(Princeton Architectural Press, 2021)
Edith Young, graphic designer, photographer and writer, created her first color palette in college, after being inspired by fashion editor Diana Vreeland’s provocative assertion, “All my life I have searched for the perfect red. . I never get painters to mix it up for me … the best red is to copy the color of a kid’s cap by all Renaissance portrait. Young followed the mission closely. His first palette consisted of a grid of four by 6 squares, each box adhering to the hue of a hat in a Renaissance portrait painted between 1460 and 1535. This satisfying arrangement of purples and browns is Young’s first piece in Color scheme, which uses the color palette as a vehicle to examine art history, popular culture, and the artist’s own professional and artistic development through equally rigorous lenses.
Accompanying us through the book in the first person, Young moves from personal anecdotes to analyzes adjacent to criticism. The stories, which she articulates throughout the book’s three chronological chapters: art history, contemporary art and pop culture, are intriguing in that they provide an insight into the inspiration of her projects: a course in RISD equates to an interest in typologies, a work at an athleisure brand bestows wisdom on color theory.
The majority of Color scheme explores these dissections of Young’s own interests and artistic works, produced both by his own predilection and on behalf of curators. But before going too far, it pays homage to the artists who came before it: John Baldessari, Spencer Finch and the designer of a 1973 Jeep Fleet commercial, to name a few. The resemblance to his own palettes is palpable. Leafing through the book is like leafing through a ring of Pantone paints or nail polish. Each of Young’s prints follows a uniform pattern: squares of equal size are filled with a single color, captioned with the date and title of the source, and spread over a crisp white foundation.
In Young’s introduction to the concept of the color palette, she compares the art form to a visualization of data, “a rechargeable frame with endless potential to recontextualize.” It’s an explanation that, coupled with the book’s endnotes on CMYK values, seems to reveal an artist with left brain tendencies. Its playful side is reflected in its material.
She creates palettes ranging from the blue of painted swimming pools by David Hockney to the fall hair dyes of former professional basketball player Dennis Rodman. One of the greatest powers of these hyper-specific subject choices is that they call attention to artistic decisions that might go unnoticed in their original context. In one of Young’s palettes in his art history category, for example, we are treated to the flushed cheeks of Madame de Pompadour, a popular muse from whom 18th-century portrait painters could not stay away. Looking at this sea of cheek colors stripped of the paintings of Louis XV’s very red mistress, one can understand that Pompadour’s rosy cheeks were not always in fact painted pink, but rather mauve or copper. It’s a painting secret that’s almost undetectable when you look at one of the latest oil portraits: a composite of painted gradients, shadows, and depths.
Young’s account has textured descriptions of an art that is almost too basic to describe: “There is color contained in rectangles, capturing substance that is otherwise formless, and providing form, like water in a glass. But these asides leave you wanting more details. Despite this omission, Color scheme is proof that Young can form associative bonds in almost any environment.
Taking an interest in popular culture, she introduces a concept she calls “the color strategy”: a tool used by commercial brands to renew customer interest by reproducing old products in new hues. It could easily sound like advertising, especially since Young has worked with at least one of the brands she mentions in this section. But this passage, which compares fashion retail strategy to Young’s pallet-making process, is a leap we’re prepared to take. The main attraction of Color scheme is Young’s work and methodology, but the writing, at times both humorous and sophisticated, will keep you going.