Revisiting colour problems: Emily Vanderpoel, Hilma af Klint, Becca Albee, Clare Milledge

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, Advancing and Retiring Colors, Plate V; Color Analysis from Celtic Ornament, Plate LXXII, 1901. Published in Colour Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color. Images from facsimile edition, courtesy Sacred Bones Records and The Circadian Press
Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, Advancing and Retiring Colors, Plate V; Color Analysis from Celtic Ornament, Plate LXXII, 1901. Published in Colour Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color. Images from facsimile edition, courtesy Sacred Bones Records and The Circadian Press

In 1902 American artist, scholar and historian Emily Noyes Vanderpoel published Colour Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, an extensive analysis of the proportions and harmonies of colour. Her study derived from objects, many of which were from her own collection, including Persian rugs, pottery, and enamelware. Marketed to dressmakers, interior designers and watercolourists, Colour Problems advised its readers to look to nature to find essential harmonies between complementary colours. Many pages of Vanderpoel’s book are devoted to hand-drawn rectilinear grids of harmonious coloured squares with captions such as Colour Analysis from a Butterfly and Colour Analysis from a Rose-Coloured Vase. These exercises in the methodical cataloguing of the colours found in objects are accompanied by her “colour notes”; a fleeting capture of colour and light in moments of terrene transitions, such as Colour Note from a Shadow on White Ground.

As well as recording colour, Vanderpoel was interested in documenting its effect: concentric squares of green, orange and purple vibrate on the page in a study called Advancing and Retiring Colours. In 2018 a facsimile of the book was produced by two Brooklyn-based publishers, featuring an introduction by art historian Alan Bruton. The new edition sought to recast Vanderpoel as an overlooked modernist, “stumbling upon mid-century design and minimalism decades prior to those movements.”[1] The imagery of the book certainly brings to mind Albers’ Homage to the Square, which Vanderpoel predates by fifty years, but the value of this study is more than precursory aesthetics. Precisely because she was forbidden access to influential schools, such as the American Association of Watercolourists which denied entry to women, Vanderpoel operated from a separatist position, even as a white woman of significant financial privilege. As such, her work was denied the chronological narrative of art history and forced to operate outside of it.

One strategy to reckon with the gaps in art history as the result of systematised sexism and racism has been to reinsert women and other marginalised people back into the art-historical canon. Undeniably, it is imperative to review the art-historical narrative that denied so many people the title of “artist”, and this important work has resulted in the resurfacing of many significant artists. Yet the gendered division of artistic and reproductive labour that saw the work of women and people of colour devalued is not remedied through historical revision alone. “Is it really as simple as reinserting them into a chronological narrative that hitherto hasn’t accounted for them?” probes curator Helen Molesworth on this very point.

For Molesworth, their absence from art history proper should be accepted as the “historical condition under which the work of women artists is both produced and understood.”[2] Vanderpoel’s Colour Problems lends itself to the title of this essay, which follows the slippery subjectivities of colour and experience put forward by Vanderpoel and her contemporary Hilma af Klint, to problematise the vertical chronology of modern art. I also consider how contemporary artists Becca Albee and Clare Milledge themselves engage in a loose art-historical revisionism, with quiet attention to overlooked historical figures and the absence of women from the art-historical canon.

The expansive practices of both Albee and Milledge combine personal biography and historical source material, such as the legacies and histories of colour theoreticians, shamans, spiritualist painters and radical feminists. Just slightly later than Vanderpoel, the Swedish painter and spiritualist Hilma af Klint produced her swirling, explosive masterpieces in near privacy, likely on the floor of her studio, and forbade them to be exhibited until twenty years after her death. Since the first posthumous exhibition of the paintings in 1986, af Klint has been hailed as the original abstract artist, preceding Kandinsky. In 2018, a major retrospective of her works was presented at the Guggenheim in New York under the subtitle Paintings for the Future. The catalogue and wall text that accompanied the exhibition advanced the narrative of af Klint as a pioneer of abstract art.

Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 12 October 2018 – 23 April 2019. Photo: David Heald © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Installation view, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 12 October 2018 – 23 April 2019. Photo: David Heald © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Critic Ania Szremski is sceptical of framing af Klint through the lens of Abstraction. “The work presages something greater than a litmus test of avant-garde originality” persuades Szremski.[3] Af Klint painted direct representations of her spiritual life and produced chromatic diagrams and detailed systems of annotation to decode her rich symbolism.In this extensive annotating and indexing of her life’s work, af Klint took great pains to ensure future audiences would receive her message of a spiritual afterlife. She studied closely the geometries of nature and the morphologies of plants.

