Stacks of irregular rectangles of color form lines, which form stripes, and are arranged in rows.
Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas. 57 7/8 x 50 inches.

This essay was produced as part of the inaugural Stelo + Variable West Arts Writing Residency, funded with generous support from Stelo.

1. Vertigo

I’m thirteen years old, standing in front of a Rothko painting, trying to see. The painting before me is deep red, bright red, and red-near-black, the same colors as the blood the moon had recently tugged from my body for the first time. The painting makes me think about this blood. Thinking about the blood makes me suddenly vulnerable and a little unhinged and I see that, just as blood is always moving, the painting is always moving. It won’t stop moving. It is dimensional and animate and full of pathos in a way that, like my own blood, is both new and known to me. The bright reds hover and advance then the black-reds take their place before dissolving into deep space somewhere yards behind the wall upon which this supposedly two-dimensional object hangs. I am transfixed, and terrified, and suddenly very dizzy. What I’m feeling is vertigo. I will soon read Milan Kundera’s definition of vertigo: “vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. […] It tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall.” 

2. Thickness

A strong preference for certainty over ambiguity compels our brains to choose one version of the world, one perceptual path, over an infinite number of alternate paths. This winnowing keeps the world’s thickness mostly invisible. Color offers a quotidian, astonishing exception to this flattened reality. Really look at a color, any color, and what you see will soon shift. A blue eye can turn violet, or gray in even an infinitesimal shift in light. A leaf slides from green into yellow in a breeze’s slight shimmy. Color isn’t stable, doesn’t tarry with certitude. Color doesn’t care about our brains’ predilections. 

Our world speaks its aliveness via color. Color is a grammar of animacy by which the world tells of its vivid tangle of constant permutation.

3. Color makes culture

In its challenge to knowability via the intellect, color is also a social agent that challenges pure objectivity, containment, hierarchy, and mastery. Color is an invitation and a confrontation, beckoning perceivers to the brink of questions big and volatile enough to provoke cultural discomfort, resistance, and various forms of denigration.

David Batchelor explores this idea in his 1999 book Chromophobia: “Colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture. […] In the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded. […] As with all prejudices, its manifest form, its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable. This loathing of colour, this fear of corruption through colour, needs a name: chromophobia.” (22) 

Chromophobia begins with a love of control that metastasizes into a hatred (driven by fear) of anything that resists control. Color is “unknown or appears unknowable.” It’s the iridescent black fly buzzing in the sealed, immaculate gallery. Color’s very essence resists control. Color is always changing, always pushing back on containment. It’s in this schism that chromophobia begins. 

Batchelor goes on: “Chromophobia is […] usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body—usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both. […] Colour is the corruption of culture.” (23)

So in one chromophobic construction, color is mere surface. It is contingent, superficial—a lie. The word color itself hints at this chromophobic vision: the Latin colorem stems from celare, to hide or conceal; in Middle English “to color” is to embellish or adorn, to disguise, to render specious, to misrepresent. In this view, the truth of reality exists in form, and color is not form.

This understanding of color as contingent and secondary to form goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who wrote: “For air and water are naturally white in themselves. […] The earth is also naturally white, but seems coloured because it is dyed. This becomes clear when we consider ashes; for they become white when the moisture which caused their dyeing is burned out of them.” In this view, color is a type of extraneous makeup painted on an otherwise colorless world. Burning things to ash (witches, for example) could restore the world’s colorless truth. 

Aristotle’s view of color as makeup is part of a long philosophical history imagining a binary distinguishing depth from surface, essence from appearance. Aristotle correlated form with philosophy, order, rationality, and masculinity. He correlated color with chaos, deception, superfluity, and femininity. Form was profound, color superficial. 

Chromophobia has held significant sway in the art world. Relying heavily on color in art has long been considered (to use Batchelor’s terms), feminine, primitive, infantile, vulgar, queer, or pathological. In other words, women, children, queers, people of color, maniacs, and other “others” use excessive color because they don’t—or can’t—know better. 

4. Ecological chromophobia 

Chromophobia doesn’t confine itself to the art world. It both stems from and extends to more foundational ideologies, including how we regard nature.

Chromophobia’s love of control and its fear and resentment of anything that resists control aligns with biophobia (fear of nature). If there’s anything that nature ultimately resists, it’s control. Think: entropy. Think: death. Chromophobia as a type of biophobia is evident in the fact that many things that are often associated with “naturalness” are also diminished in a chromophobic outlook: people of color, femininity, Indigenous cultures, cultures of the global “East” and “South,” children, and all other-than-human lifeforms. All of these entities, color included, are associated with irregularity, excess, or mystery.

