Red, yellow and blue the three primary colours have become synonymous with the art movement known as De Stijl. But that single iconic colour combination has tended to mask the reality of the diversity of ideas advanced by its various members. At the end of the day, Piet Mondriaan, Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Gerrit Rietveld, Georges Vantongerloo and Vilmos Huszár all formulated their own individual views on colour.
In this exhibition, Kunsthal KAdE
zooms in on the use of colour by the six main exponents of De Stijl and goes on to examine how artists have continued to investigate the autonomous power of colour in the postWorld War II period: from the abstract expressionism and concrete art of the 1960s and 70s through to the work of artists who are today still exploring colour as an independent element. The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is lending top works like Barnett Newmans Whos Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III and Jasper Johns triptych Untitled. The Van Abbemuseum sent the architectural model of Theo van Doesburgs proposed colour scheme for the auditorium of Strasbourgs café/cinema Aubette, as well as works by Piero Manzoni, Richard Serra and Joseph Kosuth. And the studio of Olafur Eliasson contributed the light installation Ephemeral afterimage star (2008).
Colour as an autonomous element 'of the art'
The starting point for the exhibition is a series of small spaces setting out the varying positions of the De Stijl artists. Mondriaans palette evolved over time from naturalistic to Luminist and on through brown/grey, pastel shades and primary colours to his final more richly variegated shades of red, yellow and blue. Van Doesburg saw color as an essential tool to visualize the spatial ambitions of an architect. Huszár hung the theories of the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, who thought the mixture of white and black of interest to create 'harmony' (ideas published, for example, in De Stijl in 1920). Other Stijl artists followed for any length of time the ideas of Ostwald. Van der Leck saw colour primarily as a means of making his figure pieces more essential. Vantongerloo developed a colour theory of his own, using pseudo-mathematical formulae to link colours to music and arriving at a system of seven colours. For Rietveld, finally, colour played a subservient and supporting role; he attached particular importance ot he perceptions of the individual and the eye-catching power of primary colours.
The common denominator between all these artists was their desire to use colour as an independent element, from art rather than from nature, on the basis of the idea that the right relationships between colours would produce harmony. After the heyday of De Stijl, their exploratory and analytical view of colour was widely adopted. In addition to major examples of the work of the selected artists, the exhibition includes documents concerning their colour concepts: not only drawings and letters, but books and other texts, and examples of colour theories on which their thinking was or is based. The colour theories of Wilhelm Ostwald will be examined in this context.
Displays in two small separate spaces focus on specific topics: Theo van Doesburgs 1928 design of the interior of café/cinema Aubette in Strasbourg and Gerrit Rietvelds 1950s designs for aircraft interiors. The latter display includes a full-scale 3D mock-up of the lounge area of a Lockheed L-188 Electra, built by furniture-maker Erwin Kwant on the basis of a Rietveld sketch.
Top piece Whos Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III
The section of the exhibition dealing with the post-World War II period begins with Barnett Newmans great painting Whos Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. Newman sought to liberate the primary colours from the weight of De Stijl and other colour theories by using them expressively rather than didactically. Newman regarded the work of Mondriaan, in particular, as decorative. Because his Neo-Plasticist disciples had made the primary colours so much their own, the Abstract Expressionists shied away from them. Newman re-appropriated them. In this context, the exhibition looks at the work of Josef Albers and Richard Paul Lohse (important colour theorists who had a major influence, especially on artists), as well as at Yves Klein, with his patented shade of blue.
The exhibition continues by exploring conceptual positions adopted by artists of the 1960s and 70s in relation to colour. The artists concerned include Piero Manzoni and Robert Ryman (for whom white was so important, partly as an objective non-colour), Alan Charlton (who chose grey as the most neutral colour), Richard Serra (who used intense black as an architectural element) and Joseph Kosuth (interested in the definition of colour). This block ends with the work of the Danish artist Poul Gernes who searched for the social significance of artistic expression in his color studies. He reflected this amongst others, in exuberant color schemes on the walls of the Herlev Hospital in Copenhagen (1968-76 ).
The final part of the exhibition takes a look at contemporary artists. Olafur Eliasson's installation focuses on the use of light to blend colour. Eliasson is fascinated by the spectral colours that occur, for example, in natural phenomena like rainbows. On show in the video room is De Rijke/De Rooijs media-installation Orange, in which 88 slides are projected as a means of addressing the problem of using the colour orange on film. Katja Mater is fascinated by the colour theory of Isaac Newton, who showed that white light is composed of seven different colours. At the same time, she is interested in the phenomenon by which spinning colour wheels produce mixed shades (in an ideal situation, the colours merge to produce white). Mater repeats experiments conducted by colour theorists of the past, but in her case the process is rather one of deconstruction. Before the exhibition, Mater will be spending the early part of 2017 as artist in residence in Theo van Doesburgs studio home in Meudon, a suburb of Paris.
The exhibition is part of Mondriaan to Dutch Design: a year-long programme of events taking place nationwide to mark the centenary of the launch of the De Stijl magazine. Events are being held in The Hague, Amersfoort, Utrecht, Otterlo, Eindhoven, the Northern Netherlands and Gelderland.