True Colors

April 7, 2022

Richard J. Powell, a leading scholar in African American art history and the John Spencer Bassett Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, is currently delivering the seventy-first A. W. Mellon Lectures, the storied public series hosted by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Titled “Colorstruck! Painting, Pigment, Affect,” the six-part lecture spans social history, personal experience, color theory, music, art, and design. Taking a thematic rather than specifically historical approach, Powell engages art historical questions from a somewhat heterodox vantage, emphasizing the ineffable, the pleasurable, and the emotional. Put another way, the call and response between art objects and people is central. The broad range of artists under consideration includes canonical modernists Jacob Lawrence and Alma Thomas, contemporaries like Jennifer Packer and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and lesser-known painters such as Charles Alston and Hervé Télémaque. These practices are refracted through the concept of “colorstruck,” a term for prejudice against darker complexions here reappropriated to encapsulate the collisions and elisions of chroma and race. Powell spoke to me over Zoom from his home in North Carolina. —Lucas Matheson

LM: We’re two lectures in, and your autobiography and personal experiences have already played a significant role. I’ve been struck by how your relationships—with your wife, with the painter Odili Donald Odita, with Jacob Lawrence, with other curators, for example—have been foregrounded. You’re not trying to make yourself absent. It’s a welcome change from norms of academic lecturing. Do you think very consciously about putting yourself into these lectures?

RJP: The idea of doing six lectures in a row for an audience is kind of an artificial thing. One doesn’t normally do that. I mean, yes, I teach and I’m always interacting with my students on a regular basis. But this is different because this is public and to a great extent a performance. When one takes on that kind of charge, one doesn’t want to come off as too distant. These ideas are not just academic. They’re something that I’ve not only thought about, but that I have felt. The other way of answering your question is: I am old, and when you are old, you have been on the planet long enough to have encountered people, to know people, to have experienced moments in history. And so you can’t not include that kind of material in what you do. I don’t think I’m alone in this. One of my favorite books is Camera Lucida. Roland Barthes has no problem saying, “Oh, by the way, there’s this picture that’s in my album and it’s a family member, and it makes me think of this and it makes me think of that.”

LM: I’m very glad that you brought up Camera Lucida because that was a parallel that immediately came to my mind, with the idea of colorstruck as a kind of color punctum. And I’ll take this reference to Barthes’s piercing moment as an opportunity to ask about the origin of this series and how your background as an artist and curator influences the lectures. I was reading your essay from your 2005 exhibition “Back to Black: Art, Cinema, and the Racial Imaginary” at the Whitechapel and I noted the Jeff Donaldson quote: “Coolade colors for coolade images for the suppereal people. Superreal images for SUPERREAL people . . .” Those words appeared prominently in Lecture 1.

RJP: I was informally invited to think about giving the Mellon Lectures in 2019 when I was the Edmond Safra Visiting Professor at the National Gallery of Art. The formal invitation came a few months later. To be honest with you, I went through a lot of different ideas. I think the epiphany for talking about color, specifically using this concept of colorstruck as a floating signifier, came up in my last book, Going There: Black Visual Satire, and a painting that I talk about in Lecture 1, Lightening Lipstick, 1994, by Robert Colescott. At the very top of that painting, there is this racial wheel of fortune. Colescott not only gives us this kind of racial rainbow, but he gives us the color wheel, he gives us numeric values. He was a brilliant artist, one who had no qualms about presenting issues and challenges that he faced as an individual, as a person of color, as a Bay Area artist in an art world that often looks at the East Coast and not West. Looking at that image, I began to realize that it was telling me something about where I could head.

You mentioned the Donaldson quote. I did an MFA at Howard University from 1975 to 1977 before I did a Ph.D. in art history. This was at the height of the Black Arts Movement and it was also at the height of this kind of other Washington Color School. By “other,” I mean that there’s this whole story of artists in DC and at Howard—Loïs Mailou Jones, Jeff Donaldson, Frank Smith, Ed Love, among others—who present a really fascinating way of engaging with color, one informed by Black culture, by Black music, by Black dance. I was in the middle of that as a practicing artist, so I guess it has been in the back of my head.

LM: How are you thinking about that shift from the personal experience, of the kind of feelings that colors can drum up, toward a broader or more objective art historical statement? How are you avoiding the pitfalls of staying within the merely personal?

RJP: As one digs into the literature on color, one constantly notices how scholars will frequently include a sort of disclaimer at the front: “This is all so unscientific, this all so subjective.” It often all boils down to how an individual responds and reacts. I would say that what I’ve attempted to do and what I hope to do in the remaining lectures is to pay due deference to what scholarship might be there that can help us to understand “viridian,” or this color or that color. But that should not preclude me from my mission: to see how this works within a painter’s context, dealing with the issues that make that color do other things than just simply function as a colorant on canvas.