The paintings teem with orbs of colour and swirling, organic forms, that are superimposed, in some instances, by rectilinear forms. “Grids”, the art historian Rosalind Krauss would later proclaim in a 1979 essay of the same name, “[are] a staircase to the Universal”.[4] In this seminal essay, Krauss argues that the grid contains dual meanings. For Krauss, the structure of the grid “allows a contradiction between the values of science and those of spiritualism to maintain themselves within the consciousness of modernism.”[5] Both women produced complex systems of categorisation and annotation to communicate their ideas. For Vanderpoel it was a desire to flatten, distribute, and communicate harmonies of colour. The multiple ways colour is revived by the human eye makes this all but an impossible task, but so too was af Klint’s calling, received from the spirits she communicated with as a mystic, to “commence a task that will bring great blessings on coming generations.”[6]

Australian artist Clare Milledge has a longstanding interest in the ways in which the role of the artist is compared to that of the shaman. Milledge understands both as visionaries, who travel to other realms to make visible what was previously invisible. Her work offers “the gift of sight” by undoing the rarified art object and engaging the viewer in the artistic process. Materially and thematically, each artwork directly flows into another. Her process-driven work incorporates the excess material of the artist, even paint shavings are saved and recast in future installations and incorporated alongside fabric, hair, and vegetation gathered from trips to the Australian bush, all of which feature heavily throughout her practice.

Clare Milledge, Strigiformes: Binocular, Binaural, installation view, 2017, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Photo: Dan Bourke
Clare Milledge, Strigiformes: Binocular, Binaural, installation view, 2017, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Photo: Dan Bourke

A recent major work, Strigiformes: Binocular, Binaural (2017) combined data about bird populations, phrases collected from Tinder matches, expansive painting and performance. A gauzy translucent silk curtain, handsewn and arranged chromatically, affixed with totems including clothing items, masks and hair formed the backdrop of the performance. Wearing a wig as a mask, Milledge embodied the persona of a powerful, whip-cracking shaman, flanked by two figures in bird masks. The soundtrack conflated text from tinder profiles of men she matched with, with owl calls captured on field trips with her environmental scientist parents.

Drawing inspiration from the stark symbolism of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s visually psychedelic film Holy Mountain (1973), the curtain existed as a sculptural object after the event. One of Milledge’s trademark techniques is painting in reverse behind glass (a method known as Hinterglasmalerei), whereby Milledge scratches the image into existence. As Tom Melick points out in a catalogue accompanying an earlier exhibition, “the medium [of Hinterglasmalerei] attracts those who believe in the spiritual power of images. As Paul Klee tells us, ‘art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible’.”[7] This pictorial process can be traced back to Byzantine and folk art traditions, but also intercepts with modernism via the Bauhaus school.

Milledge activates this layered history of image-making through her studio processes, working intuitively with unmixed paint, the image comes to her automatically while she works. Each glass painting in her 2018 exhibition at Station Gallery in Melbourne was affixed to the wall with hand-moulded bronze supports. Titled Sacks of Wind: A Rock Harder Than Rock, Milledge’s most recent exhibition advances the necessity of interspecies cooperation in the face of the adverse changes to the climate we are currently experiencing.

Clare Milledge, I am the Queen: Of Every Hive, 2018, from Sacks of Wind: A Rock Harder Than Rock, oil on reverse of recycled tempered glass, bronze close readers steel. Courtesy the artist and Station Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Jessica Maurer
Clare Milledge, I am the Queen: Of Every Hive, 2018, from Sacks of Wind: A Rock Harder Than Rock, oil on reverse of recycled tempered glass, bronze close readers steel. Courtesy the artist and Station Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Jessica Maurer

The ability to communicate between the human and animal worlds is a unique feature of the shaman; here, Milledge looks back to paganism and animal-centric spirituality as models of ecological co-existence that will become a requirement for future life on earth. The exhibition departs from The Song of Amergin, each work is titled with a stanza from this ancient mystical poem that tells of the defeat of a storm through summoning and uniting the power of the natural world.[8] Throughout  the exhibition female forms are entangled with plants and animals. Milledge reclaims the subject matter circumscribed for women artists for centuries: animals and flowers. Both af Klint and Vanderpoel were respected watercolourists of botany and landscapes respectively. For Milledge, rethinking the historical figure of the shaman enables her to reflect on the contemporary ecological concerns.

Becca Albee’s recent work Prismataria looks to the radical source material in the form of women’s healthcare information, in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration, as women’s bodies continue to be policed and threatened. Exhibited in three different iterations to date, and combining a light installation, photographs, text, and scent, Becca Albee’s ongoing body of work Prismataria acquires revisions and extensions with each new presentation. The work takes both name and source material from colour theorist Hillaire Hiler’s design for a women’s lounge situated within a boathouse in San Francisco. Hiler, who believed that as the “fairer sex” women were more sensitive to colours, used the opportunity to test his theses on the emotional psychologies of colour. His design included painting the 120-colour spectrum he developed on the ceiling of the circular room of the building.

