Scientists, Artists Talk Color

“Is black a color?” “Does black even exist?”

According to Harry Cooper, Curator and Head of Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art, the answer to both of these questions is no.

At the latest Andrew W. Mellon Symposium in Conservation Science, held Saturday in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cooper joined scientists and artists from around the country to discuss the material and immaterial aspects of color, ranging from the dyes of the Renaissance Italian palette to the preservation of American minimalist artist Dan Flavin’s colored neon bulbs.

The day-long event was organized by Erin R. Mysak, a postdoctoral fellow in Conservation Science.

“I hope for the general audience to understand a bit more about how science and art are interrelated,” Mysak said. “It’s often hard for the public to access science, and it’s not so much that way with art. I wanted to try to bring science to the public and help the public understand how scientists add to the scholarly body on art."

The topic of color was explored from a variety of angles throughout the day. Lectures ranged from Renaissance Italian art to color in archaeological material to brilliant marine-quality enamel. Francesca Esmay, conservator of the Panza Collection at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, presented on Flavin’s electric lights.  Esmay elaborated on the challenge of maintaining Flavin’s artwork despite the perpetual need for replacement bulbs, highlighting the difficulty of sustaining a work of art as technology changes.

“The range of talks was quite good,” said Richard Newman, the Head of Scientific Research at the Museum of Fine Arts.  “I was very intrigued by the combination of science and art. They packed quite a lot in one day.”

The intersection of art and science drew approximately 160 people over the course of the day, Mysak said. Through posters, she targeted MIT and Harvard students as well as professionals in science, conservation, and art.

“Even if it has a very spiritual point, material is still important,” Newman said. “I have always felt that understanding the materials in art is essential to understanding the art itself. Anybody interested in art is interested in the creative process.”Shahin Ismail-Beigi, a freelance editor, attended the event to concentrate on the notion of color.

“It is very important to understand how to communicate something conceptually and emotionally through color,” he said.

Artists also came to learn more about how science affected their profession.

“You can’t talk about contents without the form and material,” said Wilhelm Neusser, a painter. “I really like the variety of approaches to the question of color all across the centuries.”