Machine for Living Color
The Celeste Bartos Theater Lobby, mezzanine, The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building
Concurrent with the exhibition Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, this installation of Library and Conservation Department materials documents color charting in twentieth-century publications, emphasizing commercial, art historical, and avant-garde works. These artists' books, industry publications, and other documentary materials exemplify the development of a color industry in this period—a machine for living color—and its influence on modern art, design, photography, and film. Materials include an industry-standard Munsell Color Book (c. 1930), a textile-industry sample book, and early paint color charts.
This installation of twentieth-century color charts shows that there is no one “true” model for color. Rather, visualizations reflect the orientation of their creators. A paint chemist’s molecular diagram has little in common with a designer’s Pantone color swatch or the random colors of a Gerhard Richter painting, but each system has a way to represent the idea red. Industrial society requires a precise and standardized definition of blue and the millions of other colors visible to the human eye. Designers, producers, and consumers depend upon color standards, often expressed as charts,
and such organizing systems are integral to color theory, science, and aesthetics.
The color theory taught in most art and design schools is strongly influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus (1917–33), a German modern design school. This approach emphasizes the visual effects of juxtaposed colors. Less well known today are the spiritual and philosophically oriented theories of teachers Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, and Paul Klee. Some taught that colors had universal qualities, such as direction and shape (that diagonal lines and triangles are inherently yellow, for example).
Beginning in the 1960s, artists schooled in this tradition began to question its assumptions, especially the notion that colors have universal meaning. At the same time, the Conceptual art movement led artists to interrogate color-organization systems. The results are reflected in the exhibition Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, on the sixth floor of the Museum, and in the artworks in book form, known as artists’ books, that are on display here. These artists’ books engage color systems, both questioning and celebrating them.