David Batchelor, Chromophobia, 128 pp., Reaktion Books, 2000, $19.95.
In David Batchelor's rented garage in north London, one wall is filled with his photographs of signs and billboards that have been painted or papered over with a single color. He calls them "found monochromes."
Arrayed on the studio floor are his sculptures, witty "color wagons" made from iron shipping trolleys that he has found on the street. They are also monochromes, fitted with brilliantly colored plastic sheets -- vibrant limes, burgundies and ultramarines.
Batchelor's lively work telegraphs the notion that color is always making itself known in our environment and that it can transport us. Batchelor, who is an artist who also teaches critical theory, has now written a book about color that is, um, brilliant.
Chromophobia is a long meditation on color in western culture. Batchelor claims that color doesn't fit in with any of our social constructs. It's too immoral, unnamable, seductive, foreign, elusive.
Like his work, the book is clever and unpretentious, and ranges through the ages, combining references from classical philosophy ("A painter is just a grinder and mixer of multicolor drugs" -- Plato), film (especially The Wizard of Oz) and literature, even the Bible ("Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow"). Sometimes, he mixes it all up, as when he notes that "Dorothy's Kansas, as we know, is gray: Huxley's Kansas is language, as language grays the world around us."
Chromophobia does not mystify paint like the alchemical book, What Painting Is. It performs a kind of selective analysis of a dysfunction by demonstrating how the pure pleasure of color has been unacknowledged or repressed in our culture.
Batchelor begins by pointing out that the pure white absence of Minimalism is a myth -- Dan Flavin used colored fluorescent tubes, Donald Judd used shiny metal and colored plastic. Bright industrial color dominated Minimalism, just like it did Pop Art.
He touches on the timeworn privileging of drawing over color -- disegno versus colore -- and notes how color has been equated with drugs -- Aristotle's pharmakon. According to Batchelor, color has been equated with the fall of man: "it is dangerous because it is secondary... The minor is always the undoing of the major."
He investigates rationalist 19th-century color theorists (one who is named Blanc) and stops at Le Corbusier, who removed color from the Master Narrative of modern architecture. Other chapters are on cosmetic color, which is explicated in the other Romaticist, artifice-laden 19th century of Huysmans and Baudelaire.
Batchelor is particularly good on Warhol's color -- one of the few aspects of Warhol's work that is under-remarked upon -- and in the chapter on linguistics, "Hanunoo."
The literary gems shine throughout, as when he references Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz and "the joys of going away, of leaving the grayness and entering the color … it is a celebration of escape, a great paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn -- the hymn -- to elsewhere."
The Barthes quotes, as one might expect, are delightful: "Color ... is a kind of bliss (jouissance) ... like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell" and "if I were a painter, I should paint only colors: this field seems to me freed of both the Law ... and Nature (for after all don't the colors of nature come from the painters?)"
Batchelor concludes with ruminations on the color of the 1960s. Manufactured color had by then had essentially overtaken painting, leading to a dilemma. Batchelor quotes Frank Stella, who said that a "wise guy" he knew didn't like the Abstract Expressionists, because none of them could keep the paint as good as it looked in the can.
"And that's what I tried to do," Stella said. "I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can." That's a very chewy problem for painters. This richly thoughtful book deserves to be read by lots of painters and anyone else with more than a passing interest in visual culture.
Chromophobia ultimately is a consciousness-raiser disguised as an art theory book. As silly as it might sound -- and silliness can be a property of color -- it made me think about the fuchsia jeans I almost bought at Helmut Lang. Then about the latent spirituality in Banana Republic ads on the subway, with more color in them than anything else around me.
Urban life is filled with "color rhyming" moments; you walk down the street and a yellow truck appears in your frame of vision just as a man in a yellow jacket turns into view and suddenly you feel the ineffable. That's what the book is really about -- honoring moments like that.