The Dealer as Co-Conspirator: Selections from the Richard Bellamy Papers in the MoMA Archives


This installation of twentieth-century color charts shows that there is no one “true” model for color. Rather, visualizations reflect the orientation of their creators. A paint chemist’s molecular diagram has little in common with a designer’s Pantone color swatch or the random colors of a Gerhard Richter painting, but each system has a way to represent the idea red. Industrial society requires a precise and standardized definition of blue and the millions of other colors visible to the human eye. Designers, producers, and consumers depend upon color standards, often expressed as charts,
and such organizing systems are integral to color theory, science, and aesthetics.

The color theory taught in most art and design schools is strongly influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus (1917–33), a German modern design school. This approach emphasizes the visual effects of juxtaposed colors. Less well known today are the spiritual and philosophically oriented theories of teachers Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, and Paul Klee. Some taught that colors had universal qualities, such as direction and shape (that diagonal lines and triangles are inherently yellow, for example).

Beginning in the 1960s, artists schooled in this tradition began to question its assumptions, especially the notion that colors have universal meaning. At the same time, the Conceptual art movement led artists to interrogate color-organization systems. The results are reflected in the exhibition Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, on the sixth floor of the Museum, and in the artworks in book form, known as artists’ books, that are on display here. These artists’ books engage color systems, both questioning and celebrating them.

Hard Science, Weird Science

The understanding of color in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected developments in
the sciences, psychology, and, especially, industrialization. In the 1860s, synthetic colors were developed, expanding the market for pigments. At the same time, advances in optical science sharpened understanding of color as a physical phenomenon, and the new discipline of psychology spurred research into human color perception. The fluidity of disciplines in this period resulted in
interesting crossover investigations. For example, belief in correspondence between musical notes, emotional states, and colors led to the development of “color music” played on a “color organ.”

Interchemical Corporation. Color Chemistry. New York: International Printing Ink, 1935.

Cándido Villalobos-Domínguez. Ecuaciones de Tres Luces Especrales y Luz Blanca [Investigation on Impure Spectra and its Consequences for the Theory of Colors]. Buenos Aires: Ruiz Hermanos, 1931.

In this modest publication, Argentine art teacher and politician Villalobos-Domínguez substantiates his argument that prismatic light is composed of the three “fundamental chromatic sensations,” scarlet, green, and ultramarine. The author’s Atlas de los Colores (1947) organizes over seven thousand colors.

Wilhelm Ostwald. Colour Science. London: Winsor and Newton, c. 1930.

First published earlier in the century, German chemist Ostwald’s system is organized around twenty-four hues. The system was adapted for educational and industrial use; The Color Harmony Manual and How to Use It (1942) (see Industrial Strength) is a wholesale adaptation.

Edward Podolsky. The Doctor Prescribes Colors: The Influence of Colors on Health and Personality. New York: National Library, 1938.

Shinobu Ishihara. 25 Plate Practical Test for Colorblindness. Tokyo: Handaya Shoten, c. 1990.
New York University Libraries

In these tests, those with full color vision recognize the number 15 on the left. People with red-green color blindness discern the number 17. Those lacking color vision see a random dot pattern.

A. Wallace Rimington. Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Colour. London: Hutchinson, 1912.

G. A. Rahmann. Art of Light. New York: Art Institute of Light, 1939.

Illustrations show artist Thomas Wilfred at a color organ.

I. J. Belmont. The Modern Dilemma in Art: The Reflections of a Color-Music Painter. New York: Harbinger House, 1944.

Industrial Strength

The increased availability of pigments beginning in the early twentieth century led to the development of standards, manuals, and samples that helped professionals and amateurs choose and use new color products.

Alvah Horton Sabin. Red-Lead and How To Use It In Paint. London: John Wiley, 1920.
Department of Conservation, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sargent-Gerke Company. Sargent Superfine Tung Oil Enamel. Indianapolis: Sargent-Gerke, c. 1930.
Department of Conservation, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Use it everywhere!” from tractors to kitchens, exclaims this brochure. Its “many other uses” include the painting of both power plants and wicker baskets.

F. N. Vanderwalker. The Mixing of Colors and Paints. Chicago: Frederick J. Drake, 1924.
Department of Conservation, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

As in other early paint manuals, little distinction is made between industrial and domestic use. Colors are arranged on a staggered grid rather than a wheel. Covering one column reveals harmonies between the others.

Gebrauchsgrafik. Berlin: Bundes Deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker. 1932.

As the color printing industry developed, advertisements ini professional journals such as this one promoted color use to designers.
Egbert Jacobson. The Color Harmony Manual and How To Use It. Chicago: Container Corporation of America, 1942.

A. H. Munsell. Munsell Book of Color: Defining, Explaining, and Illustrating the Fundamental
Characteristics of Color.
Baltimore: Munsell, 1929.

The Munsell system, long a standard, is derived from that of Wilhelm Ostwald (See Hard Science, Weird Science).

Switzer Brothers, Inc. Switzer Sunbonded Day-Glo. Cleveland: Switzer Brothers, c. 1960.
Department of Conservation, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Day-Glo is a trade name for the fluorescent pigments developed in the 1930s by the Switzer Brothers. The unearthly quality of fluorescent pigments results from a chemical conversion of ultraviolet light into visible light within the pigment itself. It was first used in theater and then used in World War II; this brochure promotes its application in advertising and safety signaling.

James Ward. Colour Harmony and Contrast for the Use of Art Students, Designers, and Decorators. London: Chapman and Hall, 1903.

