Art Marches On

John Haber
in New York City

Philip Ball: Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

David Hockney: Secret Knowledge

Is there a science of color? And should artists care?

The answer must seem obvious. Color comes unbidden to senses, as nature's own feast. And yet color is always an art.

Or is it? Philip Ball thinks that science and art, pigments and colors they create, have grown up together. And like big kids, they are always restless. It makes for a refreshing contrast to David Hockney's much hyped jumble of art and optics. Jan van Eyck's Cardinal Niccolò Albergati (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1431)

Method in their madness

Sure, the touchy-feely might object, artists go to school—where they paint like students. They can learn perfectly nice rules for their time and their artistic stature. They can learn to mix paints, to delegate the burden to a workshop, or to squeeze them out of the tube. When change comes, however, it comes with a swiftness and impact that science can hardly explain. Science works by creating shared knowledge, a body of understanding that time cannot erase, whereas art leaves no traces but itself. Copies or forgeries of Old Masters, like plenty of art critics hoping to understand the past, start to look phony soon enough.

The artist's brush catches shades and shadows as if by surprise. Can science do that? Those raw brown gestures from the cave of Lascaux, the light blue that all but belongs to Fra Angelico half a millennium before Yves Klein thought to trademark one, the red cloak that gives Caravaggio's John the Baptist command of the future even as his eyes sink, the mere white of Jan Vermeer's pearl and fur, J. A. D. Ingres's yellow-gold that refuses the softness of satin, Mark Rothko's darkness that owes little more to reality but despair—the procession itself is arbitrary. They might have nothing in common but a perpetual strangeness.

Ball knows all that and more. Indeed he should, as a distinguished science writer with a background in chemistry and physics. In turn, he thinks that artists know more, too—a lot more. The result is a must-read for anyone who cares about creativity or art's history, not to mention what an exhibition calls "Color and the Mind's Eye."

In fact, Modernism began with a science of color, and the idealism of science has haunted it to the end. Only modern science and art can so explain and defy appearances. Quantum mechanics sprang to life as Max Planck and Albert Einstein imagined particles of light. Radiation that fills the universe may yet explain its origins and its future. In art today, color comes straight out of picture tubes and holographic signs.

Georges Seurat certainly thought he had a science of color for his Circus Sideshow, with "the purity of the spectral element" as the very "formula of optical painting." Followers such as Paul Signac counted on his "understanding of the laws of contrast, the methodical separation of elements—light, shade and local color, and the interaction of colors—as well as their proper balance and proportions." The scientific impulse hung on, too. For Wassily Kandinsky and Kandinsky Compositions, specific colors gave art psychological and spiritual powers. For the Bauhaus or Alexander Rodchenko and artists of the Russian Revolution, art took part in a science of living. For Clement Greenberg, "Modernist art belongs to the same historical and cultural tendency as modern science."

And yet the dream of a scientific method in art's madness did not begin with Modernism. Seurat worked out his ideas against a lively background of competing investigations. Long before that, Leonardo da Vinci laid out atmospheric perspective—how color changes with distance, as in the distant green air of Pieter Bruegel.

Lingering over the details

In Ball's hands, the dream lives on today. Postmodernism may have turned on modernist utopias, institutions, and the sheer possibility of ultimate truths. Still, science and art get along just fine, thank you. This book helps suggest why.

Ball sees color through the eyes of a scientist. More, he sees art and science as a shared enterprise. New ideas and materials alter the possibilities for art. At the same time, art serves as a critical laboratory for chemistry and optics. Art's laboratory explains the fluid and creative ways that people have conceived their world. That includes the "fluidity of color terminology," from classical artists without a word for brown or gray to Newton's rainbow—and beyond. In Ball's eyes, as for Kandinsky, art and scientific "experiment" give colors their "meanings."

Not that "our ability to distinguish colors," Ball notes, "is limited by the structure of our color vocabulary." Art's materials cannot explain things so simply either. "It is . . . absurd to suppose that, but for . . . the chemical prowess to extend the range of pigments, the ancient Egyptians would have painted in the style of Titian." Sure, pigments, color concepts, and art each has a history all its own. Yet those histories intersect profoundly, and one gains in understanding by weaving them together.

Moreover, science shares much the same muddle of ideas, vision, and intuition. Anyone who thinks that science marches on "has never dabbled in science." I know. I made it through graduate courses in physics before my personal march stopped dead. As a proper postmodernist, Ball does not try to sort out the muddle, and that is among his strengths.

Philosophy and science aside, any student of art has to straighten out oils versus tempera or fresco, the varied kinds of prints, or techniques of preservation. Art history took that for granted ages ago. I learned the difference between woodcut, etching, and engraving not from high-school art class but from a great historian, Erwin Panofksy, in his Albrecht Dürer. One may think of Ball as merely a good excuse to linger over the details, like over coffee on a sunny weekend morning.