Advisors that I’ve had throughout my entire life have told me to write about what you love, about what excites you, to engage in those things that you viscerally respond to because if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to say much about it. If you’re going to try to keep a distance, it’s going to come off as very cold and very disinterested. I went to Yale after Howard, and my primary advisor was Robert Farris Thompson, the Africanist and Black diaspora scholar who studied in Central Africa, in Nigeria, in Brazil and Cuba and Haiti. One of the things that he was often accused of was being too emotionally engaged in his subjects. It could very well be that for me. I’m what you call a believer. And when I say I’m a believer, I mean that when I look at something, I have already accepted, to a certain extent, the spirit of what someone has created. And that’s why I’ve been engaged with them from the get-go. That might sound like I’m just going to do a hagiography, but that’s not the case. It just means that I’m so much of a believer that I can read and I can see and I can discern and I can theorize. And I’m doing it because I think it matters, I think it’s important.

LM: You’ve used the word “performance” in describing the series. In the second lecture, there was a moment when the lights came down and a video of a Yuko Mabuchi jazz performance came on screen set against a viridian background slide. There was this wonderful sense of theater, of staging. Earlier in the lecture you shared a quotation from Josef Albers regarding paintings as “acting.” Through this spatial, theatrical quality I see not just an art historical vision, but a curatorial one as well. Is there a sense in which you feel like you have a curatorial approach to art history?

RJP: I’ve never really viewed what I do as a lecturer or as a writer as curation. I’ve organized shows before, but when I write, I’m not thinking about hanging things on the wall. I’m thinking about a concept, about a question, about a dilemma, and I’m letting that be the launchpad. I’m sure you’ve heard from others how, particularly in the museum world, there are things that work as art exhibitions and there are things that don’t work as art exhibitions, and that the things that don’t work as art exhibitions tend to be more complicated and thornier and not easily contextualized on walls with objects. I would argue that this topic I’m working with would have a hard time in a museum context.

But with regard to the hues that I’m playing with, the reality is that—as you saw with the second lecture, “Jacob Lawrence’s Viridian”—there is quite an eclectic body of work there. My attempt with the background was to isolate and think about those paintings as doing multiple things, not just narrativizing a wall or an interior or space, but communicate a particular kind of energy that’s modern and that’s cool.

In terms of Yuko Mabuchi’s performance, I chose it because I thought she was a remarkable performer. And it would be visually satisfying for an audience to watch, rather than just listen to, a talented musician go through “Blue in Green,” this sixty-year-old composition, and bring it to life. I was also deeply interested in this idea of how Bill Evans and Miles Davis brought these two colors together, blue and green, to create something that was both in-between but also something that exuded a kind of analogy, how those ideas aurally might connect to something visually. Chromatics have such a deep valence in jazz. Miles Davis in particular takes that sensibility or impulse to a really elevated stage like no other musician. And as you will hear in the April 10 lecture, “Red Combustion, Blue Alchemy,” I see Davis and his interest not just in sound but in sound as color, and an action coming into relationship with artists like Raymond Saunders and Sam Gilliam.

LM: It’s a rich territory, how jazz’s ineffable qualities force a turn to abstraction. Regarding the ineffable, there’s a slipperiness to color—this thing that is in some sense entirely subjective yet also empirically verifiable; certain colors have corresponding wavelengths. And in another sense, it’s ontological, existing in a particular way whether we are colorblind or not. That question of “color blindness” in the racial sense also comes up in your essay for “Back to Black.” There’s a powerful parallel in the question of race, how it’s this epidermal thing that’s visual but also ontological, with myriad social and political realities.

RJP: Well, I refer you back to that great quote from Adrian Piper about Sam Gilliam. She says, “Gilliam encountered the cost of color, racial prejudice, and discrimination just as he had earlier reaped its benefit in originality, independence, and formal innovation.” So we know what she’s done there. She has literally walked us from a kind of a social history of race and perception to his work as an abstract painter.

While doing my research, I was in Chicago and saw a great show about color at the Field Museum of Natural History. Not an art exhibition, but a display of butterflies and stuffed animals, among other objects. It made visible the attempts by scientists and social scientists to formulate and make sense of color as a tool, as a vehicle for all sorts of purposes, for industry, for selling crayons to kids, for class variations, racial hierarchies, employment, what have you. When I saw that, I said, “This is serious.” It dawned on me: This is a subjectivity that has real-life implications. I don't find any of that daunting, including the fact that I don’t feel that within the structure of a lecture, I’m there, in terms of pulling this all together. I think the proof in the pudding will be the book, when I’m able to stretch out as we do in art history. So yes, color is a slippery path. But the slippery paths are the most exciting ones to walk on.

Powell’s remaining lectures will occur in person and virtually on April 10, April 24, and May 1.