Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Color, like time, permeates our lives. It galvanizes our attention and inspires our imagination. Color divides us racially and defines our politics (red and blue states and green parties). It also demarcates class differences (blue bloods and rednecks) and depicts our moods (We “feel blue,” “see red,” get “tickled pink,” can be “green with envy,” and show a “yellow streak.”)
Color is not only a central aspect of our experience but more complex and elusive than we ordinarily realize. Joseph Albers knew that color “deceives continually.” “We often see colors, even when they aren’t there,” as David Kastan and Stephen Farthing note in On Color, a brilliant, delightful, and accessible excursion into the many-splendored hues that make up our existence. “[S]kin color is not a visual reality but a cultural construction that creates and attaches meaning to colors we inaccurately see,” Kastan, an author and scholar, and Farthing, an artist and professor, aptly note. “Black, red, yellow, and white people . . . are not of course actually black, red, yellow, and white” (p. 83). And the ‘same’ word for a particular hue points in very different directions: In English blue is both “titillating (blue movies) and puritanical (blue laws)” and “startling (a bolt from the blue) and reassuring (true blue)” (p. 102). Black is the name for the clothing of monarchs and mourners, nuns and ninjas.
On Color teaches us that we have a fractured understanding of color, and that color resists comprehension as a “coherent whole” (p. 3); “Chemists tend to locate it in the microphysical properties of colored objects; physicists in the specific frequencies of electromagnetic energy that those objects reflect; physiologists in the photoreceptors of the eye that detect this energy; and neurobiologists in the neural processing of this information in the brain” (p. 2). Kastan and Farthing present a convincing case that all of this is true—and incomplete.
In ten evocative chapters, each an original foray into a different color, they challenge our pre-existing certainties about what colors are and what they mean, so that what Lord Byron calls the “vivacious versatility” (p. 88) of color comes more sharply and clearly into view. Kastan and Farthing illuminate the many hues that are color, from our ambivalence about blackness to the lie that white is “innocent, good, and pure” and the fallacies of the “yellow peril.” They also offer suggestive discussions of a host of other topics, including the viewer’s role in impressionistic art, the politics of Ireland and Iran, the splendors of red and the slavery associated with the “systems of oppression” (p. 133), and human costs involved in making indigo.
“We may all be colored people, but in reality we aren’t so very colorful,” the authors, speaking of hue, conclude. But their book is. Brilliantly written, exhaustively researched, beautifully produced, On Color is a tour-de-force, a creative feast for the eyes, mind, and heart. It not only delights and entertains, but it will also illuminate your understanding and appreciation of color. And that will enliven your life.