Artists have stunned and titillated audiences over the course of the 20th century by using inventive materials: Ed Ruscha stained his work with blood, and David Hammons’s substituted Kool-Aid as a watercolor, and Andy Warhol... well, he peed on canvases. But employing unusual substances to achieve unique color effects was hardly an innovation in the course of modern art history. In the 18th century, artists used ground-up Egyptian mummy remains to make brown pigment and painted with dehydrated cow pee to achieve stable yellow tones, because, hey, it got the job done.
To understand how artists have experimented with color through strange, even borderline occult materials over the past couple hundred years, we spoke with art advisor Alex Glauber, who recently curated “Idiosynchromism” at Simon Dickinson.
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What was the inspiration for the show?
The things that I’m interested in come from pretty honest and obvious places. With this show, I was thinking about artists who are consciously foregoing store-bought, stable, inexpensive paints for unstable, potentially fugitive, unpredictable materials. At the time, I was reading about Ed Ruscha and his period of organic materials and about the history of pigments too. The most obvious thing occurred to me: there was a time when artists had to experiment and invent their own colors and pigments in order to service this image that they were trying to capture in an attempt to faithfully recreate nature.
There are some pretty unusual materials used in the show—like urine, mummy dust, and tar—but their use is often not a result of a formal artistic decision, but are coming from technical constraints.
Everyone talks about the Warhol piss paintings as the most provocative, avant-garde, aggressive gestures and ideas of the moment. But if you think about it, Paleolithic cave paintings before oil paint existed, and how did they make color? They used blood, they used charred bone, they used flowers, and they used urine. And they didn’t do it to be radical; they did it because they had to. When you think about that history, it sort of tempers Warhol a bit.
Also, in the show, you look at a Warhol piss painting and the condition looks terrible. Next to it, there is an Indian miniature for 1708 and look at how vivid that yellow is—it’s Indian Yellow, which was made from cow urine in a small of village north of Calcutta where the cows were exclusively fed mango leaves. Dehydrated, it produced this amazingly saturated starchy yellow. Look at this and you see how well it has held up for hundreds of years, whereas Warhol’s couldn’t last 40. So they didn’t do it because it was a statement of the radicalness, they did it because it was the best solution to the aesthetic quandary.
Could you talk about pairing together contemporary work with historical material?
Yeah, so this whole idea behind this show was showing that unlikely precedents existed, whether it was Old Master painters or in printmaking. We had Goya prints in the show that were inked with sepia, which is squid ink, and a painting by Benjamin West who was reported to use mummy, as did Michel-Martin Drölling, a French painter in the school of Ingres. In fact, mummy was so popular in Paris there was a store called À la Momie. Drölling was such a fan of the pigment that rumor goes that after having run out of it after the French Revolution, he and some peers went into the abbey of the Church of Saint Denis and dug up the bodies of disinherited French kings to use them as pigment.
So I used these works as proxies. Having these historical works alongside contemporary work showed that artists approach these materials for any number of reasons: out of economic necessity—in that they were inexpensive—or because there is a great deal of conceptual or metaphorical weight to those things. I wanted the show to feel like a cabinet of curiosities.
So formal innovation was spurred by technical constraints?
I spend all day looking at art and paintings, but it boggles my mind to think what it would have been like to approach the process of creating an image when you didn’t have every conceivable technical option at your disposal. So then when you start to think about art history in terms of these things, it is fascinating. The invention of the collapsible tin paint tube in the 19th century allowed artists to buy paint and conveniently carry it around instead of like having to buy pigment that was ground up and mix it in the studio. In the early 1800s in France, the French government had prizes for anyone who could synthesize ultramarine in an inexpensive way, meaning they were very invested in developing new paint technology. If you didn’t have the collapsible paint tube, you would have never had impressionism in the 1860s, because Monet and his peers couldn’t have gone out and painted en plein air. We fail to really consider sometimes how much of the advancements were products of either technical or practical constraints or the advent or evolution of these things.
There are studies that say red paintings sell better at auction, which adds an unexpected market element to color choices too.
There is this funny matrix. Calm seas are better than stormy seas, and red is better than blue and yellow. That conversation has greater applicability when you are talking about trophy art, like you are buying a Warhol Liz, what color within that schema of silkscreens is the best. I think it’s marketing. I mean, you read auction catalogues and it's always great when you see a $40 million estimate for a contemporary figurative painting and in the proceeding pages there are reproductions of everything from da Vinci to Picasso to Giacometti, because they also deal with the figure. The marketing techniques are such bullshit. I wonder if they actually work.
What surprised you about the show?
I was continually amazed at how crazy yet sincere and real some of these things were. Think about India Yellow making its way to Europe through the Dutch. Trade routes and enterprising so-called "color men" found ways to get mummies out of Egypt when during the 16th and 17th centuries it was illegal to export them. The idea of a color man is such an interesting idea: somebody who was a merchant and who created these pigments, I mean, they were like an artistic drug dealer. They would scour the world for the newest and best and most impressive materials, and that carried great expense.
Do you feel that there been something lost with the standardization of color paint through chemical processes during the Industrial Revolution?
No, what's interesting about some of the younger artists in the show is that they place such an importance on their material decisions that they become the whole crux of the work. For others, it comes from a much more practical place. A year and a half ago I did a studio visit with Daniel Turner, who was in the show, and I was asking him about how he came to the choice of using steel wool for these wall rubbings or these bitumen emulsion and tar. He said in many ways it came from the simplest truth that he was a young artist and had a finite amount of money and these were materials that were less expensive and more readily available than fine-art materials. So it was adaptive.
Does this history feed your understanding of art being made today?
This might be a bit of a bold statement, but, I think, increasingly as the art has become more commoditized and standardized—and if you think of the digitialization, this whole realm of Wade Guyton and artists like that—artists have tried to create more homespun art, especially in painting. It's about creating work with alternative materials, but it's also about utilizing and harnessing nature and the elements to sort of be a collaborator in this process. It's hard to call this a conscientious movement, because it's being done all around the world, but it seems to me to be remedy to the increasingly slick or distanced approach to art-making. It's art that is very much imbued with an organic approach, both in material and sensibility.