Colour over stroke


In my imaginary art museum, three paintings stand out for their colour combinations: The Deposition from the Cross (1526-1528) by Jacopo Pontormo, White Center (1950) by Mark Rothko, and Spearfishing (2013) by Peter Doig. (You will easily find them in good monographs of these artists-or on the Internet, of course.) The raiment of the figure in the foreground of the first painting associates pale pink, straw yellow, and sky blue. The second work sets abstract swaths of yellow, pink, and lavender against a background of red transitioning to orange. The third painting is supposed to depict a spearfishing scene, but what grabs us is the bright orange and yellow attire of two people in a green canoe, on a black and midnight blue background. In all three cases, we forget the composition, the subject, and the style of the painter. Colour dominates-or rather, colour relationships take precedence over stroke.


Can the same be said of the large paintings of the German artist Jan Kolata? In his work, we can make out more or less geometric abstract forms (circles, curves, and horizontal or vertical parallel lines), suggestive shapes (clouds, whorls, snakes, and spirals), colour blocks finely worked (such as by sanding, engraving, scraping, or dripping), and superimposed layers with opaque and transparent features. Chance has a role, but the artist is in control. Ultimately, rather than the sweep of the brush, it is the play of colours that holds our attention: red on orange, red on yellow, green on purple, blue on purple, or blue on orange. Through overlaps and the effects of opacity, half-tones and gradations lend complexity to each colour assembly.


To illustrate, let us consider the work entitled 140.180.2014.11. This earlier acrylic-on-canvas painting, swarming with disks and ovals, reveals judicious colour matching, echoes of which one may just as easily find in the mannerism of Pontormo, the abstract expressionism of Rothko, or the contemporary romanticism of Peter Doig. On the top right, the turquoise on orange, which darkens into green or lightens into sky blue, recalls the angel lifting Christ on the immense oil-on-wood piece hidden in the Florentine church of Santa Felicita. On the top left, the red mass covering the orange disk suggests the tension of the Rothko work, born of the conflict between two colours of equal strength. Just below, the curious, blue beanlike shape with a darkened upper lobe employs the same blue and black hues used for the background of the spearfishing scene by the Scottish artist.


These correspondences between Kolata's painting and the three works to which I have compared it are surely the products of my imagination. Jan Kolata was doubtless making no allusion to the history of art-but he does know this history, and the importance of colour. He has mastered its sensuality and evocative power.


In his more recent canvasses as well, layer after layer, the acrylic comes alive with intensity, even if the reds, blues, and yellows are less violent. As before, the lowest planes rise to the surface, in the absence of visual depth. Here colour starts to move, dance, and make music. Little by little, a vibrant and luminous symphony is composed, initial strokes subsiding before the chromatic effects they have conjured.




Author and editor-in-chief of Connaissance des Arts