Color Me Beautiful

Now that we’ve moved, it’s time to start thinking about colors for our new walls. This will take a while and lots of careful thought, since it’s my experience that colors can have an incredible, unfathomable affect on the way we feel. One UK paints company is currently making exactly this point in one of their TV ads, saying: “don’t just change your color: change your mood.” Who hasn’t felt a pulse of energy in rich red surroundings, a cooling sensation inside a blue room, or more mellow in a green garden? Think of all the color-related expressions we have in our language: “seeing red”, “feeling blue”, “green with envy”, “grey disposition”. Whether it’s a deep emotion or superficial decision (which lipstick/ tie shall I wear today?), color lies at the heart of human experience.

Few artists are more in tune with color than Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923), whose Color Panels for a Large Wall (1978) adorn the atrium of the NGA’s East Building. This work is made up of 18 rectangular monochrome canvases, with variations on each of the six primary and secondary hues and two panels in black.

Kelly’s work is associated with a couple of major 20th century American abstract art movements. From Color Field (a movement which emerged in the 1940s), he derives the idea that an artist can induce a heightened state of awareness in the spectator by using expanses of color: these panels definitely create a sense of awe as you stand in their presence. He’s also linked to Minimalism of the 1960s and 70s, which favoured simple geometric forms of imposing scale: the NGA work measures an impressive 11m x 23m. The way Kelly’s Color Panels interact with their setting also traces back to the Minimalist aesthetic: it’s as if he’s made a huge great canvas out of the grey wall, with the panels as the painted elements. It’s a breath-taking way to make us look anew at the architectural surroundings.

Ultimately though, Kelly manages to avoid any strict stylistic classification, due to the way he handles hues: there’s no one like him when it comes to conjuring up a coloristic alchemy. In the original configuration of this work (for a bank in Ohio), there were two horizontal rows of nine panels, but when it was re-hung in the NGA in 2003, Kelly himself rearranged it to form a grid of three rows of six panels each. It’s through their careful orchestration into an overall scheme that the colors come to clamorous life; this is how Kelly creates a tapestry of kinetic color relations. So see how orange brightens yellow but deepens blue, and how black can darken red while also freshening green. Notice how a purple/ brown combination warms the purple up whereas a purple/ blue pairing cools the purple down. Yellows are given an extra kick and highlight by being placed close to black while the complementary duo of red + green heightens the intensity of both colors.

Kelly has super honed sense of what colors do to each other when related and what results in the East Building is surely one of art’s greatest color symphonies. It’s enough to make the idea of a yellow kitchen seem positively tame.

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