Besides, color makes for a terrific story. What happened when the Egyptians first discovered pottery glazes and, with them, ways to paint? How could the Greeks ever conflate red and green? How real was alchemy's magic? What made blue so royal? When did paint get into mass-produced tubes? For that matter, how seriously should one take Seurat's science?

Science in secret

A preliminary chapter tackles the atomic basis of color and what happens in the eye, along with the rainbow that emerged from Isaac Newton's prism. "Color comes from plucking this rainbow." After the explanation here of additive and subtractive primaries, I may even get why astronomers have decided that the universe, if I escaped from it, would look pale green.

The next few chapters proceed historically. One learns how their limited pigments, which darkened badly on mixing, favored the Greek preference for "pure" color. One finds how delicate glazes of oil overcame a similar problem and how Impressionists managed outdoors.

The chronological account pauses for a few chapters before Modernism, as if catching its breath before the impending chaos. Here Ball looks at dyes and blue pigments with their own rich history. Next comes the difficult discipline of art restoration, plus the discoveries that got me those crummy posters in my bedroom. A final chapter succumbs to the inevitable in science writing—speculation, for whatever it is worth, about the future. At least a history that began with a cousin of sculpture, pottery, does not end with a black monolith. Oh, that was last year.

By coincidence, the scientific basis of art has made headlines, not to mention a coffee-table book. David Hockney, the British painter, claims that artists as far back as Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck have depended on lenses and mirrors. They have traced their compositions from images projected onto the canvas, long before Thomas Eakins took dozens of preparatory nude photos.

The thesis keeps taking hits from all sides—scientists, art historians, and culture mavens—but that only adds to the publicity machine. An even less helpful appeal to science, attributing Rembrandt's self-image to poor vision, has also made headlines. Ball's less glossy volume makes a chastening contrast.

Hockney, as many point out, takes little care to prove his case. Could lenses of the time truly project enough scope and detail? Do the tense, responsive outlines of Ingres really look like a Warhol? Do distortions in Ingres, such as an arm growing out of a woman's chest, in fact emerge in a comparable photograph? Could van Eyck really have completed a silverpoint of Cardinal Albergati on the spot—and do its outlines match up with the same man's portrait in oils, rather than with its reproduction in some textbooks? Could a darkened chamber supply Vermeer's vision, constructed so indissolubly from a richness of color?

Look who is looking

For that matter, did a camera obscura ever function as a tool for the passive reception of the world? As Bryan Jay Wolf has argued, perhaps it caught on because it offered artists a model right out of John Locke—of a mind that can receive impressions only because it engages them and makes them intelligible. At the very least, as Jean-Luc Delsaute notes, it helped to codify a new sense of the visual, less mired in the idealization of linear perspective. As the Belgian scholar puts it,

The presence of these effects in no way implies that the artist who produced them must have used a camera obscura in the creative process. It simply attests to the fact that this painter was very attentive to the phenomena of light. Photographers, such as Thomas Struth today, have learned to use the same tricks to defy one's expectations of artistic composition and photographic reality.

Or rather, to take Delsaute's own arguments more seriously, it attests to a newly shared conception of those phenomena. One has to look at who is looking. Fads catch on because they feel right to a lot of people. In this case, the new conception comes wrapped up in a new way of painting, through color as much as line. Ironically, today the direct impress of light, as in a photographic negative or wall-sized prints by Vera Lutter, appear as a ghostly monochrome.

Conversely, Hockney's brand of art history makes his case too hard to disprove. He falls short of the scientific method, because he can encompass anything. If drawing has the sharpness and accuracy of photorealism for Rackstraw Downes, it must come from a lens. (Forget that artists learned perspective or anatomy—and used rulers.) If drawing gets blurry or skewed at the edges, so do photographs. If portraits are too tall for their heads, did flattery (and skill) triumph over optics? Nope, for him it just demonstrates that artists spliced their images together.

Hockney also points to no written proof, despite art history's ever-growing contribution to planet Earth's landfill crisis. It hardly helps that his thesis hinges on his favorite artists. Either they represent at its best the practice of their time, in which case the missing documents make no sense at all. Or the "secret knowledge" of his title passed down only to the very greatest, like a religious mystery. Giorgio Vasari would have had to join the cult, too. He visited van Eyck along with the sitter for that silverpoint, but his history of Renaissance art reveals nothing.

Ball respects the methods of science, and he give art's experiments much the same attention. His claims have sufficient focus and bite, and he knows why art, like real scholarship, takes words. Facts help, not because they sit still apart from interpretation, but because they have the power to change what one sees. Ball, quoting Julia Kristeva, knows that "chromatic experience constitutes a menace to the 'self' . . . . Colour is the shattering of unity." Hockney sees only an unchanging vision by an unchanging eye.

Culture war

Reality sure sits still for Hockney. He cannot imagine how the patch of light in a mirror could alter the vocabulary of painting, apart from how an artist went about any one work. He lacks, too, the pointed humor of a friend from the School of London in LA, R. B. Kitaj. In turn, he has no clue how conventions in painting have shaped the changing appearance of photography.

