Throwing shade: artists explore the visual language of colour

London gallery Waddington Custot
Installation view of ‘Colour Is’ at London gallery Waddington Custot. Pictured from left, Orinoco, by David Annesley, 1965; and Acute, by Kenneth Noland, 1977.
(Image credit: Waddington Custot)

What is colour? The artists of the mid-twentieth century had a few attempts at defining what it could be.

Take David Annesley — one of the artists included in ‘Colour is’, a group exhibition opened this week at Waddington Custot on Cork Street, London. Interested in the possibilities of colour to insinuate movement, his glorious bright yellow steel sculpture, Orinoco (1965) is something of a show-stealer in the galleries. Yellow is know as the strongest colour psychologically — it can plunge you into the pits of despair if it’s the wrong hue — but this yellow is definitely on the optimistic side, confident, joyful and warm.

Colour as way to express energy and direction

'Acute', by Kenneth Noland, 1977; ‘Karnack’, by William Tucker, 1966; and ‘Il 49 (On Color / Multi #2)’, by Joseph Kosuth, 1991

(Image credit: Kenneth Noland,William Tucker,Joseph Kosuth)

Sculptors such as Sir Anthony Caro, Paul Feeley and William Tucker also saw colour as way to express energy and direction. Feeley’s delightful Dubbe, (1965) red, blue and cream painted on waves of wood, feels as if it might start dancing. For painters, meanwhile, colour invariably became a cerebral pursuit, a way to understand how painting itself works on the eyes and the mind, but the results are often visceral, rather than puzzles of theory.

The publication of Josef Albers’ influential tome on colour in 1963 – The Interaction of Colour, still doing the rounds today – had a lot to do with the exuberant investigations into colour in the latter half of the 20th century. In Albers’ book, he presents, for example, how the same hue could be perceived entirely differently, depending on which colour is next to it – and considers how the optical effects of ’simultaneous contrast’ could apply in paintings.

The Interaction of Colour

‘Blue Cell’, by Peter Halley, 1999

(Image credit: Peter Halley)

His interests in contrast and perception are manifest in an early oil painting, on view at Waddington Custot, Study for Homage to the Square: “Persistent”, dated 1954-60. ’As basic rules of a language must be practised continually, and therefore are never fixed,’ Albers wrote, ‘so exercises toward distinct colour effects never are done or over. New and different cases will be discovered time and again.’

The exhibition looks at some of those new cases for understanding the language of colour, in works made as recently as 2017: a colour field painting by 92 year-old painter and poet, Etel Adnan. There is also a pair of rice paper watercolours – Parade I and Parade IX – by Sam Gilliam that prove that colour still has so much to tell us.

A pair of rice paper watercolours

‘Floor Piece Hè’, by Anthony Caro, 1972; ‘Study for Homage to the Square: “Persistent”’, by Josef Albers, 1954–60; and ‘Untitled (DJ 77-18) (meter box)’, by Donald Judd, 1977

(Image credit: Anthony Caro,Josef Albers,Donald Judd,)

As the first signs of spring begin to appear in a London weary of winter, ‘Colour is’ solicits anticipation for a fresh season and its kaleidoscope of shades.

Blue Cell, by Peter Halley

Blue Cell, by Peter Halley, 1999; Dubhe, by Paul Feeley, 1965; and Colour Chart 58, by David Batchelor, 2012

(Image credit: Peter Halley, Paul Feeley, David Batchelor,)

Study for Homage

29.8.73, by John Hoyland, 1973; Floor Piece Hè, by Anthony Caro, 1972; and Study for Homage to the Square: “Persistent”, by Josef Albers, 1954–60

(Image credit: John Hoyland,Anthony Caro,Josef Alber)

Study for Homage to the Square

Study for Homage to the Square: “Persistent”, by Josef Albers, 1954–60; Study for Homage to the Square: “Cool Illumination”, by Josef Albers, 1964; and V6 Spatial Relief, Red, by Hélio Oiticica, 1959–1991

(Image credit: Josef Albers, Hélio Oiticica)

White wall with green frame

Study for Homage to the Square: “Cool Illumination”, by Josef Albers, 1964

(Image credit: Josef Albers,)

White wall with wire and board

Il 49 (On Color / Multi #2), by Joseph Kosuth, 1991

(Image credit: Joseph Kosuth)

Drawing with green and brown colour

Le poids du monde 29, by Etel Adnan, 2017

(Image credit: Etel Adnan)


‘Colour is’ is on view until 22 April. For more information, visit the Waddington Custot website


Waddington Custot
11 Cork Street
London W1S 3LT


Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.