Pantone Color Specifier. Moonachie: Pantone, 1963.
The Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color, Arts Library, Yale University

This color-matching system, developed in the early 1960s, uses small swatches to help printers accurately mix the colors specified by graphic designers. It was subsequently adapted in related industries, such as textiles.

Applied Art

Following World War II, product categories expanded to include colorful paints, textiles, and even appliances. Consumer-oriented charts and manuals reflected the new domestication of color. Meanwhile, full-color images became common in print media, as seen in print-industry publications.

Anton Bruehl and Fernand A. Bourges. Color Sells. New York: Condé Nast, 1935.
Chicago Art Institute Libraries

Commercial photographers are shown setting up a color photo shoot. Promoting the use of color in advertising—in Condé Nast publications, for example—stunning interior spreads extol how “color opens the pocketbook.”

Le Corbusier. Claviers de Couleurs. [Bale?]:Salubra, 1931.

The architect desgined this little-known series of wallpapers. The chart inspired Sherrie Levine's Salubra #4(2007) in the exhibition Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today.

Catharine Klock. The Complete Home-Decorator. New York: Cadillac, 1946.
Private collection

Do-it-yourself manuals proliferated in the postwar years. This example posits color as part of a house’s “personality,” introducing basic color theory and space planning. Such guides taught practical considerations as well as normative ideas about middle-class life.

Maïmé Arnodin. Cahier de Coloris Hiver 68–69. Paris: Maïmé Arnodin, 1962.

Trend books, such as this, forecast (and determine) color use in upcoming product cycles. Long popular in the garment industry, they have expanded in influence considerably in recent decades to encompass product and interior design. Characteristically, this book relies on allusion, with color names such as “Inconnu.”

Formal Education

Color-organization systems are common educational tools. Art schools tend to emphasize formal, empirical aspects of Bauhaus pedagogy, but it is only one of several approaches. Some postwar artists used these systems as points of departure, questioning their presumed universal order.

Wassily Kandinsky. Uber das Geistige in der Kunst [Concerning the Spiritual in Art]. Munich: Piper, 1912.

Kandinsky’s diagram illustrates an element of his complex philosophy of color. At bottom, red is placed at the center of a spectrum from which orange and yellow emanate “excentrically” while blue and violet move “concentrically.”

Wassily Kandinsky. Point and Line to Plane. New York: Guggenheim, 1947.

In this book, originally published in 1926 as part of a larger thesis about visual elements, Kandinsky expands upon the notion of directional color.

Johannes Itten. The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color.
New York: Reinhold, 1961.

Gyorgy Kepes. Language of Vision. Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1944.

Kepes taught color as one element of an ostensibly transcendent universal “language of vision.”

Josef Albers. Interaction of Colors. New Haven: Yale, 1963.

Exercises developed by Albers have had perhaps the single greatest influence on postwar art education. Generations of art students have learned about color through exercises demonstrating how perception of one color depends upon its juxtaposition with others. Here, lifting a flap reveals that two apparently different colors are in fact the same.

Stephen Woowat. Hello!? Colour Theory? London: Self-published, 2008

Part of a kit intended for use by "frustrated graphic designers,"this sticker names color clash as a criminal offense.

Mixing It Up

In recent decades, artists have used organizing systems as points of departure for their use of color. They invoke the notion of universal standards even as they undermine and transform them for expressive ends, as reflected in the artists’ books shown here.

Lawrence Weiner. And/or: Green as Well as Blue as Well as Red. London: Self-published, 1972.

Weiner “mixes” colors using language.

Miles DeCoster. Color-Accuracy: A Permanent Press Report. Chicago: Permanent Press, 1978.

DeCoster documents his color-processing operations on Pantone swatches, at once following and defeating standards.

Sol LeWitt. Four Colors and All Their Combinations. Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris, 1987.

Since the late 1960s, LeWitt’s work has involved the systematic variation of limited elements. The cover of this book shows each color element used inside.

John Baldessari. The Telephone Book (With Pearls). Ghent, Belgium: Imschoot, 1988.

Using a found photograph and dots, Baldessari suggests a cryptic color-coding system.

Adrian Piper. Colored People. London: Book Works, 1991.

Piper invokes color as both metaphor and racial category in this series of photographs. Racially diverse collaborators photographed themselves demonstrating emotions such as “green with envy.” Piper then added color to match.

Brian Kennon. Black and White Reproductions of The Abstract Expressionists. Los Angeles: Self-published, 2002.

By distilling iconic paintings into color samples, Kennon comments wryly on Abstract Expressionist heroics, Conceptualist reductivism, information graphics, and even the limitations of art reproductions.

Merrill Wagner. Time and Materials. [New York?]: Self-published, 1994.

Here weather is a medium, and its effects are seen on panels painted in outdoor spaces.

Spencer Finch. Spencer Finch. Frankfurt: Portikus, 2003.

The artist juxtaposes black inks specified by the Pantone system, showing how variable this noncolor can be.

Ferdinand Schmatz and Heimo Zobernig. Farbenlehre. [Chromatics] Vienna: Springer, 1995.

In this encyclopedic work, Schmatz and Zobernig painstakingly describe and chart over eighty color systems, from Pythagoras to Pantone.

Peter Wegner. Blue. San Francisco: Hostfelt Gallery, 1998. One of two volumes.

Wegner’s poetic fanfold opens into a skyline of blues culled from paint samples. Based on a series of his paintings, the sequence begins with “Clear Blue” and ends with “The Blues.”


The exhibition is organized by Jennifer Tobias, Librarian, Reader Services.

Exhibition support is provided by The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art.