Both nature and color resist containment, hierarchy, objectivity, stability, and mastery—key features of dominant Western culture. The ecological chaos waged upon our planet is rooted in these values, as is chromophobia. But try as we might, we can’t make color stop shifting or toying with our sense of dominance and control. Just as we can’t make blood or water stop moving, or stop the body’s hungers from hungering, or reason with the storm’s trajectory or force. 

Blurry bricks of redish color bleed in and out of view.
Mark Rothko, Browns and Blacks in Reds, 1957. Courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and Mnuchin Gallery.
Dotted stripes of red brushstroke rows are squished together, against some kind of blue background.
Alma Thomas, Mars Dust, 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 69 1/4 x 57 1/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from The Hament Corporation. © artist or artist’s estate.

5. Vertigo

Rothko paintings can still work their magic on me. But the last time I went back to New York City, I was most captivated by an Alma Thomas painting I happened upon in the Met as I was rushing through the galleries, trying to not miss my impending flight home. Vertiginous with purpose, I was fast-walking through the endless marble and plaster galleries when I was literally stopped in my tracks by a curiously alive, impossibly shifty, color-driven thing. It was as if a sun-mottled songbird or rosebush in full bloom had suddenly materialized among the gallery’s uniform white floors and walls.  

Thomas’s Mars Dust (1972) is a rhythmic concatenation of red, roughly rectangular, vertically oriented brush marks that hover over a shifting background of vivid turquoise and deep indigo. Like the Rothko painting, it doesn’t obey gravity or physics. As I stood transfixed in the gallery, the red marks ballooned toward me then billowed back, as if pushed by a wind only they could perceive. The turquoise seeped around the red like a salty tide before retreating toward the indigo, which itself resided somewhere far behind the ostensibly flat wall upon which the painting hung. 

Thomas was a Black woman painting at a time when her genius was undervalued. She worked her entire adult life as a school teacher, starting her painting career in earnest only after she was able to retire from teaching at the age of sixty-eight. She painted in her humble Washington, DC, apartment, where she spent many hours gazing out her kitchen window, watching light shift through a holly tree in her backyard. Her sustained engagement with that tree and the light is what she says allowed her to understand herself as an abstract artist. Her paintings reflect her synesthetic, daily immersion with nature’s hues, patterns, and movements as witnessed in her urban world. 

She was influenced by Kandinsky’s ideas on color, who wrote, “color is a power which directly influences the soul.” Thomas’ paintings are manifestos on this view of color. Despite the bigotry and other forms of violence she experienced throughout her life, she saw in nature’s beauty a universal beneficence that formed its home in color, a goodness that might ultimately override the world’s injustices and violence. One of her fondest memories as a child in Alabama was wandering the plantation where her family had once been enslaved and that her grandfather came to own. There she would find “gorgeous sunsets” and “the most unusual wildflowers.” 

On a four-by-three grid, uneven concentric circles of varying shades and shapes are arranged like targets.
Wassily Kandinsky, Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913. Watercolor, gouache and crayon on paper.  9.4 x 12.4 inches.

6. The Fall

The sunsets and wildflowers were portals for Thomas beyond their complex context. They transported her to a spiritual core of nature-as-color/color-as-nature that drove her creative life. She was quite aware of the violent history of the land upon which these colorful instantiations played but felt that the role of the artist is to go past violence, all the way to the parts of the world where an animate force pulses itself as color. Color, for Thomas, was the visible evidence of the world’s unitary aliveness.

Thomas’s sense of color is a welcome fall—like love, like any delirium—into the ineffable reaches of human experience. This is a view of color as transcendent inner essence that allows its viewer to witness, for a moment, the truth of things. This aligns with Aristotle’s view of color as a drug (pharmakon), or Plato’s understanding of a painter as “a grinder and mixer of multi-color drugs,” or Roland Barthes’ view of color as “a kind of bliss . . . like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell.” This is color as “a lapse, a descent, a Fall. Intoxication, loss of consciousness, loss of self.” (Batchelor, 32) In this Fall, the color-perceiver is overtaken with color, immersed in a parallel world in which a small, constrained sense of self is replaced with an expansive sense of self. 

