For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude, and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not….Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Cited as the most popular color worldwide, blue incites joy and sadness, wonder and nostalgia, vitality and illness, nature and artifice. While this spectrum of meaning and effect embraces broad polarities, longing and transformation consistently attend contemporary artistic use of blue as mood and hue. Brilliant blue pigment derived from lapis lazuli stones has been prized by artists since Medieval times; beginning in the 15th century, painters reserved blue for the robes of the Madonna and Christ child, denoting their divinity. Secular portraiture of the 18th and 19th centuries features lush satin and velvet fabrics in shades of blue, signaling the wearer’s exalted social or political status. “A quest for the infinite” is how 20th-century French artist Yves Klein described his obsession with the color blue. In 1958, Klein created his own particular brand, patented as International Klein Blue, which he employed in monochromatic paintings and performances, in pursuit, he famously said, of “the authenticity of a pure idea.” Research today supports Klein’s assertion of purity: scientists have determined that in nature, this color is not an effect of pigmentation, but is embedded in the cellular structure of blue plants, animals, and minerals.
The transformation of everyday materials, experience, and imagery animates this contemporary exploration of the chromatic, sensory, and psychological effects of blue as color and concept. “I do works named ‘painting of a painting’,” says Icelandic artist Hubert Noi Johannesson, “and each of them is a question mark: Why does a painting have a chemical effect in your body? Why does your body confronted with that sort of painting produce a chemical reaction with the result of calming you down?” Malverk af Malverki offers a pristine view of a lakeside, mountainous horizon in saturated shades of blue, enclosed and reflected within the blue of the sky, and of the painted blue frame of a trompe l’oeil wall. Johannesson’s subject is the symbiotic transformation of vision and viewer: gazing at a pristine horizon of sea and sky evokes wonder, nostalgia, and calm; rendered in the cool, deep, and soft blues of painted pigment, the effect is even more pronounced. Trained as a geologist, Johannesson’s artistic practice is both intellectual and intuitive: using a GPS, he measures the physical position of his body to the landscape, while being acutely attuned to his emotional response to the scene.
Evocations of longing—for discovery, for travel, for transport to another world—have long been associated with views of a watery blue horizon. While Ellen Kooi’s Icelady floats into a fantasy inspired both by glacial exploration and art history—the lone figure drifting among ice floes recalls the Romantic visions of 19th-century painter Caspar David Friedrich— while those who gather on the shoreline in Rina Castelnuovo’s Sea of Galilee long and pray for peace.
Indeed, the projected blue of water is the ultimate elusive illusion: as blue as the color of Peter Sarkasian’s Puddle appears, it a trick of eye, its magic amplified by an auditory drip.The fluid illusion at play in Mark Fox’s Forty Days: Elegy for the Great Hall shows rainwater filling the central hall of the Cincinnati Museum of Art. The murky blue waters gradually cover the neoclassical space, creating a meditative fantasy on time and art—a new myth derived from the Biblical forty-day flood.
Blue, writes Rebecca Solnit, is “the light that got lost.” Along the color spectrum, violet and blue have the shortest wavelengths; blue particles scatter relatively close to the sun, such that we perceive it at a distance, in the realm of the ephemeral, the unreal. No blue is more ephemeral than the powdery hues reflected in the cloud formations of Leandro Erlich’s La Vitrina (Venice). Painted in acrylic on layers of glass and presented as a cabinet of curiosities, Erlich’s clouds reproduce not natural phenomena, but the artist’s memories of the Venetian sky over a period of weeks. Erlich has created a series of such works in homage to city skyscapes all over the world; none is more allusively dreamlike than Venice, which as city, site, and symbol conjures nostalgia and desire.
An expansive azure sky is the stage for Denise Grünstein’s surrealist Head Hunter, a profile portrait of a woman’s head, held in place by a centuries-old hairdressing tool, her features covered by her brilliant red tresses. Does the image enact a fetish-like fascination with hair, with the association of feminine beauty? The saturated sky surrounding the bodiless head emphasizes its surrealism and the attendant transformation of subject into an object both seductive and unsettling.
Futility, sadness, and yearning are synonymous with the cliché “having the blues.” Gottfried Helnwein’s portraits are painted in blue veils of angst, suspended between life and death, while a fatalistic anticipation animates Anders Krisar’s hanging sculpture, One as Two. Krisar created death masks of himself and his mother in magnetized aluminum; hovering close, their faces never align. Depression and schizophrenia are common in the artist’s family; linked by blood and proximity, Krisar’s work expresses both resignation and resistance to fate. The boy’s portrait created by Cutup conjures a melancholy powerlessness: the artists created his image by slicing and reweaving a bus-stop advertisement for a British ordinance calling for the aggressive prosecution of juveniles.
