ColorTherapy: The Color Chart at MoMA

I went to the new show “Color Chart” at MoMA thinking I’d have a new set of color inspirations to suggest for interiors based on the work of these artists. What I came away with instead were several contradictory thoughts on the usage and history of color in paint...

For most of the history of painting, artists and their assistants mixed their own paints. Palettes were simple, consisting of red and yellow ochre, earth tones, black and white, with maybe a personal favorite thrown in. If a patron was willing to fund it, add vermilion and ultramarine, which incidentally is why Christ always had red robes and the Virgin bright blue. Synthetic pigments gave the Impressionists bright new colors to play with but paint was still something of a cottage industry.

By the time 1950 rolled around, paint was mass-produced and color stocks were standardized, plus the introduction of acrylic paint to the market all meant that artists were left with an unprecedented array of color options to choose from. There are two major themes on display in this exhibition—artists working with industrial paint products, and artists using a paint store color index as a point of reference.

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The show is scintillating, with walls everywhere covered in checkerboards of contrasting color. It’s easy to understand why artists were drawn to these new standardized indices—to hold one of these newly minted color charts in your hand with its many new options, one would want to leap into the studio and start experimenting. Appropriately, much of the work feels like pages from a fan deck writ big.

An early Marcel Duchamp piece entitled “Tu M’” contains lozenge shapes representing the first color chips available. Paintings by Gerhard Richter and Jim Dine look literally like large color samples. It’s easy to imagine artist like Ellsworth Kelley cutting up his own color charts to make the small collages that eventually become larger work. Jennifer Bartlett and Damien Hirst offer a contemporary spin on this idea.

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Other artists appropriate a specific color palette. Katharina Frisch creates “Eight Paintings With Eight Colors” based on the Faber Castell colors she saw in her grandfather’s paint store when she was a child. Sherrie Levine’s “Salubra #4” utilizes colors from the palette of Le Courbusier. Donald Judd’s untitled sculpture is painted in standardized colors from Europe’s RAL paint system, such as #9017 Traffic Black.

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Lastly, there is a group of artists working with multiples (prints, photographs) in which a small edition of the same image is displayed but with each produced in a different color. In these editions, color is meant to modulate the tenor of each individual piece based on the emotional responses we have to each specific color. Warhol offers a familiar example of this with his series of Marilyn Monroe silk screens.

So here’s my conundrum: How can we fold the curators’ intentions back on themselves and for the purposes of this column highlight some new color recommendations for interior usage? I don’t think I can ultimately answer that, because given how many new color charts, products and palettes blossomed in the mid-century, we must certainly have ten times as many options now.

And considering the full spectrum on display in this exhibition, it’s easy to lose track of how and when each artist is making specific color choices in their work. Perhaps I was looking for certain epiphanies, such as “turquoise equals the 50s,” or “everyone likes bright red,” or that certain colors always looked good together but that certainly wasn’t the curators point. The point lies in the choice.

So for interior inspirations, I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions: In “Color Chart,” color is everywhere.

>> Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today

- Mark Chamberlain, interior and decorative painter

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.