On Color

by Susan Tallman

September 2013

Color is generally considered a desirable thing: a sign of health, of spring, of light at the end of the tunnel. It is how cultures around the world mark the end of mourning and how generations of moviegoers knew Dorothy was no longer in Oz. This automatic equation of color with all good things may be a little grating for those who love the concision and high stakes of black-and-white prints, drawings and photographs, but the fluid integration of color into man-made objects has been a technological Holy Grail for millennia. Kandinsky, Albers and many others have attempted to codify the power of color in art, but color in print is a different animal than color in painting, or has been until recently. This issue of Art in Print looks at color: color as technology, color as subject matter, color as experience and meaning.

Painters can mix pigments willy-nilly on palette and canvas, but printing demands a separation of parts. For centuries the approach to printed color was additive: you began with black or brown ink on paper, then added a second shade and tried to line them up as best you could. Dark line came “naturally” before any chromatic addenda. In his article here, Thomas Primeau sets the stage by examining the early attempts of European artists and printers to enliven their images with stenciled color, resulting in a semi-mechanized paint-by-number.

Over the course of subsequent centuries, printers continued to search for ways to mimic the chromatic plasticity of painting, but with little success. Etchers and engravers saw virtue in the discipline and intensity of black. Yet, as Cobus van Breda’s account of Charles Meryon’s etchings here makes clear, even among the most meticulous of etching revivalists, color found its way in. Meryon’s fondness for printing on pastel tinted papers added variety to his impressions, but it can also be seen a forerunner of the 20th century interest in paper, its texture and color, as a substantive element of the image, not just a backdrop for other action.

This attitude continues to underlie most contemporary printmaking, where the material specifics of inks and papers are treated as active contributors to meaning. It can be seen in Ian Davenport’s intensely colored Circle Etchings (reviewed by Charles Schultz) and Alain Biltereyst’s cardboard reliefs (reviewed by Amelia Ishmael), and is equally manifest in the subtle tonalities of Martin Puryear’s ostensibly black and white etchings, which I write about below. Justin Quinn, selected by Jane Kent as the winner of the first Art in Print Prix de Print competition, plays on our associations with the paper colors that lie so unremarked beneath black letters. In all these works color and material are as intimately linked as they were for Meryon.

Just a couple of decades ago the division of the world into black-and-white versus color felt natural. Photographs, movies, television and photocopying were all originally—like prints on paper—black-and-white things to which color was later added as an optional and expensive extra. This is the dichotomy captured so effectively in the early work of Dieter Roth, whose retrospective at MoMA is examined here by Allison Rudnick.

But digital printing and digital photographic have brought about a paradigm shift. To the camera phones we carry, the printers that sit on our desks, and the LCD screens on our laptops it’s all just ones and zeros. For most practical purposes today, color is the default, while black-and-white is an “effect” achieved by clicking the desaturate icon.

The ease and access of color printing has changed the way artists think about print both in and out of the digital realm. Jason Urban’s report from Montreal documents a city in which artists have seized upon print techniques—primarily screenprint—as a way to color the world. As a technology, screenprint is simply a tweak on the 16th century stencils described by Primeau, but it is being used to apply ink to everything from chipboard to entire building facades.

The new profusion of color, of course, has its own drawbacks. Inkjet has made color printing easy, but not necessarily precise or appealing. Carinna Parraman reports on efforts made by the Centre for Fine Print Research in Bristol to adapt commercial digital color to the more meticulous needs of artists.

Meanwhile, in a sea of cheap printed color, black-and-white can now assert itself as a purposeful choice. Sarah Bodman’s survey of artists books takes us on a tour of darkness where we find black as the cosmos, black as the deep, black as the veil of ignorance, black as the embodiment of text, black as the slough of despond, black as the framing of light.

Finally, in the second installment of our “Treasures from the Vault” series, curator and scholar Richard Axsom takes on the most virtuosic of contemporary colorists in his essay on Ellsworth Kelly’s lithograph Red (2005). It is a reminder that sometimes color is not an add-on at all, but a sea to dive into for all its giddy retinal sensations—sensations that, for whatever reasons of human neurology, have the ability to transport us beyond the realm of explanation.