— Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (1963)
AT ITS BASE, writing is an act of drawing, of applying short, black intersecting lines to a white page. When illegible to a reader, the graphic page fails to represent a world through words and remains an abstract patterning of black on white. This disconnect, between the way a page looks and the way a page means, is, perhaps, one reason why so many writers have taken up the topic of color — how color works, what color is, what color signifies, how one might write color. According to Goethe, for example, the color of the shadow cast by a pencil placed between a short candle and a white sheet of paper at sunset is blue. Colette wrote on blue paper. William Gass saw language itself as blue. And writing is colored in other ways too — purple prose, yellow journalism, lavender linguistics. Gilbert Sorrentino was interested in “orange” — a color named for the fruit, not vice versa — as the word with which nothing rhymes. He composed an entire book of poems (The Orangery) around the color. A dear college friend of mine used “orange sense of smell” to write a certain kind of depression — that experience of feeling outside of things, out of sync, out of rhyme. Orange was how some of us later came to understand his eventual suicide.
Colors do not only define states of being but also large strata of people — Wassily Kandinsky (a founder of the German artistic movement Der Blaue Reiter [The Blue Rider]) used a certain shade of green to describe the bourgeoisie as “immobile, complacent […] limited in every respect. This green is like a fat, extremely healthy cow, lying motionless, fit only for chewing the cud, regarding the world with stupid, lackluster eyes.” Even epochs have colors — the late 19th century has in turn been described as gilded, brown, yellow, and mauve. And so we use colors to help make meaning of words and feelings and events and time. The art historian John Gage wrote in Color and Meaning that “colour has always lent itself very readily to association and symbolizing.” We are all synaesthetes, in a way, seeing concepts through colored lenses. Not surprisingly, writers ranging from Goethe to Gass, Ludwig Wittgenstein to Maggie Nelson, all experts in associating, all dwellers in the black and the white, have been fascinated with what color means to the scenes they describe, the metaphors they draw, the experiences they evoke, the philosophical dilemmas they provoke.
David Scott Kastan joins this conversation with On Color, a gorgeously illustrated in-depth exploration of color on all of its symbolic, visual, literary, political, historic, and scientific registers. The artist Josef Albers has argued that “it is hard, if not impossible, to remember distinct colors. This underscores the important fact that the visual memory is very poor in comparison with our auditory memory.” This difficulty of color and all its attendant clichés — Why do we see red when we’re mad but through rose glasses when we’re happy? Why are we green with envy? Why is the sky blue, the mountains purple, the sea black, the sands white? — is at the center of Kastan’s study. Clearly a labor of love, this book is a departure for Kastan, a scholar of Early Modern literature at Yale University whose previous work has focused on Shakespeare and the history of the book.
On Color is conversational, personal, witty in tone: “No one is quite sure about Kelly green, beyond an association with Ireland. Perhaps it is the imagined color of what leprechauns wear.” Yet Kastan’s long scholarly career in material culture has demonstrably informed his careful research on color — color being both a material reality and a conceptual problem. Harald Kueppers insists in The Basic Law of Color Theory that “[c]olor only seems to be a material property” that actually “exists exclusively as a sensory perception on the part of the viewer.” In this spirit, Kastan historicizes color and focuses specifically on the ontology of color, on how it comes to “be,” organizing the book in the order of Newton’s seven colors (an arbitrary number, apparently, chosen by scientific Newton to map onto the days of Creation), with concise, elegant chapters titled “Roses are Red,” “Orange Is the New Brown,” “Yellow Perils,” and so on. He includes three colors in addition to the Newtonian spectrum: black, white, and gray. (In a brief conversation, I asked him what color he would add if he could, and he answered brown. I offered pink and later thought of silver.) While the chapters build on each other, deftly weaving literary, art, scientific, and historical references, they can easily be read out of order and over time as discrete studies.
Each chapter then explores the larger phenomenon of color through the various ways each color has come to mean, so to speak. “Dy(e)ing For Indigo,” for example, asks whether indigo is really a color at all and offers a detailed history of its specific role as a dye. “Orange Is the New Brown” explains the ways in which a certain color term, like red, refers to a large swath of color variations, until a specific word enters the language to differentiate it. “[T]here was no orange […] before oranges came to Europe,” Kastan argues, tracking the use of the color back to Shakespeare, when it was used to identify a certain shade of brown, “orange tawny.” Orange only became a color of its own in English in the 17th century, after colonial trade brought oranges to England from India; “orange” is derived, he shows, from the Sanskrit word “naranga.”
