Colori: Emotions of Color in Art

A show staggering under the weight of its own ambition

By Hettie Judah

Jim Lambie, Zobop (Prismatic), 2016-17 (installation view, GAM, Turin). Photo: Giorgio Perottino

GAM, Turin, and Castello di Rivoli 14 March – 23 July

Picked a big subject for an exhibition? You’ll want to select some limits too: geographical, temporal, art historical, critical, political or even merely fed by random prejudice; whatever works, really, so that you know where to stop. As sizeable themes go, ‘colour’ is up there, but with two large venues to fill, a sagely edited show would have space to play with. Yet Colori – organised by the institutions’ director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and a large team of collaborators – staggers, breathless, beneath the weight of its own ambition.

‘Emotions of color in art’ is a foggy notion at best. In practice it seems to translate into an exploration of colour in art from all possible angles (including its absence). Attempts to break the exhibition according to subthemes are complicated by a shakily delineated separation of focus between the two institutions: in theory, the works shown at GAM are the historical aspect of the exhibition, and those at the Castello di Rivoli the more contemporary. In practice, high-profile historical loans are on show at both sites (an Édouard Manet and Edvard Munch at the Castello; Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky at GAM), and one is as likely to find, say, Arte Povera in the one as in the other.

The size of this bifurcated show is biennialesque: including approximately 400 works by 130 artists from the last four centuries, it begins, in temporal terms, with theoretical treatises on colour in books by Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and ends up with newly installed works by Jim Lambie (the sparkly floorpiece Zobop (Prismatic), 2016–17) and Aslı Çavusoğlu (delicate paintings in cochineal with a geopolitical edge). Along the way, colour is explored from spiritual, mineral, optical, synesthetic, psychedelic and symbolic perspectives, via diagrams, short films, light installations, sculpture, painting and even (courtesy of Simon Starling) pianola music.

There are tantalising stories – of evolving fields of thought and of chains of influence – and arresting discoveries. Christov-Bakargiev cocurated an exhibition in Chicago last year that responded to Annie Besant’s ‘thought forms’: attempts to depict precise states of mind such as Angry Jealousy or Greed for Drink (both c. 1905) in forms and colour. At a guess, this Victorian-era theosophist and social reformer’s work was a starting point for Colori too: Besant’s quaint but fascinating illustrations are placed in pole position at GAM (alongside somewhat redundant contemporary facsimiles by Lea Porsager, likewise shown in Chicago). Other delights include Marianne von Were in’s crepuscular, expressionist Swiss landscapes welling with intensely pigmented arcs of colour; Milanese collective Gruppo MID’s hypnotic Synthetic Images / Experimental Films (1965), three-screen projections that pulse with coloured shapes and bars of light; and Gustav Metzger’s liquid crystal environment Supportive (1966/2011/2017), installed with the artist’s input shortly before his death.

The show regularly darts off in the most unexpected directions. One tiny vestibule takes in the high camp of Turinese artist Piero Gilardi’s new, hot-toned tropical landscape reliefs in polyurethane. Elsewhere, a small display is devoted to doodle works by Edi Rama, an artist whose profile has received something of a boost since he became prime minister of Albania in 2013. Executed with writing implements on paper available at his office table, the doodles all date from Rama’s time as an active politician.

The problem with Colori is not a lack of ideas or of quality (though there are some less lovely works – one Yves Klein lingers, vivid, in the trauma banks) but a lack of editing and direction. Overcrowding generates some uncomfortable bedfellows. A lightwork by James Turrell is cached in a cubicle flanked by Op-ish, Pop-ish, attention-grabbing displays, and across the corridor from a neon-lit Carlos Cruz-Diez colour environment. Who has time for the meditative patience Turrell demands when art nearby will deliver a faster hit? Similar steamrolling is achieved in placing a 1988 Irma Blank breath painting – Radical Writings, Schriftzug=Atemzug vom 4-8-88, composed of lines each painted in time with a single breath – cheek by jowl with a particularly insistent 1969 Op work by Victor Vasarely.

Extended wall texts for each artist, many represented by only one work, make progress for studious visitors prohibitively slow. Certain works seem to have earned inclusion thanks largely to curatorial enthusiasm. Camille Henrot’s painting series 11 Animals that Mate 4 Life (2016) is enchanting and disquieting, the loving animal pairings backed with bright washes in greeting-card tones, but it’s only about colour insofar as any painted work is.

What Colori has in greatest excess, perhaps, is barely veiled agendas, all of them laudable but inevitably muddling. The show is full-to-bursting with overlooked female artists, works from less-travelled territories and sensitivity to cultural tensions. Yet for all that it reads as ‘woke’, its most coherent narrative remains one that traces colour in art from Goethe by way of theosophy and the group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) through Pop and Arte Povera to the digital glow. Many of the big-name loans, positioned throughout the exhibition in the manner of well-paced highlights, are works by famous, usually male, European and American artists. Well-intentioned but seemingly rushed, Colori ends up feeling like it’s trying to prop up its new (global, inclusive) art body on an old Euro-American skeleton. 

From the May 2017 issue of ArtReview