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26 may 2016

The first thing you notice about David Batchelor's Chromophobia is the color of the cover, naturally: an awful hot pink with a sickly yellow-green inset that looks like a disease germ and in fact is: a tinted electron micrograph of the Hepatitis B virus. The problem with the cover is not so much that it's hideous per se, though it is: it's that it's difficult to put the book down anywhere without it clashing violently with its surroundings. I live among great piles of books, and I like them to look good: I have at times arranged my bookshelves by color. But there's no possible good setting for Chromophobia unless you perch it on the arm of a white chair or leave it all by itself in the middle of a black table.

Chromophobia is Batchelor's term, not for a morbid fear of color (though the phenomenon can verge on fear), but for hostility and contempt towards color. Specifically, chromophobia manifests itself in the arts, though it can govern a wide range of styles and attitudes toward living. Bright colors get associated in Western thought with other despised things: children, women, queers, savages, Latin Americans. "Real" art, architecture, design, and decorating, we feel, as truly refined expressions, should be colorless, or at most worked out in five hundred shades of grey.

Now, clearly, the Western tradition of oil painting hasn't been all grey. But Batchelor notes that the great tradition, till very recently, has privileged outline, chiaroscuro, earth tones, and a sparing use of bright color for ornamentation (or sometimes as shorthand for immorality, as in Vermeer's Procuress).

"Colour has been the object of extreme prejudice," says Batchelor (22), and not just in the skin-tone sense. He starts by recounting a visit to the house of an unnamed but impeccably tasteful art critic, whose interiors are all white surfaces, black furniture, and grey artworks. A place so perfect in its refinement seems like a dystopian satire, something out of Woody Allen's Sleeper or Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle. For Batchelor this place represents the perfection of chromophobia, the establishment of a space where the offending hues have been perfectly excluded. It's both wonderful and awful. And come to think of it, it's difficult to think of its opposite, a perfectly chromophilic living space, all yellow-greens and hot pinks. You can see eventually becoming depressed or enervated by a colorless house, but a perfectly psychedelic house would drive you mad within five minutes.

Color is associated with madness, and with drug ecstasies, and even with dreams (though some people say they dream in greyscale). Color is somehow not normal, despite the fact that "colour is everywhere … a part of everything we see every day in our every waking moment" (70). Yet "there is a belief that objects would somehow remain unchanged in substance if their colour was removed" (95), as indeed they do at twilight and then till the next morning: Nachts sind alle Katzen grau, at night all cats are grey. Batchelor counters that you might as well opine that colors would remain unchanged if objects were removed. Despite a hierarchy in art that sees drawing and contour as preceding color, the natural world offers us no premise for thinking that either is anterior to the other.

Sometimes I do find myself imagining if color is real, though. Part of this is obviously historical context. Growing up in the 1960s, I was coeval with cheap color photography: a lot of the earliest pictures of me, though not all, are in color. Yet just slightly earlier, all my older relatives, all newsreels, all news photographs, were in black and white. To me black-and-white seemed a permanent thing, color ephemeral. (And indeed a lot of those old Polaroids have faded badly.) I remember being astonished when I saw autochromes from the first world war: that era couldn't possibly have existed in anything but its native black and white, could it?

Batchelor notes that serious films were made in black and white till the late 20th century. The 1970s were really the era when color became the default in cinema, and there too, cheaper color processes have faded badly compared to earlier Technicolor or later digital color. And notably, digital color processes often directly emulate washed-out or muted color schemes, achieving artfulness by draining color from images. Early Technicolor films, permanently brilliant and effusive, were musicals, children's spectacles, splashy melodramas, action adventures. Color films with pretensions to art, well into the 1950s, were mainly located at the "genre" end of the industry: An American in Paris, The Quiet Man, Rope and Rear Window.

Batchelor is most interested in films that mix black-and-white with color: The Wizard of Oz, Shock Corridor, Pleasantville. Such tours de force are all unique; each teaches something different about the marginalization of color. In The Wizard of Oz contrasts gorgeousness to Kansas and then asks us to accept a numbing fall from grace into the monochrome of "there's no place like home." Shock Corridor treats color as madness (and silence); Pleasantville attacks black-and-white head on, inverting the received value system.

Is there a corresponding dynamic of chromophilia? Batchelor notes that the art of the 1960s broke decisively with earlier chromophobic traditions. (One might have expected some reference to Impressionists and Fauvists, too, but Batchelor reduces such earlier chromophilia to the single example of Cézanne.) "I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can," said Frank Stella (98), and for Batchelor the fact that Stella's paints came in big old cans and not in fancy little tubes was the whole point. Commercial paints, for decoration or advertising, are by nature chromophilic and non-artistic. To appropriate them for art is to go Pleasantville on the tradition. Sol LeWitt evolved from designing hyper-white cubes and pyramids to having his craftspeople roll great expanses of acrylic paint over white walls. And it wasn't so much that Andy Warhol made images of soup cans and Marilyn with too much makeup; it was that he made them with illustrators' silkscreen inks.

Yves Klein figures largely in Batchelor's discussions of chromophilia. International Klein Blue can still be a pretty transgressive color. At the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth a few years ago, an installation included a big tray on the floor, filled with crumbly Klein Blue pigment. Somebody (not me, for once) had mistaken the artwork as a walkway and tromped Klein-Blue footprints across the pristine blond-wood gallery floor. Functionaries swept it carefully up and reconfined it to its tray. I suspect Klein would have been happier to leave the footprints as part of the show.

Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. 2000. London: Reaktion, 2002.