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The Color Grey

On the occasion of Gerhard Richter's exhibition Acht Grau (Eight Grey), which can be seen in the exhibition hall of the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin until January 5, Marion Ackermann and Wolf Tegethoff explain the meaning of the color grey in a cultural and art historical context.



Gerhard Richter: ACHT GRAU exhibition view, 2002
Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin


His greatest pleasure was […] in pursuing some silly notion endlessly. Thus, he always wore grey, and because the various parts of his suit were comprised of different fabrics and, hence, gradations, he could muse for days about how he could procure yet another grey onto his body, and he was happy when he succeeded in doing so and thereby putting us to shame, we who had doubted him or declared the matter to be impossible. Upon which he would reprimand us on our lack of inventive spirit and belief in his talents.
Unofficial translation from: Goethe, Dichtung u. Wahrheit (HA Vol. 9, p. 297)


In popular vernacular use, grey usually carries negative connotations: it comes across as inconspicuous, ordinary, especially in its widely used reference to a certain species among the female sex. It conceals the true character of things in that it robs them of their power of illumination, cloaking them in a vague “veil of grey.” Grey signalizes a distance from life (“all theory is… grey”), while “ashen” indicates decay and impending death. It preponderates in the dull tones of twilight; in “grey zones” and “grey markets,” it seems unclear and ambiguous – not to speak of the éminence grise or power behind the throne, whose secret numbers and machinations are difficult to penetrate for the uninitiated. Despite this, the color grey possesses a keen power of suggestion without which the vast success of film and photography would have been inconceivable.

Spanning the space between black and white, its endless shades are capable of evoking the entire chromatic spectrum, without its obvious colorlessness appearing too unrealistic. The phenomenon has been known for ages, and has inspired many an artistic inquiry. Grisaille, that is, wall and panel paintings comprised exclusively of tones of brown and grey, were already known to antiquity and have assumed a fixed position in post-Enlightenment painting ever since Jan van Eyck’s Adam and Eve on the wings of the Ghent Altarpiece. Whether or not it was primarily a case of imitating plastic works of art is no longer the question here. The fascination for using extremely limited means to conjure up an illusion that was as close to reality as possible was certainly no less an impulse.

Gerhard Richter, Aus der Serie Fingermalereien, 1971, Oil on Paper
© Gerhard Richter, Köln


Grey seldom consists in a simple mixture of black and white, but normally results from equal amounts of blue, red, yellow, and green whose respective blend determines the specific tone of grey, modifying it in one direction or another. This is what makes it a popular background, as it enhances and intensifies the brilliance of every other color. Because grey contains the full color spectrum, it always conveys an overall impression of harmony in which a colorful object can both dominate in space and become liberated from its isolation. A white wall never seems neutral, but enters into a deliberate contrast with the paintings hanging in front of it. On the other hand, grey unifies, creating gentle transitions. Artists have always been fascinated by this property and have been continually impelled to investigate it. Following the color orgies of the Fauves at the beginning of the 20th century, the paintings of early Cubism were monochrome, characterized by a subtle undertone of grey and brown pigments. In Guernica (1937), Picasso did without color entirely. Here, grey became the expressive means to convey the horror of the nocturnal scene, thus underscoring the narrow etymological connection between the German terms “grau” (grey) and “Grauen” (horror).



Joseph Beuys, Iphigenie/Titus Andronicus, 1985
Glasobjekt in Eisenrahmen
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003


A subdued anthracite grey prevailed among the products of the Ulm Academy of Design in the fifties and early sixties and has left a lasting impression on the design of the post-war era. The only things accented with color were the functional elements, such as buttons, cranks, and switches – which clearly emphasized the objects’ utilitarian character.

An inconspicuous grey also governed daily office life during the reconstruction period: a grey vest, grey pants, and a grey jacket, a grey outfit for the head secretary and a grey limousine with a star on the hood for the gentlemen of the board hid the growing wealth behind the demonstrative sign of discretion. Up until the triumph of Pop Art, color seemed increasingly banned from the palette, even in the visual arts.

At the end of the fifties, following a working crisis which he later termed “field work,” Joseph Beuys relinquished the brilliant color and transparency of his early watercolors. A thick paste of grey and brown now covered the underlying layers of brighter color, which nonetheless remained latently visible. In its haptic materiality, the opaque grey layer weighs heavily upon the delicate colorful ground, which nonetheless shines through in a nearly imperceptible way. Similar to black, grey swallows light, under whose influence alone color can unfold. In the viewer’s imagination, grey also creates, as Beuys stressed, a complementary image that implies the idea of the entire chromatic spectrum. In a process of inner imagination, the external world of experience becomes compensated: “Grey,” according to Beuys, “can be read as a neutralization or as an image of neutralization in the area of color. I use grey to provoke something in people, something like an opposing image, or one could nearly say: to produce the rainbow in people.” Beuys’ original motif and key material – grey felt – is suspended above the chasm of the grey everyday life of the late years of the German economic miracle. Grey always appears uniform in the masses, yet when we take a closer, more discerning look, it acquires a clearly individual character; in the final analysis, as Beuys said, an elephant “always wears the same suit.”



Blinky Palermo, Ohne Titel, 1961
Monotypie auf Papier montiert auf Karton
c-print
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
  

Blinky Palermo, Ohne Titel, 1970
c-print
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003






Andy Warhol, Joseh Beuys in Memoriam, 1986, c-print
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003


For Gerhard Richter, this notion of the deliberate compensation of a lack of color in the viewer’s imagination plays an equally important role. In his Two Sculptures for a Room by Blinky Palermo from 1971, color is effectively extinguished. Plaster masks of both artists were initially covered in a thick layer of paint that clearly retained the traces of the brushstroke. Then, two bronze casts were made from the painted masks, which subsequently received a thin grey finish. This final coat eliminates both the materiality of the bronze and the original color of the plaster model, while allowing it to resonate in the memory through the relief character of the earlier painted layer. The sculptures’ dull, “dead” grey hue inspires insecurity; in spite of their weight, it negates the classic warm, metallic surface attraction. Similarly, Pia Stadtbäumer’s wax models on grey bases in the Installation Androgyn/Gynander from the year 1993 are just as difficult to interpret. The invisible and the concealed nonetheless continue to exist below the surface, thus contributing immeasurably to the work’s overall effect. After Andy Warhol decorated the façade of a Philip Johnson building with the criminal photographs of the Most Wanted Men in 1964 (read an article of Irit Krygier about Andy Warhol's work here), and following massive public protest, he had it painted over in a layer of silver-grey aluminum paint, entirely aware, no doubt, that the faces concealed underneath would continue to remain vivid in the imaginations of passers-by, and that its efficacy and intensity could only become thereby enhanced.



Gerhard Richter: ACHT GRAU exhibition view, 2002
Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin


Through a modulation in brushstroke, Richter’s grey diversifies the character of the painted surface in a number of ways. Thus, he experimentally explores the phenomenal opposite of local and apparent color, a fact which only becomes apparent in the viewer’s reaction. Certainly, “all cats are grey at night,” as the saying goes, yet the knowledge of the actual coloration of things has been impressed upon our minds irrevocably for once and for all. Seen by light, grey is for this reason never merely simply grey, but can be read as a color hidden beneath layers and veils.

Marion Ackermann is a curator at the Städtische Galerie im Lehnbachhaus in Munich
Wolf Tegethoff is the director of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte


Translation: Andrea Scrima