On Color

“To attend to colour,” writes David Batchelor, “is, in part, to attend to the limits of language.” Perhaps this is why so much writing on color is sadly unsatisfying: The temptation to make wistful, even lugubrious pronouncements on color’s ineffability proves great; barring that, many writers, from William Gass (On Being Blue) to Alexander Theroux (The Primary Colors, The Secondary Colors), revert to exalted forms of cataloging. What is there to say in the face of color, a visual phenomenon that so often seems to elude linguistic expression? A lot, it turns out, in the right hands—especially when approached by slant, ambush, or asymptote. The following six books make such an approach.

Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson

This beautiful palm-size collection from Clear Cut Press contains the slim but gorgeous essay “How to Colour,” which served as the catalogue text for Renée Van Halm’s 2002 show “Taste” at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. Poet and essayist Robertson roves from Ruskin to Freud to Napoleon to Aristotle, and nearly every sentence she writes is dense with pleasure and nuanced, aphoristic punch: “White proposes a disciplinary unity and fails.” “We could say juice, or pigment, to indicate that aspect of substance that travels across.” And: “Colour receives belief in the form of a name.”

Chromophobia by David Batchelor

This hot-pink tour de force by artist and critic David Batchelor is a classic of lucid, lyric, and informative color writing. Batchelor winds his way through Melville, The Wizard of Oz, Pop art, Aldous Huxley, Le Corbusier, Kierkegaard, and Kristeva, all the while paying attention to the ways the Western imagination has aligned color with the feminine, the homosexual, the Oriental, the narcotic, the infantile, the superficial, and the foreign. Rather than call the book a remarkable piece of interdisciplinary scholarship, let’s heed Batchelor’s concluding remarks: “The interdisciplinary is often the antidisciplinary made safe. Colour is antidisciplinary.” This work exemplifies the best of what antidisciplinary, chromophilic exploration can do.

Works on Paper by Amy Sillman, text by Wayne Koestenbaum

Artist Amy Sillman is one of the most interesting and important colorists working today, as her large abstract paintings, as well as the works on paper featured here, attest. What’s more, Sillman’s insistence on a formalism—and a conversation about formalism—that is not essentially conservative or retro is exactly what we need right now, if we are to continue to imagine the relationship between aesthetics and politics in intrepid, expansive ways. Koestenbaum’s accompanying essay, “The Sexual Awkwardness of God,” contains brilliant aphorisms about Sillman’s work and color itself, such as “She insists on an optimistic palette, like a new, safe version of electroshock,” and “Colors befriend us: they reach out, give signs that we’re not crazy.”

Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour is the book most often referred to in conversations about color and aesthetics, but I think his most important and riveting remarks on color appear in the grander Philosophical Investigations. Here, the philosopher’s ruminations appear in context, and in prolonged dialogue, with his cogitations on many other forms of “private sensation”—pain, most notably—and the pervasive problem of their communicability. If you’re curious about the relationship between the question “How do I know that this is the colour red?” and questions such as “Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?” or “Could one imagine a stone’s having consciousness?” or “Why can’t a dog simulate pain?,” then this is the book for you.

Alphabet in Color by Vladimir Nabokov, illustrated by Jean Holabird

This book is devoted to Nabokov’s synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that led him to “hear” colors. The associative alphabet Nabokov described is here imagined and illustrated by Holabird, who based her illustrations on descriptions from Nabokov, such as the following: “The long 'a' of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French 'a' evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard 'g' (vulcanized rubber) and 'r' (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal 'n,' noodle-limp 'l,' and the ivory-backed hand mirror of 'o' take care of the whites.” The foreword by Brian Boyd is full of gems about Nabokov’s brain, such as this: “Oliver Sacks has told me how fascinated he was to learn that as a seven-year-old in the throes of fever Vladimir Nabokov lost his skills as a mathematical prodigy, and found on his recovery that butterflies seemed to have recolonized some of the mental terrain he had formerly dedicated to his concern for, for instance, the seventeenth root of 3529471145760-275132301897342055866171392.”

I Send You This Cadmium Red by John Berger and John Christie

In an age increasingly marked by the tyranny of e-mail and virtual attachments, this color-based correspondence between Berger and Christie is a magnificent display of the joys of materiality and the art of the epistolary. The book showcases, via graceful reproductions, the two friends’ calligraphy, stationery, typewriting, and shards of color exchanged by mail between February 1997 and the book’s publication in 2000. They pass back and forth everything from the titular painted square of cadmium red to ultrasound photos of unborn children, as well as pigment smudges, critical thoughts about art and artists, and descriptions of early color memories. The book’s tone is rich with generosity, curiosity, and friendship—their letters often begin with charming, attentive phrases such as “Today I’ll try to reply to your blue only with words,” or “I loved your green letter and thought I’d send you some music,” or “Your saffron letter got me thinking about substance,” or simply “Dear John, I like your brown.”

Maggie Nelson is most recently the author of Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), a work of creative nonfiction about the color blue, among other things. Her recent books include Women, the New York School,