Robert Swain Color Energy
The Brooklyn Rail, 07/13/2015
When I was a child, I had a set of forty colored pencils that I arranged, rearranged, and then rearranged again in a seemingly endless parade of color sequences, or “rainbows,” as I called them. This play brought me great joy. That same spirit, in his words, “energy,” lies at the heart of Robert Swain’s motivation in making the five paintings, all from 2015, on view at Minus Space’s attractive new ground-level gallery in DUMBO. Swain communicates this joy through his extraordinary command of color; works that could have been cold formal exercises become pulsating patterns full of life and drama, especially in the case of the larger, most “energetic” paintings.
Mastering color’s fugitive complexity has, since the ’60s, been Swain’s obsession. A member of the Hunter Color School, which includes Sanford Wurmfeld, Gabrielle Evertz, Doug Ohlson, and others, Swain has committed his practice to an investigation of what he calls “the phenomenology of color,” which is to say the subjective experience of color, through trial and error. Like his cohort, he brings a mind-boggling rigor to that process. His system as it now stands includes a thirty-piece color wheel, which, when extended through variations of value (light versus dark) and saturation (intensity), creates a set of approximately 4,900 distinct hues.
In this process of experimentation, Swain has always relied on his intuition as the final arbiter for his color choices: “I don’t look at the work as being objective. I simply look at it as a way of trying to get into the subject matter of color and to understand it through experience. And all of this was done visually. It wasn’t done mathematically. It wasn’t done in some kind of progression. It was simply done by painting color charts, looking at them, and deciding in that moment if they were correct or not.”
In “Color Energy,” Swain’s minimal compositions and carefully calibrated painting choices take his paintings as close as possible to the emotional and perceptual effects of color uninhibited by any descriptive constraints of form. Three of the paintings are comprised of three nine-foot long grids—a total of eighty-one one-foot squares of solid color—and two others have five-foot grids of twenty-five one-foot squares of solid color. A tiny ridge—the residue of a taped edge—separates each square from the others. The acrylic paint has a mildly reflective eggshell finish. The gesso on the birch panels underneath has a small amount of tooth, as if Swain had used a paint roller—just enough to break up the even vertical strokes of the acrylic paint’s application. This surface resulted in color squares that avoided both glare and the color-deadening effects of a matte surface.
According to Minus Space’s director, Matthew Deleget, Swain had found that too smooth a surface did not “hold the light” properly. As for his decision to compose with one-foot squares of color, in an interview with Deleget, Swain had this to say: “For years, I tried to figure out how the viewer could see the original color in the middle of the square when different colors are placed in the four adjacent squares […] Initially I thought nine-inch squares would allow that to happen, but it seemed that the color relationships with the other squares dominated the one on which the viewer concentrated, so I began increasing the size of each square […] I finally ended up with what I thought was the ideal square simply by sitting and looking at it; it turned out to be twelve inches.”
As a result of Swain’s trial and error, the color in each square of these paintings does indeed radiate its specific light-wave signature. However, the real power of Swain’s color manipulations lies in how each color relates to the others in the grid, producing patterns full of movement and transformation—in a word, energy—capable of producing powerful feelings in the viewer. Swain has always understood color in that way: “Color is a form of energy derived from the electromagnetic spectrum that stimulates our perceptual processes and is instrumental in conveying emotions.” All of Swain’s painstaking formal experiments have been dedicated to making the connection between perception and feeling—a thesis validated in the writings of neuropsychologists Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp.
The two five-by-five-foot panels, while formally complex, show off Swain’s command of color values but lack the intensity of the larger works. In both works, Swain distributes the colors along a diagonal axis without resorting to symmetry across it. In Untitled, 5X5-60, (2015), the color moves from a light cobalt blue to a pale pink across the dominant upper-right/bottom-left axis. Although the color placement has a pleasing quirkiness, it lacks the graphic punch of the prismatic patterns in the nine-by-nine panels. The same is true for Untitled, 5×5-4A, (2015), which has a central band of pure grey values interrupting its diagonal color sweep. It, too, showcases Swain’s pitch-perfect color sense but the grey band effectively mutes the impact in its overall design.
The larger works convey a greater energy, in part by their scale, but especially in the symmetrical arrangements around a vertical axis, with the colors either fading or growing in intensity as they move away from the center. These arrangements set up pulsations that grow in subtlety and complexity with sustained viewing. Following Cézanne’s dictum that a good painting should be a “color undulation,” Swain moves from the yellow/orange end of the spectrum to the blue/green end of the spectrum as the color variations travel from the bottom of the panels to the top.
The most powerful painting is Untitled, 9×9 29 – 15:7E Green, (2015), which exceeds all the others in movement, drama, and energy. The central axis of saturated colors moves from yellow on the bottom to indigo up at the top square, creating a “T” with the top row that symmetrically modulates from violet to scarlet. The rest of the squares fade in a diagonal pattern, with the two outermost bottom squares moving closest to white. The rapid fade to the lower corners creates a dramatic contrast across the field. The speed of the transition from the vibrant colors at the top and center to near white at the edges, along with the downward direction of the fade induced a sense of release and elation in this viewer. It is a testament to Swain’s color mastery that he can play with prismatic color sequences—a game a child could understand—and endow them with the complexity and intensity we expect from art.