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  • Alfred Mac Adam

Robert Swain: The Perception of Color

Robert Swain, Untitled-8x10-3x16, 2021. Acrylic on aluminum panel, 96 x 120 inches. Copyright © Robert Swain. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.

Robert Swain: The Perception of Color

By Alfred Mac Adam

March 31, 2023

The study of color theory is a shortcut to madness. From Goethe’s 1810 Theory of Colours, to Manlio Brusatin’s 1983 Storia dei Colori, to Philip Ball’s 2001 Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, philosophers, critics, and chemists have befuddled and dazzled us with explanations of what color is and how it interacts with our perceptual mechanisms. The problem with these explanations is that they are all verbal: until Josef Albers’s 1963 Interaction of Color, thinking about color was rather like trying to explain a sunset to a blind person.

The three painters gathered under the rubric of the Hunter Color School—Sanford Wurmfeld (b. 1942), Gabriele Evertz (b. 1945), and Robert Swain (b. 1940)—have all written extensively about color, the perception of color, and the manipulation of color. But their writings, like Albers’s, remind us of Byron’s gibe at the expense of Coleridge’s explanation of his philosophy: “I wish he would explain his Explanation.” Read their writings, by all means, but when the words cease to move you, look at the work—a far more rewarding experience. Robert Swain’s current exhibition The Perception of Color lets ten paintings (please excuse the mixed metaphor) do the talking, and their rhetoric makes a more convincing argument than any essay.

There is no room for the aleatory, for chance, in Swain’s practice. The ten paintings on view at David Richard Gallery are deployed as five pairs of identically-sized works: two sets of 48 by 48-inch acrylics on canvas, and three sets on aluminum, one measuring 96 by 120 inches and two at 72 by 72. The forty-eight-inch square pieces are composed of sixteen squares each, the larger rectangular works of eighty squares, and the seventy-two-inch square acrylics of thirty-six squares. There may be symbolism associated with the square—stability, the four cardinal directions gathered in harmony, or simply a memory of Albers’s homage to the square, but that seems all too reductive in the case of Swain. His squares are like building blocks, and it is not their geometry but the color he assigns to each that matters most.

The smaller canvases (Untitled-4×4 3×29 [n.d.] for example) offer the best opportunity to see Swain’s method, if only because their size gives us the chance to perceive them at a glance. First, Swain himself has identified some 4,896 distinct hues, so no square is identical to any other. Second, Swain’s surfaces are not smooth but composed of tiny ridges reminiscent of brushstrokes, so the play of light over his surfaces is like sunlight shining into running water and projecting myriad miniscule shadows. The result is that the effect of Swain’s transitioning hues, as they move both horizontally and vertically over the surface, changes depending on where the viewer stands—like sand shifting in the breeze. Stand close (say, three feet away) and you see only metamorphosing squares of color; stand farther (ten feet away) and you suddenly see creases and folds. These are not the visual illusions of Op art, but simply how our optical mechanism makes sense of what it is perceiving. The transition from brighter to darker, from one color (green here) to another (blue there) trains the eye to focus on minute changes in hue.

The largest pieces dominate our visual apparatus. In these, we are tempted to see narrative flows running from one side of the panel to another, conflicts between dark and light. But to see all this requires the time and patience to sit down opposite one of these extraordinary works and parse out all the possible relationships at play. The “reading” axis of all the works here is not simply horizontal but vertical as well. And we are not looking for horizon lines or any link to landscape painting. In Untitled-8×10-3×16 (2021), for example, blue in the lower right transforms slowly but surely into white as the eye moves from right to left, white slowly grows toward yellow and then yellow-orange as it moves up, and then yellow-orange shifts to green across the top. Studying the process by which this takes place is not an intellectual but a physiological trek.

Long ago, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, writing as Alberto Caeiro, pointed out that contemplating the river running through his village was a species of negative experience: “The river running through my town doesn’t make you think of anything. If you’re standing there watching it, you’re standing there watching it.” Robert Swain’s works are something like that: your metaphysical engine may be revving up, but it’s your body, your eyes, that are having all the fun.

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