Albee visited and documented Hiler’s mural, which is crumbling in parts, in what is now known as the San Francisco Maritime Museum. In her installation, Albee recreated one of Hiler’s unrealised designs: a rotating light fixture which alternated between cyan, magenta and yellow light. Albee is interested in the overlap between colour and consumer culture, and her installation positioned Hiler’s quackery in dialogue with “Colour Me Beautiful” swatch books. A not-quite-forgotten phenomenon from the 1980s, “Colour Me Beautiful” was popularised by megabrands such as Clinique.

Becca Albee, Prismateria, SITUATIONS, New York, NY. Courtesy the artist
Becca Albee, Prismateria, SITUATIONS, New York, NY. Courtesy the artist

The process involved assessing women into “seasons” based on skin, hair, and eye colour, and assigning them booklets of colours compatible with their season, which could be consulted when purchasing new clothes or makeup. Albee conflates Hiler’s failed experiments into the psychology of colour with her own biography. Half the photographs in the exhibition included covers and marked passages from books which Albee read whilst attending a progressive College in Washington, USA: titles included Radical Feminist Therapy, The Black Women’s Health Book, and A New View of a Woman’s Body. Albee states; “I photographed the books with coloured gels placed directly on them; I found that by eliminating black, white, and grey, I could maximize the transformational effect of the light fixture’s moving, coloured lights.”[9]

Becca Albee, Dedication (A New View of A Woman’s Body), FFWHC + SG II Prismataria, SITUATIONS, New York, NY. Photo: Bradford Robotham
Becca Albee, Dedication (A New View of A Woman’s Body), FFWHC + SG II Prismataria,
SITUATIONS, New York, NY. Photo: Bradford Robotham

One work, titled Dedication, is an image of the dedication page of A New View of a Woman’s Body, reads simply as a list of women’s first names, arranged in alphabetical order. Albee’s homage to the texts and teachers that influenced her to paint a portrait of collectivity and community. This can also be seen in af Klint’s artistic process; she worked alongside four other women, collectively known as The Five, to receive messages from spirits which they recorded through automatic drawing. In this way, her work from the period of 1915–17 is thought of as communal. When reflecting why af Klint resonates so strongly with our current context, I agree with critic Anya Ventura who suggests that it is because “she represents values—female, spiritual, ecological, collectivist—eroded by the rise of industrial modernity, values we desperately need to reclaim.”[10]

The four artists, Vanderpoel, af Klint, Milledge, and Albee, are drawn together by an interest in the divine, material, affective, aesthetic, historical, and spiritual qualities of colour. Vanderpoel and af Klint are experiencing a posthumous revival in the form of a republished book and a Guggenheim retrospective, whilst Albee and Milledge are animating overlooked cultural moments and minor histories to interrogate what is necessary in our present moment.  In acknowledging the impossibility of an objective experience of colour one accepts a multitude of interpretations. Positioned in dialogue with the revisionist approach to Vanderpoel and af Klint, Colour Problems recognises the work of Albee and Milledge unearthing, rather than revising, underlooked histories. 

Footnotes

  1. ^ See notes to the Kickstarter Campaign that supported the re-publication of this facsimile edition: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1521679602/color-problems-a-book-by-emily-noyes-vanderpoel.
  2. ^ Helen Molesworth, “How to Install Art like a Feminist,” Cornelia H. Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (eds), Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.
  3. ^ Ania Szremski, “Hilma af Klint”, 26 October 2018: http://4columns.org/szremski-ania/hilma-af-klint.
  4. ^ Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”, October, vol. 9, Summer, 1979, p. 52.
  5. ^ Ibid, p. 55.
  6. ^ Daniel Birnbaum, "Universal Pictures: The Art of Hilma af Klint", Artforum, January 2013.
  7. ^ Tom Melick, A Speculative Dictionary* for Clare Milledge, exhibition catalogue, The Commercial, Sydney, 2014: https://claremilledge.com.
  8. ^ Anna Dunhill, Clare Milledge: Sacks of Wind: A Rock Harder than Rock, Art Guide Australia, preview, 3 December 2018: https://artguide.com.au/clare-milledge-sacks-of-wind-a-rock-harder-than-rock.
  9. ^ Becca Albee interview with Johanna Fateman, 2 March 2017: www.artforum.com.
  10. ^ Anya Ventura, Secret Séances and High Masters: The Making of Mystic Painter Hilma af Klint: https://frieze.com/article/secret-seances-and-high-masters-making-mystic-painter-hilma-af-klint. Amelia Wallin is an Australian curator and writer and the Director of West Space in Melbourne, Australia.

Card (detail) from Becca Albee, Prismataria, SITUATIONS, New York, NY. Courtesy the artist.

Amelia Wallin is an Australian curator and writer and the current Director of West Space in Melbourne, Australia.

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