To say that Robert Swain is obsessed with color is putting it mildly. The color charts and wheels that most of us left behind in beginning art class have been the subject of a 45-year fascination for Swain, who is currently enjoying his first solo museum exhibition in California at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
And what color charts they are. Nearly filling the walls of the museum’s main gallery are five monumental paintings, each consisting of grids of myriad rainbow hues arranged in rows or columns of gradually shifting saturation from full, rich color to near white or gray. (Interestingly, neither pure white nor black appear anywhere.) Each 12-inch square is a single tone; each painting is 9 or 10 squares high. The largest is 70 feet in length.
Designed specifically for the space and light of the museum, the paintings are not so much individual works as a kind of sensory installation. Although the squares are discrete — there is no attempt to blur the lines between them and each color is noticeably different from its neighbors — the works bring to mind the more misty perceptual interventions of James Turrell, in which it sometimes feels like the artist’s canvas is the back of your eyeball itself.
Yet Swain’s works are less commandeering, more genteel. Walking into the exhibition is like happening upon a snippet of a computer screen for giants, the pixels blown up beyond meaning.
For us tiny folk, they induce a kind of sensory vertigo. The squares appear to ripple and shimmer as if animated, although this effect is almost a fugitive motion, as if glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye. Or perhaps it’s a sensation experienced on a level more visceral than optical, as a welling up or a tamping down of some inchoate feeling.
Swain, it seems, would be amenable to this interpretation. Since 1973, he has been developing a “color system” of 4,896 individual units, complete with a record of each color’s evocative characteristics.
For him, the experience of color is a transfer of energy on a physical level. In an artist’s statement, he cites research that even colorblind people are affected by the calming power of a particular shade of pink.
Whether or not you buy this notion, Swain’s work treads an interesting line between the near-scientific rigor of the 1960s Minimal and Conceptual tradition from which he emerged, and a more touchy-feely reliance on, well, feelings. His work belies the notion that “expressive” art must somehow be an angst-y mess. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more controlled, orderly approach to painting, and yet by refining his work to operate along only one axis — chromatic juxtaposition — Swain has unleashed a host of physical reactions that are perhaps the precursors to emotion.
This intersection between extreme reduction and emotional investment also strangely echoes our ever increasing entanglement with pixilated media. The resemblance between Swain’s work and pixels may be superficial — the man was exploring networks of squares when the PC was just a twinkle in technology’s eye — but it nevertheless suggests how something that starts out as an abstraction can become so integral to the way we think and feel.
Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 586-6488, through Aug. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.smmoa.org