But why do these material and linguistic histories matter? Kastan addresses this question in “Mixed Greens.” Exploring the political and cultural significance of green, Kastan traces how green has become the “color of our ecological concerns” in the United States but of Catholicism in Ireland and of civil rights in Iran, associated with Muhammad. Understanding these global differences enables us to reflect upon the significance of green locally alongside the “promiscuity” of political color. How we use color, after all, is not benign. In “Yellow Perils,” Kastan locates the attachment of certain colors to ideas of race, “a remarkably inexact index of racial identity,” reading work by artists Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon. The very existence of certain colors in the first place is inseparable from racial inequality and violence; Kastan describes in detail how the demanding production of indigo depended upon slave labor — “No one involved in the business side of indigo cultivation was at all ambivalent about this fact” — the exertion and coercion of which is rarely depicted in the corresponding images of plantation practices. “Color matters,” Kastan insists, “and in spite of our occasional empty gestures of denial (‘I don’t care if she is green or purple’), we know it.”
In “White Lies,” Kastan brings many of these issues together, beginning with the discrepancy between an understanding of white light as a combination of all colors and of white pigment as an absence of color: “What then is white?” White is a color, Kastan argues, both because we see it and because we imbue it with symbolic meaning, just as we do black, and it is one of the most contradictory colors, the color of purity and of death, of innocence and of power. Through readings of Herman Melville’s white whale in Moby-Dick, the Optic White paint of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the paintings of Robert Ryman, and the etymological roots of white as “blank,” Kastan highlights the enigmatic quality of whiteness and thus its sustained slipperiness: “[W]hat Melville knew was that he needed to refuse the dualism of white and black that underwrites the corrosive racism in (not ‘of’) the novel.”
Although Kastan addresses these politics of color, the book is not explicitly political, per se. Rather, the diversity of its revelations invites readers to contemplate color further, past the book’s coverage, to think about how we use colors as markers, and when and why we started doing so. I found myself reconsidering, for example, the shifting loci of mauve, lavender, and pink for queer and feminist cultures, perhaps because my reading of this book coincided with the release of Janelle Monáe’s “PYNK” video, which forges explicit connections between the color, queer politics, anatomy, and desire. Reading On Color also helped me think through my feelings about the dominance of whites and grays, soft “neutrals” and “pale” palettes, in many shelter magazines and home décor catalogs as an aesthetic racism — an unchecked antagonism toward being colored and toward color (excepting the occasional “ethnic” textile sourced during some homeowner’s “exotic” travel to a postcolonial country). “[C]olor carries extraordinary freight in our modern world,” Kastan concurs: “[I]t doesn’t float free of individual experience and cultural meaning.”
On Color is the result of a collaboration with artist Stephen Farthing, whom Kastan met in Amagansett, New York. By coincidence, it also complements an exhibit at nearby East Hampton’s Guild Hall of work by Ellsworth Kelly, best known for his interest in the interrelationships between color and shape — especially in his abstractionist hard-edged paintings, a saturated effort to break away from the gestural work of artists like Kandinsky. The vivid, hopeful colors of Long Island summers (which comprise the palettes of artists including Laurie Anderson, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Kelly, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Jane Wilson, Robert Wilson, et al) inspired a decade of conversations between Kastan and Farthing that gave way to this interdisciplinary book. It is thus also a book about conversation, collaboration, interaction. Albers was interested in what we can learn in the “interaction of color,” in “what happens between colors,” in how we understand colors in relation to one another.
While reading On Color, I thought often of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wonderful 1946 film Stairway to Heaven/A Matter of Life and Death, in which a World War II bomber pilot (played by David Niven) falls in love with a radio operator as his plane is going down, and he erroneously survives. To remedy the mix-up, a dandyish envoy, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), is sent down from the Other World (a kind of modernist heaven) to retrieve him. What happens in the Other World is shot in black and white, and earth matters are in Technicolor, so when Conductor 71 arrives down below he exclaims self-referentially, “We are starved for Technicolor up there!” The film is about two possible worlds, and the ways that their paired existence gives each a new significance. For Powell and Pressburger, the gray shades of the afterlife are no match for the vivid, lifey dangers of love on earth, war or no war. “Gray is still the color of dust and disappointment,” agrees Kastan in discussing The Wizard of Oz, but “the Technicolor world ‘over the rainbow’ holds out a promise that we might have other lives, lived in other places, but places that we might one day come to call ‘home.’”
Although, as Kastan references, “some scientists maintain that more than 17 million [colors] are distinguishable,” these days, in this country, our spectrum seems ever reduced. When once juicy orange has now become synecdochic of a desiccating hate, and most people seem to behave as a new kind of hard-edged painting — a two-dimensional, single-toned devotion either to red or to blue — On Color is an optimistic and essential reminder of the ever-shifting meanings and functions of color: in the stories found in what happens between colors, in the promise of a world over the rainbow, holding out its own kind of Technicolor assurance.
Stefanie Sobelle is the editor of art and architecture at the Los Angeles Review of Books and an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College. Her criticism has been published in Bookforum, the Financial Times, BOMB, Words without Borders, Jacket2, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, among other publications.