An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour: The Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection
(Atelier Editions, 2018)
In the 1920s, Professor Edward Forbes, Harvard art historian and then-director of its Fogg Art Museum, wanted to give his students the opportunity to learn from European masterworks. But in order to be sure he was acquiring the real paintings, he had to develop a better sense of the authenticity of painting materials. To accomplish this, he built what is now one of the largest and most expansive collections of color samples, including over 2,500 of the rarest pigments in the world. Kept behind glass along the walls of an administrative building at Harvard, the pigments each glisten in small glass vials. An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour documents this collection with portraits of these precious samples. Color historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword, “The bottles and flasks are like the spines of books that most of us cannot ever open. Yet it is enough to stand in front of them for a moment and gaze.” An Atlas explores the history and science behind pigments and color mixing, from pioneer color theorists like Josef Albers and Mark Rothko to more contemporary advancements in color, like Anish Kapoor’s development of VantaBlack, a shade of black that he has exclusive licensing rights to. The book balances the science of color—examining natural sources of pigments and the conservation uses of the collection—with emotional and cultural associations, bringing this historic collection into the expanded conversations about the politics of color ongoing today.
The book is divided into nine color-specific sections arranged almost perfectly to the rainbow, ROYGBIV, except it omits indigo and adds earth colors, black, white, and metallic. Each section includes a history of the color’s appearance throughout art history. Orange, which recalls images of fresh fruit, “sweetest clementines and divine illuminations” was favored by Monet for his studies of changing light, Francis Bacon for his writhing backgrounds, and Keith Haring for his activist murals that raised awareness of the AIDS crisis. Red, which An Atlas claims is the oldest color known to humans, begins with it associations like “intoxicating ardour and carnal lust, wanton sensuality and rapacious power.” We are drawn to colors unconsciously for reasons we can’t always identify. “In some ways, colours tell us what is right and what is harmful,” explains Center Director and Conservation Scientist Dr. Narayan Khandekar in the introduction, “Ripe fruit has a certain colour, red meat is edible, green meat less palatable. And colours must also release chemicals in our brain that catalyse these responses. So when we see jars of pigments, the receptors in our brain are flooded and we experience many different senses, which can go some way to explaining why shelves of pigments are so popular and endlessly fascinating to a great many people.” An Atlas takes us behind these associations—into the ways in which colors are built, through natural and chemical processes, and then used by artists and conservators. Beyond the “carnal lust” of red is its history: derived from natural ochre, it is the earth’s most common pigment and was used for “symbolic bodily anointment” in the Stone Age.
The Forbes Collection dates back to the mid 18th century, but the publication of this book comes at a time when many others are exploring what’s behind our unconscious color associations. Journalist Bruce Falconer recently profiled Pantone and the business of color forecasting (predicting commercial color trends years in advance) for the New York Times Magazine, shedding light on a corporation that plays off of and dictates much of what we want. Falconer emphasizes many of the same feelings about the innate power of color that the Forbes Collection scholars highlight. “The idea that color exerts powerful, often subliminal forces on the human mind,” write Falconer, “is at once [Pantone Executive Director Leatrice] Eiseman’s ardent belief and her professional stock in trade.” It’s these intuitive feelings about colors that Pantone builds on. The chronology of color developments in the article notes Tiffany & Co.’s development of their trademark robin’s egg blue in 2001, Facebook’s solid blue banner in 2004, and more recently, Pantone’s naming of a purple called “Love Symbol #2” in commemoration of Prince. Pantone both identifies and creates color trends for the market.
At the same time that Pantone is planning the color of future and the Forbes Collection sits protected behind glass, artists and writers are interrogating the political ramifications and complexities of color as both a commercialized product and a means of labeling and organizing people. Sara Cwynar’s video Rose Gold (2017) looks at Apple’s release of Rose Gold products, a color linked to the widely popular millennial pink (Pantone named Rose Quartz its 2016 Color of the Year) against the backdrop of this cultural color fetishization. In a series of photographs that she showed alongside the video at Foxy Production in New York, Cwynar places her friend Tracy against color grids, laying her hands flat in order to match her skin tone to the palette. In her review of Rose Gold (April 7–May 14, 2017), New Yorker critic Andrea K. Scott notes scholar Lorna Roth’s Colour Balance Project, which examines, according to its website, “how the colour—or colours—of skin have been historically imagined, embedded, and manipulated in consumer products and through communications media.” While Cwynar and Roth are critical of these manipulations, artist Angélica Dass, who Falconer notes in his profile, does a more optimistic investigation of race and color, photographing headshots of people all over the world against the corresponding Pantone color as backdrop, opening up a conversation about the multiplicity of human shades. Artist Beatrice Glow furthers this investigation of race and color in the cultural sphere with her 2015 lecture/performance Color, Light and the Romantic Gaze, which follows 18th century Spanish explorers who mined non-western countries for plants that had commercial value and made color charts of them to bring home, romanticizing “the other,” stripping it of its cultural context, and renaming it in Western terms. Though his early collecting was limited to European exploration, it’s hard not to think of the parallels in Forbes’s own treasure hunt for pigment samples to keep behind glass and catalogue for the audience of his elite students.
While the pigments at Harvard are still actively used for research and conservation, the book itself is not a research text. Nor does it attempt to address the cultural and political construction of many of the colors and associations it notes. Much like the colors themselves—isolated against white backgrounds—the book’s creator(s) perhaps wished it to exist in a vacuum where color is merely an aesthetic tool for artistic production. But, as the lengthy histories of each color suggest, the narratives that interweave science, art, and culture are more complex. Color science is undoubtedly fascinating, and the Forbes collection provides an excellent case study, but the book’s sleek rainbow-clad cover and white minimalist design are clear indicators that the potential to address the social and political implications of color through this historic collection remains untapped.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists' books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.