Robert Swain: “The Form of Color” at Santa Monica Museum of Art


Untitled-9′ x 9’
Acrylic on panel
9′ x 9′
Photo: Jeff McLane
Courtesy of the Artist and the Santa Monica Museum of Art

Imagine spending an entire lifetime studying color as a means toward developing a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the human psyche. Robert Swain does exactly this in his first solo retrospective in California at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Swain describes this extensive project, which he has been working on in one form or another for over three decades, as a “comprehensive survey of the color system begun in 1973 with a research grant from the City University of New York.” Swain’s color system represents an indexical accumulation of 4,896 isolated chromatic units, in conjunction with accompanying records of their evocative properties each of which suggest an association, or in some cases a palpable emotional response, from the viewer. Swain has created a series of large-scale wall panels that exemplify how exactly colors play off of each other, or work in conjunction, which transform the museum’s large front gallery into an immersive installation. These paintings are not only luminous and exquisitely nuanced, but represent Swain’s passionate commitment to understanding the deeper, more metaphoric relationship between color and human emotional response. Influenced by the various color studies and perceptual strategies of artists like Pierre Bonnard, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cezanne, the exhibition also represents a pure merging between art and science as these paintings chart color systems and modes of seeing drawn specifically from master painters and innovators. The power of this work goes well beyond the realm of scientific inquiry, however, to encapsulate the artist’s reliance and devotion to color in all its shades and variations.

Perhaps the most engaging and powerful elements of this exhibition are its simplicity, and the attention to light and shadow. The work is lit evenly, allowing each color its own space and vibrancy, yet within this seeming evenness are distortions and color alliances as one hue pops out as another recedes back. Thus there is an almost constant sense of movement to the installation, a near palpable electricity, as though the paintings were living organisms constantly shifting and settling. Ultimately, Swain’s love of color is contagious. We all love color, as it is another way we define and identify ourselves as human. Color allows us to access feelings and states of being, and Swain is simply articulating what we already know and understand.