Poet Jorie Graham sees this parallel world as residing in a communal subjectivity rooted in the physical and physiological. This communal subjectivity resides beneath or beyond our psychological subjectivity, which is solitary and confined to our personalities. She offers this example, drawn from her experience of teaching: “If I ask you all to imagine the taste of salt and I say, let’s be specific: you’ve teared up, you’ve actually cried, the salt is coming down your own face. You taste it in your tears—that salt. As opposed to the salt shaker, that salt, more acrid. […] And everyone goes, ‘oh yeah, that, I’ve experienced that.’ And I say, do you see that, in this room, you all are sharing your bodies? […] But if I were to cast the word ‘justice’ into the classroom, there would be as many different interpretations of that concept as there are people.” She goes on to assert that if we can share our sensory experiences via art, we can share the emotions that those experiences provoke. And “if we share our emotions in the same way we can share the sensorium, we might eventually—this is quite utopian of me—but we might be able to train ourselves to come to a place where we can hear, in a shared way, each other’s ideas.”

Graham’s ideas of shared emotion via shared sensorium are utopian, but they are also extremely practical. They can, as John Keats said, be “tested on the pulse.” Graham’s belief in the power of a poem aligns with Thomas’s belief in the power of color to create collectivity and perhaps, ultimately, solidarity. 

Chromophilia is a mode of perception that ignites the communal capacities of the sensory. It kicks us out of small, habitual perception, and therefore out of habit, that flywheel that keeps the callous status quo spinning.

A shadowed tree obstructs the front view of a tall brick row house.
The tree outside Alma Thomas’s house at 1530 15th Street, NW in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
Four figures—a scarecrow, a tin man, a girl in a dress, and a lion—prance along a yellow brick road.
A publicity still from The Wizard of Oz. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images.

7. Uprooted

Writing about The Wizard of Oz and quoting from L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 book, Salman Rushdie describes the monotonous gray of Kansas, where: “Everything is grey as far as the eye can see—the prairie is grey and so is the house in which Dorothy lives. As for Auntie Em and Uncle Henry: ‘The sun and the wind […] had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober grey; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were grey also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now.’ Whereas ‘Uncle Henry never laughed. He was grey also, from his long beard to his rough boots.’ The sky? It was ‘even greyer than usual.’”

This grey is left behind to journey over the rainbow to a place where colors exist, where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” Rushdie writes: “This is unarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the greyness and entering the color. […] ‘Over the Rainbow’ is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants […] It is a celebration of Escape, a great paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn—the hymn—to elsewhere.”

We are all, now, uprooted selves. Our bodies are elsewheres in a global biotic elsewhere of widespread loss and alienation. Over the past century or two (barely a blink of an ecological eye), ongoing, concurrent socioecological disasters have dramatically and violently reshaped our planet. Climate change will push tens of millions of people from their homes in the next decades, “creating the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen.” Along with all other lifeforms, we are being un-homed. In the last forty years alone, we have seen the loss of roughly 70% of the world’s other-than-human creatures. Scientists have offered increasingly dire scientific predictions of socioecological devastation for decades, with little in the way of political response. 

But I’ll stop with the facts—I doubt you need more facts about our crisis. We have all had plenty of information, so much information that we have no idea what to do with it anymore. It blurs into a hum of impending doom that we internalize and bargain with and try to ignore. 

Solastalgia is one name for this internalized sense of doom and helplessness. It’s a type of grief, a longing for home experienced while one is still physically in a home-place. We feel solastalgia when our biospheric homes seem so different, so impoverished, compared to our memories of that home. I used to wake to the sound of birds, now I wake to the sound of traffic. I used to see tapestries of stars, now I see a uniform, artificial orange glow. I used to be able to drink from the river that now is poison. 

Like any violence, this self-reflexive violence that we both inflict and receive deadens us, tamps down our senses, and disorients us. Our deepest paths of perception become blocked. 

Thinking about color in the context of all this ruin may seem like an ethical cop-out, an aestheticized version of banal evil. But Thomas’s view of color, her focus on the wildflowers in the plantation field, her abiding belief in the societal potential of beauty, offers a different view. Her perspective may just be the best medicine for our sick zeitgeist. Color is more verb than noun, a daily insurgency against certainty and the brute teleology of fundamentalist capitalism. Color upends notions of utility. It refuses to sit still, refuses to allow for the neat packaging of the world or the self into stable, independent, identities or products. 

Chromophilia might be one tool to help us to re-inhabit the world, our bodies, our communities. It might help us see the tree outside our kitchen window not as a source of wood or even shade—not as utility—but as a synesthetic treatise on a vast vitality of which we are a part. It might help us make of our world a sturdy, mongrel new. 

Color, nature, art—these are not luxuries, but portals. Free and daily, they are crucial ways to buck a murderous system, to see through the flat packaging into which our world has only recently been crammed. Inside this packaging, the world still breathes—nature’s fecundity is relentless. It’s an aliveness that wants only more aliveness and for us, the living, to keep seeing it.  

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