12 March 2009

"Wanking in Three Colors"

Go read Patrick's epic (and epically named) "Perceptions Of Gender, Class, And The Other: The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, And The Curious Case Of A Milwaukee Mom And Her Evisceration At The Hands Of Milwaukee’s Best" at Popehat. Many worthwhile points to be had there, but it's all sparked by opinions of this:

That's Ellsworth Kelly's "Red, Yellow, Blue II." Like Patrick I'm not very impressed by it. (I happen to like flickr user .michael.newman.'s photo of it, reproduced above, much more. Which gives me an idea: some enterprising artist should paint canvases for the sole purpose of photographing people in front of them, or perhaps photographing the canvases in interesting locations. Use the paintings as settings and props, essentially. Go ahead, steel that pitch, as they say.)

Kelly is one of those artists, like Yves Klein, who leaves me cold 99% of the time but still comes up with the occasional jewel. For instance, I love Kelly's "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II:"

(FYI Klein's "Anthropometrie (ANT 130)" strikes my fancy, but the best I can say about the bulk of his work is "that's neat.")

In any event, criticism of Kelly's triptych isn't really the point of Patrick's post, but here's what he has to say about it:
It’s a collection of three rectangular panels rendered in the primary colors, used by the artist to say that he has stripped art of all context and form, making a statement about being and nothingness and the meaninglessness of art. The work allows people who believe they know a lot to project what they wish to say upon it, and to receive nods of agreement from the like-minded. It’s hipster irony from the 60s, an ape’s tribute to the legacy of Jackson Pollack. If it were aural rather than visual, its challenge to the beholder would not be that of a Lou Reed or Albert Ayler, but of John Lennon’s “Revolution No. 9.”

It’s bad art, wanking in three colors, and it doesn’t even get the colors right. Green, not yellow, is in fact a primary color as received by the human eye. Had Kelly chosen green for the middle panel, he would have created transgressive art of a low satiric sort, lampooning the optic ignorance of the aesthetes who fawned over him while he created the Red, Yellow, Blue series. Had Kelly chosen indigo, international orange, and royal blue, he would created something genuinely dangerous. If Kelly had painted his rectangles in cyan, yellow, and magenta, he’d have made real art, anticipating the work of giants, Roy Lichtenstein, Leiji Yatsumoto, and Keith Haring.
I love the bit about not even getting the colors right.* I'm reminded of a Brice Marden exhibition I saw a couple of years ago at SFMOMA. There were these series of great big canvases with repetitious curves in all the colors of the rainbow. Except indigo. Some of the accompanying material quoted the artist to the effect of (and I'm working from deep memory here) "I chose to leave out indigo because I do not believe in indigo. I am not sure what indigo means and so I don't think of it as a real color." I read that and immediately walked out of the gallery. Here's a guy whose entire oeuvre is based around color theory and he wants to deny the existence of indigo, as if wishing it made it so.

[New shit has come to light, as they say, and so it behooves me to withdraw my criticisms of Mr Marden's opinions of indigo. I am suitably embarrassed. Please see the comments for details. As abashed as I am by this, I still defend my decision to have walked out of the exhibition. There was too much other good stuff to see to waste time on work that left me uninspired.]

* I'm not as sure as Patrick that Kelly does in fact have the "wrong" colors. The choice of "primary" colors is pretty much arbitrary, although in practice you want three that are sufficiently distant in chromaticity space (or a similar measure, I suppose). Red, yellow and blue are a standard choice. RGB and CMY are obviously also defaults, but the Lumiere brothers once patented a photographic process that used violet, orange and green. So I wouldn't say Kelly is "wrong" so much as "boring," or "predictable."


  1. Indigo is, in fact, bullshit.

    Indigo was defined as a spectral color by Sir Isaac Newton when he divided up the optical spectrum, which has a continuum of wavelengths. He specifically named seven colors primarily to match the seven notes of a western major scale, because he believed sound and light were physically similar, but also to link colors with the (known) planets, days of the week, and other lists that had seven items.

    Newton made it up out of whole cloth because of his mystical tendencies.

    See here:


    The human eye is relatively insensitive to hue changes in the wavelengths between blue and violet, where Newton defined indigo to be; most individuals do not distinguish indigo from blue and violet. For this reason, some commentators, including Isaac Asimov, hold that indigo should not be regarded as a color in its own right, but merely as a shade of blue or violet.

  2. Wow. Well don't I feel like a fool.