Rachael M. Wilson’s Interaction of Color

Rachael M. Wilson’s Interaction of Color

Albers, Josef. Interaction of Color. Revised and Expanded Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. [See also Yale University Press’s Anniversary Edition, 2013.]

Contributor: Rachael M. Wilson




“[F]orm demands unending
performance and invites constant reconsideration—visually as well as verbally.”


This slim book is a staple of interdisciplinary thinking. It’s about color but what’s color? “[C]olor is the most relative medium in art” and “color deceives continually.” Color is a “physical fact,” a “psychic effect” and a “haptic illusion.” It is also a strategy, a technology, a field of investigation, an opportunity for “self criticism / and self-education”; a source of pleasure and consternation, color is never a positive term but always a differential relation. As the title makes clear, color is, in fact, only ever the “interaction of color.”

“Colors present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to / changing neighbors and changing conditions,” Albers writes, breaking his lines as one might do with poetry. Albers did write poetry (see his Poems and Drawings from Yale UP), but in Interaction of Color, where Albers frequently parses and parcels phrases out into separate lines and breaks sentences into smaller semantic chunks, one gets the feeling that he developed his writing style from thinking about and experimenting in color—from considering visual apprehension and the way contrast facilitates comprehension.

A typical paragraph reads:

“In musical compositions,
so long as we hear merely single tones, we do not hear music.
Hearing music depends on the recognition of the in-between tones,
of their placing and their spacing.”

Elsewhere, as Albers compares the appreciation of color to the art of typography, he explains that sans serif fonts “produce poor word pictures” and that “Opthamology has disclosed that the more the letters are differentiated from each other, the easier is the reading.” “[C]lear reading depends upon the recognition of context,” he concludes. The stunning color plates at the end of the volume (and if you get a chance to see the original 1963 edition with its oversized silkscreened plates, they really are stunning) repeatedly demonstrate this principle.

For Albers, a serious consideration of color “promotes ‘thinking in situations’,” which is perhaps why color occasions so many comparisons throughout the book—not just to typography and music, but to theater, poetry, language and sound, to shape, volume, weight, temperature and number—and why it shades out into moral statements, as in the observation that “a continued use of disliked colors / will teach that preferences and dislikes—as in life so with color / —usually result from prejudices, from lack of experience and insight.”

Albers’ book, which was based on a course he taught at Yale in the 1950s (after teaching at Black Mountain College from 1933 to 1949), advances the study of color as both a practical science and a philosophical one. Color has, of course, an aesthetic dimension, but as Albers’ investigations demonstrate, it also presents epistemological problems and phenomenological quandaries, since the perception and understanding of color is constantly challenged by color’s relativity—its ontological flux. As Albers states matter-of-factly towards the beginning of the book: “He who claims to see colors independent of their illusory changes / fools only himself, and no one else.”

Albers’ differential conception of color was produced through adventurous, experimental thinking and classroom/studio practices, coupled with an anti-authoritarian disposition that left him radically open to acts of re-seeing. Interaction of Color is a book on methodology as much as a book on color; or, to put it another way, it’s a theoretical book on color as much as it’s a book on color theory. But really, those are both oversimplifications, since subject and method are inextricably enmeshed:

“What counts here—first and last—is not so-called knowledge
of so-called facts, but vision—seeing.
Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled
with fantasy, with imagination.”