Powerful pigments: An exhibition dedicated to colour

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Tate Liverpool's latest exhibition dedicated to colour is dazzling. But they could have thrown even more into the mix, says Tom Lubbock

What does colour mean to you? "Little boxes all the same/ There's a green one and a pink one/ And a blue one and a yellow one/ And they're all made out of ticky-tacky/ And they all look just the same."

From Malvina Reynolds' 1962 hit, "Little Boxes". It was a proto-hippie song, which mocked conformity among West Coast professionals, all living in their identical houses. True, the little boxes had different colours. But that only made them more repetitive. Colour, the song implied, is an empty difference. A sequence of pure colours is pure meaninglessness.

A few years later, the German painter Gerhard Richter was on to pure colours too. He began to do paintings that consisted solely of coloured oblongs laid out in a grid: a pink one, a blue one, a yellow one, etc. They were randomly chosen and randomly distributed, and their grids spread bigger. In 1974 he made one called 256 Colours, then another called 4096 Colours.

It was impossible to see these canvases as patterns or abstracts. What they resembled, obviously, were paint-shop colour charts. Like "Little Boxes", Richter presented a sequence of pure colours as something meaningless. But he took a very different attitude to this, a much more positive one. He wanted, he said, "a beautiful meaninglessness". And he wasn't alone.

Have a look at the new show at Tate Liverpool, Colour Chart: Re-inventing Colour, 1950 to Today. There's pure colour in checkerboards, in strips, in blocks, in bands and spots – and 40 artists, from Andy Warhol and Sol LeWitt to Damien Hirst and Jim Lambie. It's everywhere. It's the triumph of Elmer the elephant. What's going on?

From time to time art goes through big changes in its whole sensibility. Once upon a time it was good to be poetic and expressive. Lately, it's been good to be cool and impersonal. Once our idea of colour in art was Van Gogh summoning up his emotional forces or Matisse arranging his choirs into harmony. Lately, it's been Richter's grids, Judd's units, Buren's stripes, Flavin's tubes, Hirst's dots. We avoid at all costs anything that looks too subtle, too sensitive, too spiritual. Blank is beautiful.

Paint here goes down plain, unblended, uniform, the product itself. It follows the words of another artist here, Frank Stella: "straight out of the can, it can't get better than that." And the paint being used, often enough, is not the infinitely responsive medium of oils. It's something inflexible and unmixable like gloss or enamel, with their hard dead shiny surfaces.

Artists take their lead from the industrial and commercial world. After all, be realistic, most of the man-made colours we see aren't brushed on to a canvas. They're on metal or plastic or vinyl, in neon and fluorescent, in car paint, house paint and photographic inks. And they generally aren't composed into complex "relationships". The artists in Colour Chart reject orchestration, in favour of juxtaposition. They like that unfeeling feeling.

And it can be a powerful feeling. Richter was right. There is such a thing as beautiful meaninglessness. A dense field of randomised colour-elements provides a total sensation. Nothing is missing. By comparison, every other painting seems partial: it does it one way, and not another way. The colour chart painting does it no way, and every way. It delivers the sense of completeness that other art can only dream of.

There are other feelings here too. There's dry wit, as in Bruce Nauman's Sunproof Drawing, not a drawing but an early photocopy of an actual colour-chart, advertising a brand of paint called "Sun Proof". Made in 1961, it was naturally a black-and-white photocopy. Sun proof it wasn't. Over the years its greys have all turned to shades of brown – a bit more colourful, then.

There's elation too. Some of these pictures are in fact good old uplifting abstracts, however much they try to keep a pokerface. Ellsworth Kelly's Colors for a Large Wall is a chequerboard whose primary colours are aerated with lots of whites. It makes it a bright and breathing surface. And there's Jim Lambie's ZOBOP!, using his trademark décor, a floor filled with multi-coloured tape-strips in layers that bounce away from the walls in a ripple-resonance effect. It's a pop-culture version of First World War dazzle camouflage.

But a lot of the time you're simply registering a slightly amazing fact. There really are a lot of pictures from the last 50 years that look like colour charts. Jim Dine. Giulio Paolini. Jennifer Bartlett. Richard Serra. Byron Kim. Sherry Levine. David Batchelor. Wow, they've all done them. And then, at a certain point, surprise turns to boredom. Another criss-cross formation of plain colours, and another...

Well, this is an exhibition curated by art historians. They have a point to prove, and they've done their homework, and their evidence certainly mounts up: OK, we surrender, the colour chart has indeed provided a template for a remarkable number of works. But evidence doesn't necessarily make for a lively show.

And if artists, say, or even art critics, had done the curating instead, there might have been a more various agenda. How about including contemporary colourists like Bridget Riley or Howard Hodgkin who resist this historical tendency? Wouldn't they do something interesting to the mixture?

How about old artists like Seurat (dots) or Mondrian (checkers) who seem to anticipate this story? And how about those early Renaissance artists, who used ultramarine blue for the Virgin's cloak – pure colour, "straight out of the can", and used not for its expressiveness but for its expense? Isn't that another anticipation of "colour chart" attitudes?

Pure colour has a wide repertoire. There's the cool, methodical, mechanical sensibility, which this exhibition mainly explores. A few years ago, however, there was a show at the Barbican, with several of the same artists on show, which had an opposite emphasis. Pure colour was a real blast – a ravishing, disorienting, anarchic sensory force, beyond language, beyond reason, mind-blowing and body-shaking. "Located within the realm of desire and provocation, the exhibition seeks to show that where language falters, colour takes over." An exaggeration, sure, but an important counter-view.

And then there's another powerful approach. The colours: they're a gathering of separate identities. See them in a group, one by one, side by side, and you're drawn back to childhood, and the intense relationship you had then to the colours as individuals. You were learning their names, and learning to use colours as names themselves – a way of dividing up the visual world.

Shapes, bricks, tiddlywinks, letters, crayons: there's the green one and the pink one and the blue one and the yellow one. Colours needn't be either blanks or explosions. They're badges. They're characters. And this response can last into adulthood, too. Think of the bundle of hues that mark the London Underground map – or wherever this map-model is imitated. Think of the colours in flags or uniforms. Colours are always on parade.

And though you wouldn't guess it from Colour Chart, even a list of pure colours is capable of the most delicate poetry. Take this short text-piece by Thomas A Clark, made last year. The seven colours of the spectrum are printed in black-on-white - "red orange yellow green blue indigo violet" – except that "orange" is printed in orange, and "violet" in violet. Title: Still Life with Fruit and Flower.

'Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today' at the Tate Liverpool; until 13 Sept, closed Mondays; admission £7.80 with concessions

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test