like 'pure' … there is an instability in the apparent uniformity of white. Behind virtue lurks terror; beneath purity, annihilation or death. Not death in the sense of a life ended, but a glimpse of death-in-life: the annihilation of every cherished belief and system, every hope and desire, every known point of orientation...". Batchelor extends this purifying whiteness to bodies, and concepts around the 'ideal form' -

". . . the ideal body: without flesh of any kind, old or young, beautiful or battered, scented or smelly; without movement external or internal; without appetites - but perhaps it was more perverse than that - perhaps this was a model of what the body should be like from within. Not a place of fluids, organs, muscles, tendons, and bones all in a constant precarious and living tension with each other. But a vacant hollow whited chamber, scraped clean, cleared of any evidence of the grotesque embarrassments of an actual life.

The next section of this book discusses how Art education prioritized line, drawing, and design over that of colour, which was considered a secondary asset to creation.

I haven't gotten very far into this section yet, but I'm looking forward to it as part of my reading into Josef Albers' work. In my own work, I always begin with line and drawing. Palette and colour scheme always comes later, once I understand the mood and content of the piece. What if I try to start with colour? how might my colour use change when I prioritize the activities of colour?



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