DEFINE COLOR. I asked that at dinner one night and got a variety of responses: "Color is in the mind of the beholder." "Color is whatever isn't absorbed." "Color is not the way I tell my socks apart." One person glared at me and said "Go ask Edwin Land."
The introduction to the catalogue of the Fogg Museum's exhibit Color in Art calls color a "psychological phenomenon." And technically, it is. Light waves of varying lengths are interpreted by the eye and the brain as different shades, which may or may not be sensed by people in differing ways-there's no way of knowing. But color can also mean a flag, a complexion, tonal quality, prima facie evidence or opinion. By synchronizing on their exhibits for the first time, the Fogg and the Museum of Science, with its show Color Around Us, try to give some structure to this chaos of definitions.
At the Museum of Science, the show is basic bring-the-kids. It has all the colorful optical illusions that I first encountered in the Tootsie Roll ads under "Metropolis Mailbag" in Superman comics: the same color seeming lighter or darker according to its background, a green, black and orange flag that makes you see red, white and blue when you look away. A prism breaks white light into the color spectrum, and a sodium vapor lamp turns everyone's skin yellow. There are lots of fun knobs to turn and fun buttons to push, and color TV excerpts from ZOOM. But in failing to approach the really challenging question of why color works the way it does, the Museum frustrates the viewer's curiosity. We are just left with an arcade of weird visual games.
If the Museum of Science frustrates the viewer, the Fogg overwhelms him. Taking one aspect of color in the world-that of color in painting-Howard Fisher of the Graduate School of Design, who set up the exhibit, tries to give some understanding of the way artists use color by examining the theories of the late Fine Arts professor, Arthur Pope '01.
Pope was at Harvard from 1906-1949, and during that time taught Fine Arts 1A, one of those fabled Hum 3-type courses that 25th reunioners always grow nostalgic over. Nathan Pusey '28 took it, and one of his papers is on display. It got a B-.
But Pope also created a way of assessing the role of color in the visual organization of a painting. His theories are extremely complicated-they take up 127 pages of explanation in the catalogue under paragraphs headed "Limited Range of Hue and Intensity" or "The Relative Nature of Color Perception." Basically, Pope developed a structure of color inter-relationships-his "color solid," a cylinder that plots out the place of the three components of color-hue, intensity and value-in three dimensions.
HUE, INTENSITY and value are the keys to any understanding of how color operates in art, and it is the fatal flaw of this show that it gives no clear definition of those three words. Very simply, hue is what shade-blue, green, red, yellow. Value refers to how close to white or black the hue is, and intensity is how pure the hue is-how free it is from dilution with white or black.
Once he had developed this structure, Pope went on to explain how an artist, by manipulating one of these three elements, could create the illusion of space or light, could create a mode in his work that is linear, sculptural, pictorial or visual. The exhibit uses familiar works from the Fogg's collection-works by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Copley and Tiepolo-as examples of these modes. The idea is grand, but a grand result never materializes. The exhibit is not organized with the idea that someone who knows nothing about color might want to explore it. That jargon is obscure and not explained is one example of this; another is that the pictures are all numbered, but not hung in numerical order-it's disorienting when no. 7 leads to no. 33. And whoever wrote the captions for the paintings needs to re-read The Elements of Style.
The show is still worth tackling: If you take the time necessary to figure out Pope's thesis the ordeal is worthwhile. You definitely come away feeling you've learned a great deal. But free time is not a plentiful commodity, and a lot of people who don't have it are going to miss the insights that this show offers.
Color attacks us from all angles. It mixes up perceptions with optical illusions; it stops cars; it provokes prejudice; sometimes it even inspires patriotism. But throughout the struggle to define it echo the words of an obscure fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher who said, "By convention there is color, but in reality there are atoms and space."
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