MAY 7 - NOVEMBER 9, 2018
375 Hudson Street, NYC 10014
May 22, 2018, 5 - 7 PM
Color is light. But it’s not a physical substance as we might think, like paint on a canvas, but rather a sensation we first see and then experience in our minds. Our physiology is what allows us to see color as an optical stimulus as light enters our eyes and reaches our retinas, which house microscopic photoreceptors called rods and cones. There are approximately 120 million rods and 6 millions cones positioned at the back of our eyes that help us detect the differences between light and dark, and to distinguish between the innumerable colors of the visible spectrum. Our retinas in turn send electrical signals over our optic nerves – interestingly part of our central nervous system – directly to our brain, which labors to make sense of what we’re seeing. Our experience of color is often tinted by our developmental experiences and cultural context, whether consciously or not. Light can also have a tremendous effect on our health and emotional state. Think no further than how you feel on the shortest, darkest days of winter. Countless studies have proven how light directly impacts our biorhythms, such as our brain activity, blood pressure, pulse and respiratory rates, and ultimately our general mood. We are, in other words, directly affected by the light and color we see in our environment and we are physiologically hardwired to respond to it.
For artist Robert Swain, color has been the primary focus of his painting practice for more than 50 years. It is both the content of his paintings and a relentless problem to be solved. Born in Austin, Texas in 1940, Swain settled in downtown New York City in 1965, and he quickly became a core protagonist in what is now referred to as the Hunter Color School, which seems to have spontaneously materialized from Hunter College’s singular art department during the 1960s-1980s. Swain and his visionary artist colleagues foregrounded an urgent concern for reductive abstraction and, more specifically, color painting, among US art schools. Their primary focus: color’s transformative effect on us, the viewer.
Swain is currently one of the leading standard bearers of color painting and research worldwide. Color has, of course, been studied since the time of the ancient Greeks, possibly even earlier than that. For more than 2,000 years, artists and non-artists alike have examined and attempted to systematize color and its attributes. Philosophers, writers, chemists, biologists, physiologists, psychologists, linguists, and many others have worked to make sense of what is without doubt an elusive, interdisciplinary subject that is humanist at its core. A key milestone for the development of Swain’s work actually took place three centuries earlier when physicist Sir Isaac Newton first held a glass prism up to sunlight and observed it reduced into a brilliant spectrum of 7 separate colors – the ROYGBIV that children still know by heart today. Newton organized his color system according to the concerns of his age, namely the pursuit of a universal law relating the arts to nature, and he correlated it to other disciplines such as the diatonic scale in music, the known planets, and the days of the week.
Swain’s concerns are, of course, vastly different in 2018. Starting in the late 1960s, he began to conceive his own singular color system, a pursuit that has ultimately lasted decades. The pillars of his system are hue (a single, pure color), value (the lightness or darkness of a color), and saturation (the relative purity or intensity of a color), three characteristics originally articulated by another physicist, Ogden Rood, at the end of the 19th Century. It’s key here to think about the use of color in painting, regardless of the style or epoch, as a multi-dimensional structure organized around these three distinct attributes. The color system Swain envisioned decades ago consisted of 30 distinct, yet interrelated colors organized in incremental steps around a circle with no beginning or endpoint. He then ran each of those colors across a kind of Cartesian coordinate system of up to 33 incremental steps in value in one direction and 9 degrees in saturation in the other, yielding an exhaustive color library of 4,896 distinct hues, each calibrated by eye and mixed by hand, an extraordinary feat to contemplate. This color library is Swain’s wellspring, which he continually taps into when conceiving and producing each new painting.
Every color Swain uses in the 6 paintings on view in this exhibition – and there are literally hundreds of hues – can be mapped according to these three criteria. Take a dark green, for instance. The color modulates – a key term for Swain – in incremental steps as it paces across the surface of the canvas, becoming more or less saturated, and darker or lighter in value. That same green will also transition into subtly different hues in adjacent squares, each with their own particular attributes of value and saturation. Swain is investigating a three-dimensional problem on a two-dimensional surface and lays his research bare for us to see and experience. Modulation is the alchemical element in Swain’s work. It transforms the mechanics of hue, value, and saturation into pure color sensation. It also calibrates our viewing experience by creating both an undulating pictorial space and a dynamic sense of movement in the work.
One additional constant in the paintings on view here, which crescendo in size from 8x8 to 8x12 to 8x20 feet and back, is the rigorous, repeating grid structure his color narratives inhabit. After years of experimentation, Swain discovered that a 12x12 inch square is the perfect container to hold a single color. It allows the color both to retain its unique character and to be affected by its surrounding colors. And similar to our innate ability to perceive color, I will also add that the grid itself is hardwired into our physiology. Our sense of balance – or standing perfectly vertical and perpendicular to the horizon – results from our visual, vestibular, and spatial sensibilities working in perfect alignment. Swain’s use of the grid is tied into our biology as much as color is. For this reason, the grid is both universal and ubiquitous, appearing in past and present cultures around the globe.
In his new paintings, Swain presents us with pure sensation, transitioning from the pristinely visual into the viscerally emotional. His paintings here are utterly immersive in scale and can be characterized by their unprecedented extremes in hue, value, and saturation, coupled with wide-ranging active to passive color sensations. After more than five decades of painting, Swain is focused now more than ever on the distinct sensations produced when unique colors are paired, rather than appear individually. With each color emitting its own distinct spectral energy and emotional content, colors that are grouped yield vastly more complex and nuanced sensations. Swain is now painting to completely liberate our perceptual sensibilities.
It’s exceedingly rare, especially in our digital age, to have a pure, unmitigated color experience. The closest parallel in nature to Swain’s work in terms of pure visual magic may be the aurora borealis. I strongly encourage you to slow down and look actively at his paintings. Spend as much face time with these handmade objects as possible. Your eyes definitely need time to calibrate to the energy they emit and extended looking will impact your perception of them, not unlike the process of allowing your eyes to get adjusted to the blinding summer sun on the beach or the total darkness of a cinema. His paintings touch our core capacities as humans and will in turn evoke boundless emotional responses in us. Color is experiential, and by witnessing it through Swain’s unique lens and temperament, we truly understand its limitlessness, approaching the sublime. Color is life.