I feel like, lately, my life has been permeated by strange moments dominated by color. First, when I moved back to NYC in November I ended up working at a bar called Mr. Purple. I had thought (hoped, really) that this was a Reservoir Dogs reference, but I just got blank stares when I mentioned that to anyone of any rank during training (a disturbing sign, really, of the quality of people I was going to be working under). But, in actuality, it was in reference to a man (partially based in reality, partially made up) who had lived in the LES from the 60s until his death and dressed all in purple, hence, Mr. Purple. He was a major figure on the art scene and the LES NY activist scene, he was one of the first people to start urban gardening, and would appear to have been an all-around awesome hippie kind of guy….Mr. Purple, the bar, was not. It was all about gentrification and money and the “scene” and to be frank wasn’t even particularly successful in those endeavors. A disappointment really, but it helped me pay my bills when I came back, which is necessary and important (because, you know, eating).
Then, the other day as I was trolloping around Facebook I came across a video about The Green Lady. She would appear to be a sweet older woman living in Brooklyn who dresses only in green, eccentric outfits. Her hair is green, her nails are green, her makeup in green, etc. It’s just another example of movement in the odd color direction…another obsession of art historians since color plays a major role in art. You have color theory, marketing theories on what colors sell the best (blue, if you’re interested), the emotional aspects of color usage, etc. I, personally, am partial to red and green in paintings (see Clifford Still, the Fauvists, Rothko, etc).
So, as I was walking through the Anri Sala: Answer Me exhibition at the New Museum (which I highly recommend seeing) that features videos and installations by the artist on several large and separated screens throughout the museum, I was brought back to the last video installation that I truly liked, which focuses on color. I first saw it in London as I was walking through the Tate Modern. I was exploring the exhibitions for the first time since I had just moved to London (and had never been before). I knew I would return to look at things again later so I was taking more of a survey of the space and displays than truly viewing the art. However, I walked by a darkened room that had people standing around the edges of the entranceway and decided to walk in. I was met by a deep blue glow. At first, the room appeared to be nothing more than blank space with a large, glowing blue square on the far wall, but as my eyes adjusted I noticed there was a bench along the wall filled with people and, fascinated, I took a seat. Let me begin with the color. This blue was almost cerulean and vaguely reminiscent of the blue that your TV screen becomes right before you plug in a movie (I think this is more in regards to the time of the VCR as opposed to DVDs, although it may still happen on some TVs with DVDs….though this is beside the point). For me, it was reminiscent of the deep, impenetrable shade of blue that the ocean is when you dive in far away from land. As you float suspended in the open water, you are surrounded by this color and it is thick and visceral. You can touch it, it is all you can see, it is supporting you. When you are fully immersed underwater, it is disconcerting; it’s hard to tell which way is up and which way is down, everything looks the same, it is endless, and then, of course, there is the inevitable realization that sharks live there and there could be one near you…this video was a bit like that (minus the sharks). As I sat and watched it, the color pulled me in, I felt surrounded by it, engulfed even, and it felt physical and real. It took up my entire field of vision and it, alone, was enough.
However, there is more to the video than the color. There were also voices speaking, telling stories, memories, moments. This was my introduction to Derek Jarman’s Blue. Click here for the video on youtube. Here is a link to the text that is spoken throughout the film. The color is based both on Yves Klein’s created color “International Klein Blue” and the color blue that overtook Jarman’s sight as he was dying of AIDS. The video itself is haunting, absorbing, and inclusive, although a viewer wouldn’t know about Yves Klein or Jarman’s AIDS just by watching it. Hopefully, it would inspire the viewer to do a little light research and, between that and active viewings, one could come to understand Jarman’s state of mind as his body decayed and finally succumbed to AIDS and AIDS-related complications. Even without knowing the particulars, though, it is difficult to not be moved by the video, either into a reverie, calmness, or a hypnotic or meditative state.
I again encountered Jarman and Blue several months later during a class for my art history program at UCL (still in London). This class was (not surprisingly) about color and its concerns in art history. We watched the video, read the text, and discussed Jarman, Klein, color choices, and the political, emotional, and theoretical consequences and concerns of such a work. Color is a difficult subject to discuss. At first, it seems too broad to be covered in one class, then it seems too simple. However, it is unique in that while several colors have agreed upon symbolic meaning, there is still a great difference between different peoples’ perception of color. Not only that, but when a work relies on one single color and really forces us to focus on one pared down aspect of visual art (and, really, visual experience), it garners such a huge range of reactions that it is surprising more people haven’t focused on it. People’s reactions range from the purely emotional to the bored to the critical to the abstract and theoretical, and disagreements abound since it is so inherently subjective. Beyond that, people perceive color differently on a mechanical level (some people are color blind) as well as an emotional level (how many times have I argued with someone over whether this one dress I own is pink or red?). It is fascinating that something can appear both incredibly simple and incredibly broad and how those things can lead to such a complicated set of reactions and choices. Not to mention the scientific explanations concerning color, both with light (waves and particles and spectrums) and with manmade color (paints, crayons, pencils, etc). Even further, some artists have chosen to ignore color completely. You see many paintings, drawings, and prints created en grisaille (which means in greyscale, or in black and white). Then, there is photography and the choice to print images in color or black and white and the technological achievements that allowed photos to be printed in color in the first place. There are so many ways to talk about color though, from the simplistic to the deeply philosophical, that I could never hope to cover them all. However, I really set down to write about Jarman’s film in this entry, so I’ll get myself back on track.
During class, I also realized that I had encountered Jarman and Blue two years prior while interning at the Whitney Museum in NY. My curator had asked me to re-organize his personal archive when there was nothing else to do. He had files on all of the artists that he had encountered, exhibited, collected, and was interested in. Derek Jarman had his own file, not surprising since my curator had lived through the AIDS epidemic in NY and lost many friends and colleagues to the disease. He even put on an exhibition while I was there called I, You, We that focused on the AIDS epidemic and how art dealt with it: emotionally, aesthetically, and politically. Every time I encounter this video I realize that it has greater depth and history (for me as well as for itself) than it would initially appear to. I always seem to encounter it and yet it often slips to the back of my mind only to re-emerge and surprise me at a later point in time. It has come to the point where it is familiar, almost like going into a personal space in my mind that holds memories and feelings, and has become comfortable because of that. This video almost perfectly fits my personal definition for a great work of art. As I watch, I feel like the artist is revealing a part of himself to me, I think it is interesting visually and aurally, it is absorbing, and it lingers…perhaps not at the forefront of my mind, but every time I encounter it anew I remember when I saw it before, what I learned, and how my perception has changed. It also references the history of art and the socio-political occurrences of the time in which it was created. If you ever have the opportunity to see it installed and exhibited properly, you should jump at the chance.