Coloring the way we see art -- with color

PORTFOLIO

Museum curators know how perfectly deep purple or a sunrise hue can set the tone, or change one's view.

January 21, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

One of my favorite places in Baltimore is the indoor courtyard at the Walters Art Museum. In this room -- a replica of the palazzo of a 17th-century Genoese building -- I feel wrapped in beauty.

Grand marble steps lead into a glass-roofed space framed by elegant white arches and columns. When the sun is shining, the air here seems made of light. "In this building," the grand hall seems to promise, "you will find great treasures." It sets the perfect tone for a visit to an art museum.

That effect is, of course, the sum of many elements -- the hall's Italian character, the sweep of the staircase, the richness of its marble. But amid all these details, the element that pleases me most is the color of the walls.

And such walls! Painted a sweet yellow, they cheer and soothe at the same time. These walls are not the yellow of buttercups, but of snapdragons. Or lemon cream frosting. Or sunrise in Italy. They hint at wealth and sophistication. They are pale, elegant, serene. Standing in the palazzo, I feel color wash over me. I become optimistic, receptive to art, convinced that I'll emerge from the museum visit a better person. ... All this from a paint job.

The walls are, according to the paint manufacturer, the color "gb4," aka "gold-beige No. 4."

I prefer "Italian Sunrise in Summer," but why quibble? The point is the enormous effect of color -- and how paint on a wall can change the entire museum experience.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, staff members these days have surrounded themselves with paint samples. Under the guidance of David Harvey, a New York-based designer, they're choosing the colors for a wing that will house the Cone Collection, including works by Matisse, Cezanne, Pissaro and Picasso.

The goal is to choose hues for each of eight galleries that will enhance the experience of viewing art while creating a sense of continuity. The biggest challenge? Picking the colors for the rotunda, says Katherine Rothkopf, curator of painting and sculpture. That room will house Matisse's "Blue Nude," "The Pink Nude," "Purple Robe" and "Anemones and Chinese Vase," a work with vibrant golds, blues and rose hues.

What will they choose?

They're still thinking.

Museum space as a "white cube" -- all-white walls, neutral ceiling and floor -- long has been the norm. The idea is that the less visual interference between viewer and art the better. According to many professionals, the more abstract the art, the more important it is to have a neutral background. "There is no great mystery about it," says Gary Sangster, director of The Contemporary Museum. "You want to have a space that is as plain as possible so that people can look at things with the greatest possible concentration"

Uses of color

More color is used in galleries housing old masters, historical objects, decorative arts and functional objects. But there are exceptions. With color, designers can set a tone or mood, or make in-your-face statements. Color can be used as a frame setting off the art or to modulate traffic flow by "leading" museum visitors from place to place.

"Certain modern artworks are meant to be pure objects of contemplation, but other art objects are really made to be in color," says Ellen Lupton, chairman of the graphic design program at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

"When you put them in a pure white space they don't live up to it. They are created to live in an environment populated by people and rugs and furniture. Paint goes a long way to creating the psychological effect of that environment."

Color has the power to change our moods: Reds may make us feel excited, sexy and energetic. It can make our hearts beat faster. Yellow is cheering. Blue and true greens or greens tinged with blue have a calming effect. Strident yellow-greens may nauseate.

The color of the walls affects how we see the art: There's no question that one of Ellsworth Kelly's curving colored shapes seen against anything other than a white wall would not resonate the way the artist intended.

"Color can really skew how you see," says John Klink, who oversees exhibit design at the Walters. "A blue painting on a blue wall looks different from a blue painting on a white wall. It vibrates more, that is just how we see. The actual experience of being in a gallery can be compromised if the color is done wrong."

I have a vivid memory of a 1998 exhibit called "The Eighteen Blessings at the Heart of Jewish Worship," presented by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in which the walls were painted a deep purple. More importantly, I remember the art: Eighteen paintings by New York artist Archie Rand that were inspired by a Jewish prayer called the "Amidah."

Because Rand paints with a variety of intense, jewel-like colors, the background set off the works, rather than overwhelming them. Through wall color, curator Barry Kessler created an environment that felt sacred. His inspiration? The purple light formed by sun filtered through red and blue stained glass in Renaissance cathedrals.

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