The blues spur the protagonists to action in Monica Mahoney’s series, Women Walking. Interested by what she calls “commissures” or unforgettable life-altering moments, the artist says she “began collecting images from obscure independent and foreign films that would be free of associations for the most part. I discovered a common pictorial thread: often women are depicted walking to illustrate their transitions into the unknown. The final straw can be something profound or seemingly insignificant. When it strikes, there is no time to make arrangements. No white horses are at the ready.”
Transformations also resonate in meditations on family, adolescence, and aging by Gaela Erwin, Henrik Kerstens,Trine Søndergaard, Alessandra Sanguinetti, and others. Known as a self-portraitist, Erwin turns her gaze to her aging mother, captured here at the dentist office. Rendered in shadowed pastel, the face depicted illuminates both self and other, past and future. Hendrik Kerstens has been photographing his daughter Paula since childhood, documenting her over the course of more than two decades to date, casting her as a figure from Old Master Dutch portraiture. Pimp-Up Towel recalls a 15th-century portrait, Jan van Eyck’s Man Wearing a Turban, thought to be a self-portrait of the Flemish master. Kerstens’s photograph illuminates both his reverence for Netherlandish painting, and his adolescent daughter’s self-awareness.
The young Danish girls photographed by Trine Søndergaard, clothed in traditional costumes for an annual island fête, appear young and old at once. Their headcoverings (called strude), and averted or obscured faces, allude to both indigenous rituals and global debates about religious garb such as the Muslim scarf and burqa.
Alessandra Sanguinetti’s subjects appear both individualized and typecast; their stories chart specific and universal rites of passage. The artist began photographing the two cousins on their family farm in Argentina; gradually the girls became collaborators, acting out fairy tales and fantasies, along with their everyday lives. An ongoing series, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams is both poignant and prescient: the Immaculate Conception enacted under a blue sky here predates Guille’s later, teenaged motherhood.
A darker blue suffuses Julie Blackmon’s Candy, an image of children at play that is subtly sinister and saccharine. The objects of human desire may beget longing, even obsession, as suggested in works by Louise Bourgeois, Graham Dolphin, and others. Haunted by childhood memories of a philandering, dominant father, Bourgeois’s vast, multi-media oeuvre exhumes the power plays of desire and obsession within a domestic realm. Graham Dolphin also examines and enacts obsession—the contemporary fascination and identification with celebrities—in his series of album covers, inscribed, word by minute word, with every lyric of the blues-infused writings of country singer Johnny Cash, recorded during a performance at a prison.
Romantic obsession is contextualized with humor and historical allusion in Elmgreen and Dragset’s photoshopped image of a classical marble sculpture, Ganymede (Jockstrap). According to Greek mythology, the young shepherd became Zeus’s object of desire; to woo him, the god took the form of an eagle, whose thirst Ganymede assuaged. Zeus appointed his young lover the cupbearer to the gods, transporter of the clear blue water of life and love. Later, Zeus granted Ganymede immortality as the constellation Aquarius, the water-bearer—to be forever fixed and admired in the navy-dark night sky. Here, the addition of a jockstrap updates the idealization of the young male body with an allusion to today’s fascination with youthful physical perfection.
“The weight of the world is love,” repeat the three young, flaxen-haired graces featured in Ragnar Kjartansson’s six-hour video, Song. The lyric, both metaphoric and melancholy, is extrapolated from Kjartansson’s memory of an Allen Ginsberg poem. A performance artist known for staging endurance tests of strength and spirit, Kjartansson painted a portrait of a model friend every day of the 2009 Venice Biennale while both lived in the Icelandic pavilion. For Song, the artist cast his three nieces, capturing them singing, strumming, and sleeping atop an azure silk pedestal as daylight gives way to dusk, in real time. Filmed in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, the neo-classical setting framing the scene aligns Kjartansson’s contemporary reverie with the ancient Greek vision of beauty as symmetry and synchronicity, in which beauty is truth and truth, beauty. Here, truth emerges from endurance and idealization, offering a transformative immersion into the paradox of unattainable, unalterable, authentic blue.
Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director