This paper deals with the temporal dimension of the interaction of color and light in contemporary art, and more specifically with the intervallary nature of the color-light event. Based on the author’s light installations, it examines the question of monochromatic color and of the interaction of colors in painting as compared with the contemporary use of sequences of colored light. It shows how the author’s installations avoid both unchanging and rapidly changing light in order to focus on interval-enhancing slowness as a factor of the emergence of color. The paper first describes the 1950s and 1960s breakthroughs of color-light as both distinct from and similar to the painters’ use of pigment. Then it focuses on the questions raised by light works that include temporal evolutions and it insists on the spatial and temporal dimensions of color juxtaposition. Based on this notion of juxtaposition, it then develops the author’s theory and practice of the interval. It describes how her recent installations focused on duration and slowness so as to expand the experience of the interval, thus provoking sensorial and emotional experiences associated with the intervallary color-light event.

Charlotte Beaufort, Étude, 2007

Charlotte Beaufort, Untitled 1, 2008

Charlotte Beaufort, Untitled 2, 2008


The site-specific light installations I have created since 2007 are based on a score organized in a series of colored “tableaux” of light that slowly, silently and almost organically fade into one another to create a developing series of atmospheres. This contrasts with other light installations, such as Ann Veronica Janssens’ Donut (2003), which is based on the quick pulsation of large colored concentric circles projected on a wall with the rhythmic support of loud music. Based as it is on the interaction of successive after-image effects, Donut aims to unsettle our perception of color and space. Such is not the object of my installations which focus on slowness as a decisive element in the advent of color.

But the use of colored light as a medium raises a few questions : how does one work with it ? how can it be contained ? how can it be used without the support of surfaces ? in which ways does it differ from pigments ?

Ann Veronica Janssens, Donut, 2003

From Pigment to Light

Color, form and surface are most generally considered inseparable. Bridget Riley considers they cannot be dissociated (Gage 2009: 103). Michel Verjux uses light in a way that doesn’t differ much from white paint on a surface. In his case, color apart, the use of light as a medium is not truly light-specific. Things are different with some of James Turrell’s earlier works that circumscribed colored light in a form. He first used white light—as in Casto (White), 1967—and then chose to use colored light—Casto (Pink), 1968. From the right viewpoint, the flat surface painted on the wall is perceived as three-dimensional, like a hologram. This work is more light-specific in the sense that it produces a three-dimensional colored sensation related to no existing material object. It avoids the medium-alienation of transitive lighting, and it explores light’s ability to inhabit space and to create a self-contained volume. Such questions partly stem from the interrogations of 20th-century painters and critics.

Michel Verjux, Untitled, 2005

turrellcastop-1968  turrellaltaw-1967turrell-jukeb-1968
James Turrell, Casto, Pink, 1968
Alta, White, 1967 et Juke Blue, 1967

For instance, Clement Greenberg’s notion of the allover—often used about Pollock’s drippings—suggests that the canvas is cut out of a broader field whose virtual presence beyond the picture’s physical limits is part of the beholder’s experience. Such preoccupations can be linked with Robert Irwin’s and James Turrell’s interest for light. From 1967 to 1971, they both worked on sensory deprivation with psychologist Edward Wortz, in the Art & Technology Project. Wortz worked on the Ganzfeld, a perfectly homogeneous color-field with no perceptible object or shape, or any visual accident. In this experimental context, one may say that Turrell’s priority in the 1960s was not color, but sensory deprivation and the beholder’s spatial disorientation.


From « non-color Â» to colorism

If color is secondary in the Ganzfelds, one may question its importance in most of Turrell’s work. Cherry (1998), for instance, is part of his Space Divisions series in which color plays no part. The first works in the series—Rayna (1979), Jida (1983)—involved no artificial light but the occasional lighting of the exhibition room. For thirty years, well into the 1990s, Turrell was not a colorist. Color, for him, is an inessential supplement—or ornament—in the more fundamental questioning of our perception of space. In this respect, neither color, nor space, nor light are his media. As he very clearly said, “perception is the medium”.

James Turrell, Cherry, 1998

turrellrayna-1979 turrelljida-1983
James Turrell, Rayna, 1979 et Jida, 1983

While his works’ power of attraction does seem to reside in these large monochromatic panes or volumes of light, the choice of color most often is irrelevant. His choice of low intensity, high saturation color for the monochromatic works of his most important series is not determined by what Rothko would have called the color’s “poignancy” (Arasse 2006: 92). It is determined by the color’s ability to intensify our spatial disorientation—what we might call its “power to unsettle”. In other words, it is only indirectly that Turrell’s earlier work may be associated with the “poignancy” of color.

