True Colors

Monks' robes, an exotic spice and 'The Gates' -- will the real saffron please stand up?

February 26, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

What is art? is not the question.

What is saffron? is the question.

More than previous works of public art, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates has been open to colorful interpretation.

The pleated fabric panels hanging from the 7,500 gates winding through Central Park have been described as the color of Orangeade, Home Depot signs, highway safety cones or, as The New Yorker reported this week, "something you would wear only in the woods during deer season."

These observers, obviously, have not bought into the saffron designation that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have given the color and instead believe they are seeing orange.

Are orange and saffron synonymous? Have these gates made us color blind? No, it turns out there is wiggle room in the House of Color.

But first, a dash of saffron history.

Saffron is the dried yellow stigma of violet crocus flowers. This most expensive spice is used to color and flavor cheeses, pastry, rice and seafood dishes. The stigmas must be harvested by hand and about 225,000 of them make just 1 pound of saffron. Christo can appreciate the patience involved in such a harvest; his $20 million Gates project was 25 years in the making for only 16 days in existence and will be taken down Monday.

How could he not assign the lyrical and artistic saffron to his art? Orange could have been a tougher sell - you can't even rhyme with orange - while saffron (Teflon, Chevron, Radon ... ) sounds autumnal, warm and evocative. You just want to eat it up. (Or perhaps drink it up: WYPR, the Baltimore public radio station, is offering a saffron travel mug as part of its pledge drive.)

Still, according to The Pantone Book of Color, orange is considered the hottest color, highly visible, a "high-arousal color."

But it is not saffron.

Becky Spak is a senior designer and colorist for Pennsylvania-based Sherwin-Williams, a company that deals in 1,400 paint colors. She had just pulled out her Newsweek and its "Orange Alert" back-page photo of The Gates. She wanted to see what color Christo is calling saffron, and whether the color matches Sherwin-Williams' color of the same name.

"Saffron is not a solid color," she says. "When you see the threads, you can see lines of orange and golden yellow."

Christo's saffron matches two paints that her company sells: #6620, "Rejuvenate," which is in the orange family; and #6663, "Saffron," which is more a golden color. Keep in mind, she adds, that when in shadow, the saffron will look darker orange but in greater light, more golden.

The Pantone Book of Color is a color bible that classifies 1,024 colors. "The name of a color draws our attention to the attributes of that color far more forcefully than the perception of that color," according to the book. "However, the visualization of any color is relative." Which is like saying no two people see the same color, which explains the conflicting color reports out of New York these past two weeks.

"There are poetry, romance, fantasy, magic, luxury and implied promises in color names," according to Pantone.

What does saffron promise? It's certainly a happy, warm and visible color, says Leatrice Eiseman, the Baltimore native who co-wrote the Pantone book. "It is not a very serious color."

But is it, like orange, arousing?

Donovan, the hippie folk singer, after all, trilled: "I'm just mad about saffron. Saffron's mad about me."

And Linda Pastan, a former poet laureate of Maryland, wrote a poem about crocuses signaling the approach of spring:

mothers of saffron,

fathers of insurrection,

purple and yellow scouts of an army still massing just to the south.

But where does saffron fit into the grand color scheme? There's no Crayola called saffron; the closest match to a Gates swatch (eBay, here we come!) that the crayon folks have is their "Yellow-Orange" and "Macaroni & Cheese" crayons.

Saffron is Zen-like, mystical, elusive - no wonder Buddhist monks often swathe themselves in the color.

"Saffron is one of those colors on the cusp," says Eiseman, who is executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. In Pantone's book, saffron is sandwiched between "Radiant Yellow" and "Sunburst." Pantone's saffron indeed is more golden yellow than orange.

Christo's Gates are Sun Orange, Eiseman ruled. Not to be confused, in the Pantone book, with Sun Kiss, Sunburst, Sundance, Sunflower, Sunset Gold, Sunkist Coral or Sunshine.

Does Eiseman have a theory on why Christo took apparent liberties with the reigning color guide of the world?

"It may have something to do with his wife's hair," she says. "Have you see Jeanne-Claude's hair? It's very orange."

There you have it: Saffron - in all its orange, golden, yellow, yellow-orange and Macaroni & Cheese glory - remains a color on the cusp, not very serious, but spicy, maybe even arousing.

Saffron, an object of art, poetry, music, food and hair color.

Saffron, a state of mind.

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