Color: A Question – A Visual Analysis of “Untitled No. 124”

 

Noa Baker, University of Pennsylvania 

Have you ever paused to consider what the world would look like if the world was a different pallet? The trees yellow, or the sky red? Callum Innes explores the value of color in his work “Untitled No. 124.” The canvas itself is tucked into a corner in the postmodern section of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it is easiest to let your eyes squint past the bright redness of it onto a calmer work. Because once you allow yourself to focus on the half red, half white canvas, it is difficult to walk away. Instead, you feel compelled to sit down in the middle of floor, despite people mulling about the rest of the exhibit, and stare into the depths of the red until maroon squiggles appear to swim across your vision. Innes’ color is not descriptive of representative form; rather, color functions as the subject of the work.

Innes’ canvas is about twice as tall as it is wide, stretching almost from the floor to the ceiling of its corner home.  The painting is split in half by two colors—the right side is painted a deep, dizzying red, and the left is entirely smooth white. The edges of the red against the white is a crisp color contrast, but the edges themselves are slightly uneven, creating a frayed, ripped look. I wonder—is the red ripped, and overlaid onto the white? Or is it the white edges that are frayed, and placed on top of a smooth, compelling red? The two colors are separated by an almost-black version of the crimson, so that even though the transition between them is crisp, somehow the edges of the red appear to have been burned. Other than that, at first the red looks to be completely uniform. But upon further analysis, I notice a slight darkening of red around the outer edges too, giving a slight smoldering effect and adding depth to an otherwise flat color. The viscous of the red paint further creates this depth in the work: despite the non-variance of the red, the piece still has movement through the texture of the brushstrokes imprinting in the thick paint. This red half is almost difficult to look at—it is overwhelming in its intensity. I feel the need to squint, as though looking directly into a bright light. If nothing else, this work is a celebration of purity of color. There is something sensual in this red—it is a warm, fleshy red, so shiny it appears to be slightly sticky and wet, light reflecting oddly off its gleam. In stark contrast, the white side not only is pure in color, it is also devoid of the ridged brushstrokes, giving the red half a lusciousness that perhaps would not exist without its blank white half to compare. Other aspects of the piece as a whole add to its sensuality: its stark duality, the red within the white, marring it slightly, the rough, seemingly burned or violent edges pushed up against the white, the smooth viscous thickness of the red towards the other, yet untainted, side.

Are the two colors existing in harmony? Or is one attempting to affect the other? The white is a pure one in the center of its half, but light pink dry brushstrokes interrupt the blankness around the outer edges of the canvass. Upon approaching the work, I notice that the white that is directly up against the red is actually a slightly pinker version of the white in the middle of its half, as though the red has bled slightly, or else perhaps the white was applied on top of still-wet red paint. The white half of the work has no texture, save for the pink brushy edges, and the paint application is much smoother. The white layer must be very thick: the little canvas bumps are completely masked. This side is entirely smooth.

As my eyes flit between the two sides, the colors begin to affect each other through optical illusions. Though I know (I inserted myself so close to the canvas that the museum attendant asked me to step back) that the white is basically a pure one, the longer I look the more convinced I become that there are gray stripes hidden beneath the white. There are not—yet the vibrancy of the red against the blank side makes my eyes want to invent shapes that do not exist. Slightly pink spots wave across my vision as I try to focus only on the white half of the work. Even though the red barely physically interacts with its other half, its presence and proximity affects my experience of the white. Similarly, the white seems to throw highlights onto the red half of the canvas. I find myself walking around the canvas to view the work from different angles. Is the red truly slightly lighter, or yellower, there, or there? Or is it a trick of the white bumping up against it?

Though Innes’s piece was completed in 2009, it is reminiscent of minimalist works from an earlier era in its simplicity. Says Susan Sontag in her essay, “Against Interpretation,” (quoted by Joselit in his Minimalism piece) “Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction: the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience…What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” Responds Joselit, “If ‘content’ in commercial culture consists of the spectacular rhetoric of packaging and marketing as it was monumentalized in Pop art, then Minimal objects… sought, as Sontag recommends, to strip this content away” (Joselit, 106). Though not created in Minimalist era, Innes’s work, too, seeks to strip away content and focus simply on the vivid and vibrant color meticulously and thoughtfully applied to the canvas. Contrastingly, in works like Warhol’s, the color is a descriptor. The busyness of his work disallows the viewer from focusing on one particular detail of the work, so full of content is his Campbell soup cans or work on Marilyn Monroe[1].

Innes’s work is not about sensuality, or fire, or duality. This work is simply about red next to white, and all the associations that invokes in the viewer. This work explores color, and depicts color as the subject.  The piece is at once sim­ple and dizzying.

 

[1] Foster, 114