As a museum intern, I was recently privy to an extended meeting between the curatorial and design staff concerning the selection of a color scheme for the wall labels of our upcoming show. We met in a corner office around a big table strewn with paint sample binders. The conversation began simply.
“What are you thinking of?” the head of the design team asked.
“Blue—I feel blue,” the head of the curatorial team replied. “Can you show me your blues?”
“Of course.” We look at blues. There is much oooing and ahhing, with some ick-ing thrown in for good measure. I was surprised by the curator’s decisiveness. Her fingers would flip through ten or twenty samples before settling on one that would be gently caressed by a manicured thumb.
“Yes, I like this one….and, this one maybe….this one?” The question was rhetorical. “No. This one looks too much like nature—we don’t want that. We want something that looks like infinity.” The color of infinity? I smiled.
“How about these?” she asked after a few minutes… “Hmmm—hmm. These all feel like they come out at us. We need something that draws us in, you know?”
We knew. “I like this one…but it feels too much like we’re dressing up the artist in a historical nightgown.”
More blues were deliberated and my mind wandered off into a childhood memory. I must have been about eight or nine, and my father had brought me along on an errand to an electronics store. I remember being mesmerized by a gigantic wall covered by television screens—all playing the same scene. But it wasn’t exactly the same scene. All the colors were different. Each screen had a different color scale, and the impact of seeing so many parallel movie sequences that were at once identical and not made a profound impression on my pre-pubescent phenomenology. Some of the images were decidedly sun-kissed—the faces of the heroine rosy compared with her pallid bluish doppelgängers on either side. But these alternate images were more than justified when the brilliant panorama of an alpine lake flashed across the screen. It baffled my young mind to realize how incredibly varied the set of ostensibly identical scenes really was. And it was only a small leap from that thought to the notion that perhaps every person saw real-life colors with as much variation as the wall of televisions looming above me.
How, then, could the head curator be sure that the blue she saw was the same as the blue that throngs of museum visitors would see? Did it matter? Perhaps each person had their own “historical nightgown blue.”
I thought of Walter Benjamin, who wrote: “Color is single, not as a lifeless thing and a rigid individuality but as a winged creature that flits from one form to the next.” If our perception of colors was hardly universal, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all this deliberation was, somehow through its precision, robbing color of its very nature! If I try to recall the moments in my life when I was most intensely struck by color, it was never the work of shades in isolation. Take an instant to think back on your own color reveries… does nature come to mind? For me it does. The anti-white box-- nature. Even an arctic tundra—perhaps the whitest and most homogonous color-field the natural world has to offer has an infinitely more varied palette than the museum color charts we were examining around the table. Hence, to curate color as one does when a numbered hue is carefully selected from a chart, is to re-invent its nature--transforming it from a living thing with its own purpose to a brand of sorts that stands in for something other than itself. Who today can appreciate the singular pleasure of Coca-Cola red without their mouth watering? The color as color has been subsumed by connotation.
The quote I just mentioned comes from Benjamin’s essay “A Child’s View of Color,” where he goes on to explain: “Children like the way colors shimmer in subtle, shifting nuances (as in soap bubbles), or else make definite and explicit changes in intensity, as in oleographs, paintings, and the pictures produced by decals and magic lanterns. For them color is fluid, the medium of all changes, and not a symptom.” The color of labels, it seems, is no child’s play, and I suppose the role of the curator never changes—to pin down the butterfly.
--Sophia Powers, International Editor, ArtSlant China & India