Color Chart

CHAPTER 4: Color as subject

In the twentieth century, several artists focused on color above everything else. Thomas Moran captured the fleeting hue of a Wyoming sunset in The Golden Hour. In Synchromy in Purple Minor, Stanton Macdonald-Wright went a step further and looked to color, music, and abstraction for inspiration. The result was a movement cofounded with the artist Morgan Russell called Synchromism. Alfred Jensen combined color theory with astronomy to depict the movement of celestial bodies in his painting Aurora, Per III: Daily Color Progression. Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden explored color in two distinct ways. Kelly, for example, complemented primary and secondary colors in High Yellow, while Marden composed his colors in Fave by applying several layers of pigment and beeswax. Their emotionally detached investigations were in stark contrast to their predecessors whom used color as a vehicle for expression.

The Golden Hour

Thomas Moran
Lancashire, England, 1837 - 1926, Santa Barbara, California

The Golden Hour
41.9 cm x 52.4 cm x 7.6 cm (16 1/2 in. x 20 5/8 in. x 3 in.)
Bequest of C.R. Smith, 1991

Thomas Moran’s romanticized view of the towering cliffs of the Green River in southwestern Wyoming is notable for the operatic power of its imagery, despite the picture’s modest scale. An impossibly fiery sunset suffuses the jagged outcroppings in a golden light that exaggerates the glories and grandeur of nature. Americans back east were eager to discover the uninhabited western landscape through paintings like this and through reproductions. To make an even more compelling picture, Moran took certain liberties with features of the undeniably spectacular landscapes he observed on his trips to Wyoming during the summers of 1871 and 1872. Loosely and impressionistically painted, The Golden Hour is neither a major nor a typical work by Moran, but its magical intensity successfully communicates the artist’s deep fondness for the first western site he ever sketched.

Aurora, Per III: Daily Color Progression

Alfred Jensen
Guatemala City, 1903 - 1981, Glen Ridge, New Jersey

Aurora, Per III: Daily Color Progression
137.2 cm x 173.3 cm (54 in. x 68 1/4 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968

Alfred Jensen merged color theory with grids and symmetrical arrangements of writing, numbers, signs, and symbols, to transmute complex scientific, linguistic, and mathematical systems into thickly painted compositions. Jensen described his work as “a continuous oscillation between numerical and prismatic concerns,” drawing directly upon his wide-ranging expertise in various knowledge systems, spanning Mayan calendars, Chinese philosophy, astronomy, Pythagorean geometry, physics, and art of Central America, to name a few. Though formally abstract, Jensen’s paintings remain resolutely concrete, meant to communicate specific information. Named after the Greek goddess of dawn, this painting symmetrically depicts the sun and moon in opposite color harmonies based on German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s nineteenth-century theories of hot and cool values. Jensen diametrically opposes cool (blue, violet) with warm (yellow, red) colors in bisected, rotating orbs that revolve in a circular path, emulating the movements of celestial bodies in time and space.

High Yellow

Ellsworth Kelly
Newburgh, New York, 1923 - 2015, Spencertown, New York

High Yellow
204.6 cm x 146.8 cm (80 9/16 in. x 57 13/16 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991

Nature was a primary source of inspiration for Ellsworth Kelly, and it is tempting to read "High Yellow" as a landscape with green grass, blue sky, and yellow sun. But Kelly believed that art should transcend the quotidian experiences of daily life. Though he derived his compositions from the world around him, he did not intend his work to be seen as representational. As he once said, “The form of my painting is the content.” In order to achieve a purity of form, Kelly took inspiration from the works of anonymous medieval craftsmen and eliminated the trace of his hand from the canvas. By pointing beyond the personal, he felt he could conjure the universal. Kelly is widely known for his intuitive use of color. Yellow, in particular, figures prominently in the artist’s practice—most notably at the beginning and end of his color spectrums. The hue also takes the topmost position in the colored-glass window designs for "Austin," Kelly’s most monumental work and the only freestanding building he designed, given to the Blanton in 2015.


Brice Marden
Briarcliff Manor, New York, 1938 -

Oil and beeswax
183.5 cm x 167.7 cm (72 1/4 in. x 66 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1979

Brice Marden named this diptych "Fave" because it was the artist’s favorite of the time. While it may appear reductive at first glance, Marden considers his paintings to be subjective, contemplative objects whose truths are disclosed slowly over time. “I believe these are highly emotional paintings not to be admired for any technical or intellectual reason, but to be felt,” Marden once proclaimed. UT Austin art historian Richard Shiff argues that the tension between stillness and movement in "Fave" stems from Marden’s careful observations of the Hudson River in New York, where the artist lives and works. "Fave" calls to mind the color shifts of water as it reflects atmospheric changes. Marden once described the sky above the sea as “blue, gray, yellow, sulphur, turquoise, yellow, blue,” indicating his ability to see multiple layers of color at once.

Image credit:
Richard Pettibone
Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, 1973 (detail)
Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, six panels
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, a joint initiative of the Trustees of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection and the National Gallery of Art, with generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2008