Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Color Sensation: Robert Swain

This month we’re eager to share the work of Robert Swain, a painter whose 50-year career has focused on the dynamics and subtleties of color.  Swain’s large-scale, rainbow-hued grid paintings explore just how color is perceived and experienced by individual viewers. 

Untitled, 10 ft. x 70 ft., 2014  Photo by Jeff McLane. From the show "Robert Swain: The Form of Color" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2014

In his artist’s statement, Swain describes color as a transfer of energy:  Color is a form of energy derived from the electromagnetic spectrum that stimulates our perceptual processes and is instrumental in conveying emotions."  




Every visible color has a specific wavelength frequency.  Red vibrates with a steady rolling stimulus, while purple at the opposite end of the spectrum vibrates with a high variable stimulus.  These frequencies generate both biological and physiological responses that are body-based and primordial or empirically-based on one's positive or negative memories and experiences.

Untitled 712, 7 ft. x 7 ft. (1978); Untitled 703, 7 ft. x 7ft. (1978); Untitled 10 ft. x 30 ft. (1973)



Untitled, 30 Part Circle, 8 ft. 6 in. diameter. 1971. Swain's color system includes 30 distinct hues.


Swain became fascinated with ways to understand and document color in the 1960s, and soon after began to develop his own color system.  Mixing colors by hand in tiny jars, Swain painted small square color “chips.”   He created paintings by “drawing” with these chips. 

Study for Tupperware, 1981



Swain’s grid paintings, composed of carefully configured color squares, are intensified by scale: some reach as long as 70 feet.  Over the years the artist has experimented with endless configurations and juxtapositions, each producing a sense of movement and light within the work. Often the paintings show color in descending values, which gives the illusion of fading.

Untitled, 7 ft. x 7ft.-703; Untitled, 8 ft. x 8 ft. -AA. 2005-2006


“Seeing color simultaneously brings out the dimensions of color -- the light to dark qualities, the saturation, the hue—and gives to the viewer a spectral array of what the dimension of colors are about,” the artist said in the video “Visual Sensations: The Paintings of Robert Swain.” 

Swain purposefully eliminates all cultural references in an effort to present what he calls “a very direct experience, a color sensation.” 

Untitled, 10 ft. x 11 ft., 1973; Untitled, 10 ft. x 11 ft., 1973


There is a palpable sense of movement and energy in each of these paintings.  In viewing them, we grasp how color behaves on Swain's canvas.  We see red advance and blue recede.  The experience is a testament to the power of color—and the personal response it can bring out in all of us.  Each of us may select a different favorite canvas and palette which makes Swain's color message timeless.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Graphic Color: Massimo Vignelli


This month we pay tribute to the incomparable designer Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014), whose influential modern aesthetic hinged on primary colors and graphic forms.  Born and trained in Milan, Vignelli came to New York in 1965 and set up a multidisciplinary design firm with his wife Leila, an architect.  Throughout his career, Vignelli used color to create a graphic language that spoke louder than mere words could.  




Vignelli was celebrated for his bold use of color and his insistence on simple, functional design.  The designer's Heller dinnerware is a staple of many modernist kitchens; his Ford Motors logo has held fast for 50 years. 



Heller dinnerware organized by color family


The designer also employed bright primary colors;  his Heller dinnerware and nearly ubiquitous Knoll Handkerchief Chair were issued in a rainbow of shades. He once famously declared, “Any color works if you push it to the extreme.”  

Vignelli's vision for Knoll's handkerchief chairs manifests here in a striking orange.


Vignelli's American Airlines logo



His 1972 design for the New York City subway map was both celebrated and controversial. The map omitted many familiar features like streets and parks, and confused riders at first.


New York City subway map


Gray, not green was used to denote Central Park; beige, not blue indicated waterways.  "You want to go from Point A to Point B, period," he explained. "The only thing you are interested in is the spaghetti.” Vignelli's revised design was heralded by New York Times’ architecture critic Paul Goldberger as “more than beautiful…a nearly canonical piece of abstract design.”


Massimo Vignelli in black


He favored what has been called a "severe" palette of red, black and white.  Vignelli always dressed in black, a color he considered all-powerful.  


Stendig calendar in black


He noted in an interview with the Design Observer, "Black has class. It’s the best color. There is no other color that is better than black. There are many others that are appropriate and happy, but those colors belong on flowers. Black is a color that is man-made. It is really a projection of the brain. It is a mind color. It is intangible. It is practical. It works 24 hours a day. In the morning or afternoon, you can dress in tweed, but in the evening, you look like a professor who escaped from college. Everything else has connotations that are different, but black is good for everything." 


Knoll Cube


Red was another Vignelli signature color, as is evident in his work for Knoll, Heller, JC Penny, and his own corporate identity.  He coined the term "Vignelli Red" which is "somewhere on the border of red and orange." 




At Colour Studio we believe judicious use of strong color is infinitely powerful in communicating a message - be it through graphics, architecture, product design, or art. Massimo Vignelli seamlessly employed timeless colors to communicate ideas and emphasize functionality, and for that we celebrate his work.