Another terrific new book, Philip Steadman's Vermeer's Camera, sees evidence that Delft painters used a camera obscura, but he also adds to my wonder and confusion at Vermeer, right down to a final chapter on the camera's stylistic influence. In one painting, projection in a darkened room may have led to the heavy shadows in Vermeer's underpainting, before subtle but powerful changes. Did the artist chose to defy science in the final colors, or did he work all the harder by intuition to get what science had shown?

Hockney's high and mighty science looms over art, almost like high-res scans of Leonardo. He thus serves as a chilling reminder of how a gap between science and art, those infamous two cultures, still looms over Western culture. The gap stands at its worst in the United States, where brains count as less sexy anyway than abroad. It turns Hollywood scientists into kooks, naive geniuses, or both. It turns kids off math and science. It turns debate over the future of this Earth into a political charade.

Ball and Hockney, to their credit, both make frontal assaults on C. P. Snow's two cultures, simply by discussing science and art in the same breadth. (Hockney pads his masterpiece, shamelessly, with page after page of letters complimenting him on the approach.) Yet Hockney definitely falls victims to it. In letting science explain away art, he puts it back up on its pedestal. When editors fell victim to a scientist's travesty of Postmodernism, they did exactly the same thing. One might never know that, when artists dare one to distinguish between nature as still life and science experiment, as with Olafur Eliasson, they seek amazement.

Ball manages better. His prose helps bridge two worlds quite by itself. Even when it takes on a somewhat studied English accent, it keeps the narrative drive thanks to lively quotations. He has patience, too, with readers. He opens his second chapter, on the physics of Newton's rainbow, with apologies for the hard science. Thanks to his clear explanations, most readers will find that chapter pretty easy going.

One bogs down, perhaps, in the sheer welter of events, pigments, and colors. By the time I got through the historical sequence, I was not ready to start all over on dyes and the color blue. Michel Pastoureau's Blue: The History of a Color, may have it right—aiming as much for a holiday present as to be opened. In contrast, Ball has too few reproductions, and he rarely refers to the images he has. Still, I would not be without Bright Earth. I only wish that it had pushed the assault on two cultures further.

The disunity of vision

Ball just does not have time or expertise to flesh out the changing cultures that he himself opens up. His focus remains on art and science—where, as Frank Stella put it, what you see is what you see. But if the Greek preference for pure colors derives from both pigments and philosophy, how did they look at art? If Seurat had a lens to turn on Paris, what did he discover? If blue has its own history, it also has the incredible chain of associations that William H. Gass, the novelist and philosopher, greets in On Being Blue. One would never know that from Ball's chapter on the color.

A scientist's cast of mind also colors his judgments, not always to the good. He cannot take painters before the Egyptians all that seriously, not when the Earth "offers up" their colors "in abundance." He complains that Seurat muddies his paintings with too much yellow for a proper theoretician. He takes Klein and his patented blue far more seriously than I ever could. He takes art pretty much to mean painting, the world of pigments, a curious turn for so contemporary a text. Prints and photography appear mostly as a source of fine-art reproductions.

Then again, science has its way of marching on for the savviest of writers. Even E. M. Gombrich lets it happen. Gombrich believes that "art can hardly be said to progress," even when artists do. In Art and Illusion, he shows how each period finds its own manner of illusion. At the end, however, he identifies good old single-point perspective with correctness. Maybe, but by then he has opened too many cans of worms, too many other ways of reconstituting sight.

I prefer to take Ball at his best, with the inquiry he sets from the very beginning. In his fine new title, Wolf speaks of Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing. Ball considers color and vision, science and art, as one continued reinvention. As he puts it, "Aren't naked pigments already works of art, the products of skill and creativity, substances of glorious elegance and splendor?" Not only that, but science and art gets them into—and out of—those tubes.

Hockney's trust in his own eye, whatever the facts, reeks of common sense, just where art has to stretch one's limits. If a forgettable living artist cannot paint like that without help, no one can, so there. He plays the tourist who sticks to the Mona Lisa and Claude Monet poppies or Water Lilies—only he projects his favorites back throughout history. Ball has the delightful insight to use history, along with science, to awaken possibilities in the present.

In the end he, too, has to cling to the physical world as a thing apart, the very grounds of a science of color. Can one ever really disentangle—or really entangle—art and vision? Can one ever shatter that unity and still place it perfectly before the eye? It might take a remarkable artist.

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Philip Ball's Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color was published in February 2002 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and David Hockney's Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters was published in October 2001 by Viking. I also refer to Philip Steadman's Vermeer's Camera (Oxford University Press, 2001), Michel Pastoureau's Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton University Press, 2001), William H. Gass's On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (Godine, 1976), E. H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Presentation (Princeton University Press, 1960), Bryan Jay Wolf's Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Jean-Luc Delsaute's contribution to Vermeer Studies, a symposium volume to accompany the National Gallery of Art's Vermeer retrospective, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Yale University Press, 1998).


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