However, it seems Turrell’s work for Pascal Dusapin’s opera, To Be Sung, in 1993-1994, was a turning point. There, Turrell may be described as a colorist—in Roger de Piles’s sense—arranging and tuning colors. For color cannot be experienced in monochromes—neither of paint nor of light. It is the result of an arrangement or juxtaposition of colors, either in space or in time, which plays on saturation and intensity, and creates effects of contrast and gradation.

Pacal Dusapin/James Turrell, To Be Sung, (Opéra de chambre), 1994


From fixed color to colored light variation

When an artist arranges colors, in paintings or installations, there is an illusion of movement involved. With the same double-entendre as the movere of ancient rhetoric, the art of the colorist moves us. The question is how the physical, optical or mental motion triggers emotion. Roger de Piles had understood that such was the power of the colorist.

In the case of painting, the arrangement of colors determines the conditions of our gaze’s mobility. Although they evolve in time, my installations are based on similar aspects of the interaction of colors in visual perception. The difference however is that my installations change in time. Like a piece of music, the modulations of colored light explore the dimensions of time and change. As they evolve form one luminous and colored state to another, the exploration of space and duration focuses on the phenomenon of spacing. The very fact that they are moving installations is related to questions of duration, transition, and intervals. In other words, they constantly rasie the question of how successive states (of color) are joined.

Indeed, temporality is at the heart of my practice and technique. It is also related to color. It is the stretching of duration—or slowness—that led me to my interest in the advent of color. And indeed, to work on the advent of color means to work on duration, for the artistic manipulation of color must take into account the subjective dimension of the color sensation, the fact that color always fools us, as Albers suggested (Albers 1963: 11). Color is phenomenological. It exists as color only because of our eye’s capacities of mobility and adaptation.

However, Lois Swirnoff’s experience—somewhat like Turrell’s Dark Spaces series—shows that the experience of color is not exclusively optical. Thus, extreme slowness allows to explore the eye-brain relationship, the relations between visual perception, cognition and emotion. My artistic research focuses neither on stability nor on quick changes like Donut, it does not put the eye under intense and instant pressure. I wish to stretch every state, in order to explore the plasticity of duration (and of color).


The experience of the interval as the advent of color

To conclude, I will insist on the notion of interval. Mark Rothko regretted that the public was more attracted to his lighter pictures because the darker ones called for more concentration and visual effort. In my untitled installations 1 and 2 (2008), the extreme slowness of change, on the verge of imperceptibility, called for a similar type of concentration on color and time—much as when one listens to a solo cello piece. But it is with this focused attention, heightened by expectation and want, that color best appeared.

As we have seen, Turrell’s monochromatic works do not focus the beholder’s attention on the advent of color but on its attractiveness. On the contrary, in Etude and Untitled 1 & 2, the only light-events that make a difference are perceived only as color-events without the distraction of accidental and spectacular speed. In Untitled 1, change was slower than our natural physical motion and compelled the beholder to reduce the speed of his everyday perceptual agitation. By creating want, this could challenge his patience. But the everyday pace could also subside and allow the emergence of a durable experience of emerging color sensations.
Under such conditions, color does not occur in such or such predetermined luminous state or stage in the score, but in the movement from one of these stages to another—and this includes the beholder’s own movements. It occurs in the intervals between the states, each state in its turn becoming a new interval in the continuous flux—and perceptible as the advent of such color only because it becomes an interval. The same state, when presented as such, is not an interval : it cannot be a color-event.

By questioning the modes of spacing with slow color and light variations, I try to act on the spacing of the gaze. What I try to effect with these installations’ slowness amounts to doing in time what painters have perceived in space or on the picture plane. Thus, Matisse very precisely evoked what I have here described as the advent of color as interval, when he said about the Vence Chapel :

“One may not add any red in this chapel
 And yet this red exists, it exists in the contrast of the colors that are there. It exists through the reaction in the beholder’s mind” (MĂšredieu 1997: 65).

As Florence de MĂšredieu has so aptly added, this is quite like music. “The interval, the void, the relation and the harmony” (MĂšredieu 1997: 65) are all. This is exactly the reason why I believe that a research on color—artistic or not—necessarily is a research on composition. It consists in working on juxtapositons. Whether one works with successive layers of color, as in a glacis, or with a temporal succession of states, juxtaposition exists in movement. As far as I am concerned—but is it different with painters ?—it consists in creating intervals in a light score.

Charlotte Beaufort


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(Communication prononcĂ©e au congrĂšs de l'AIC [Association Internationale de la Couleur], "Midterm Meeting – Interaction of Colour & Light in the Arts & Sciences", publiĂ©e dans les actes du congrĂšs, Interaction of Colour & Light in the Arts & Sciences, Zurich, Suisse. Editeur : Verena M. Schindler, Stephen Cuber, 2011: 151-154.)


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