Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today at Tate Liverpool

By Ed Sexton | 29 May 2009
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fluorescent lights

Dan Flavin untitled (to Don Judd, colorist), 1-5, 1987. Pink Red yellow Blue and Green Fluorescent light. Exhibition copy / Dan Flavin Ltd. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2009

Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today. May 29 – September 13, 2009

Colour Chart looks at the shifting moment in twentieth century art when a group of artists began to perceive colour as ready made rather than as scientific and expressive.

In a highly engaging exhibition Tate explores how artists regarded colour as a mass-produced and standardised product and the techniques they used to apply colour - either leaving decisions to chance, using a readymade source or developing totally new but arbitrary systems.

A number of the pieces use the exhibition’s departure point, the commercial colour chart, as their inspiration. Jim Dines the Studio Red Devil Color Chart No1 features 12 unmixed house paints arranged in a random order.

However the piece looks anything but commercial and Dines has personalised the chart with occasional misspellings and drips on the canvas.

a green panel

Alighiero Boetti verde Ascte1 288 6631, c 1968. Cast Iron, sprayed industrial paint, private collection

The industrialisation of colour and its commercial uses influenced a number of artists who were keen to experiment with a ready-made colour palette.

Alighiero Boetti who hails from Turin, the home of car manufacturing giant Fiat, uses the ready mixed colour pallet of the automobile industry for a series of pieces in which he takes manufacturer's colours to coat a series of panels embossed with the colour code and name.

Jan Dibbets went a step further and photographed sections of parked cars around Amsterdam – again focusing on premixed colours where the artist had no involvement in the painting.

But perhaps the most arresting piece in Colour Chart is Zopob, a huge industrial scale installation by Jim Lambie made with lines of industrial vinyl tape applied in concentric bands that take their form from the perimeter of the architectural space.

a series of skin tone coloured panels

Byron Kim Synecdoche 1991. Picture © courtesy Max Protetch Gallery

Lambie has little personal involvement in the piece as the tape comes in standard colours and there is no specific design for how they are applied in each venue - the choice goes to whoever installs it.

Mike Kelly uses the colours of the magazine Sex to Sexty as the basis for his Missing Time, Color Exercise No3 and No2. He lays out the issues in order and wherever one is missing he inserts a block of colour, which he painstakingly mixes to match a colour or overall tonality of a neighbouring issue.

Elsewhere we see how the search for readymade colours did not stop at the commercial and industrial; Edward Ruscha discovered a whole new palette in his work, Stains.

Using a diverse range of materials from nail polish and tap water to sperm and even his own blood, he explains: “I didn’t want it to look like art I wanted it to look like a stain.”

Similarly Synecdoche, by Byron Kim, also used the human body as the source of its readymade colour and is made up of 400 panels based on individual skin tones.

a stripy floor

Jim Lambie, Zobop 2006, vinyl tape. Tate

The use of arbitrary systems to assign colours within a piece of work saw artists use everything from numbers in a phone directory to preparing pre-pencilled grids.

Francois Morellet’s Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory involved transcribing a series of 7,000 telephone numbers into a series of blue and red squares.

Similarly obsessive was Ellsworth Kelly who became enamoured with adhesive backed coloured paper in a shop in Paris which he used to create his Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance series. Assigning numbers to the colours he then placed them onto a pre-numbered chart.

magazine covers and coloured panels

Mike Kelly, Missing Time Color Exercise#2, 1998. Acrylic on wood, magazines. Private collection.

For John Baldessari inspiration sprang from the perceived distinction between artists and ordinary house painters who use readymade colours. Six Colorful Inside Jobs is a film that shows a room being painted six times over 6 days in 6 different colours. Each day is represented by a different colour. No painting was done on the Sunday as it was viewed as the traditional day of rest.

However, one of the most striking pieces here is by Lawrence Weiner and it involves no colour at all. With a touch of pink, with a bit of violet, with a hint of green is a series of statements in black writing on a white background. It puts colour into the mind of the viewer without dimension, shape value or hue but offers infinite possibilities.

black writing on a white wall

Lawrence Weiner, WITH A TOUCH OF PINK WITH A BIT OF VIOLET WITH A HINT OF GREEN, 1976. text on wall. Collection Dorothee and Konrad Fischer©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2009.

Colour Chart is hugely appealing with its variety of mediums and installations. It draws you in from the beginning and boasts an innovatibe and surprising layout that means you are never quite sure what you are going to come across next.

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