David Batchelor: The Fear of Colour

David Batchelor

‘Oh, hang on, where’s the colour?’

It took a while for artist David Batchelor to notice that much of his work lacked colour. It happened in the studio, when, in frustration whilst trying to distinguish the front of a work from the back, he painted the face of it a vibrant pink.

This epiphany lead Batchelor to investigate the presence of ‘Chromophobia’ through Western cultural thought. He suggests colour has often been cast as a dangerous element – as the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, and the cosmetic. In this film, he traces the fear through 19th century Academic painting through to minimalism, Pop and conceptual art and popular TV and cinema. He also discusses the beguiling relationship between the ‘Luminous and the Grey’, and why grey, contrary to popular thought, is a surprisingly interesting colour.

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From your first moment as an infant, everyone experiences colour. It’s universal in that sense. But at the same time no-one really knows what colour is. It’s very familiar, and it’s also entirely strange.

When art historians write about what’s wrong with colour, they often treat it as this kind of pit in which you might fall if you’re not careful. It’s always represented as a danger, as a seduction, or a threat of one kind or another. That you have to keep your wits about you, otherwise you might tumble into colour. So, going into colour is often represented as a fall, a fall from grace.

There’s a brilliant visual representation of that in the Wizard of Oz. The film begins in grey, Kansas is grey, the farm is grey. Along comes a grey tornado, makes everything even greyer, and Dorothy and her little dog Toto get whisked up in the tornado and then they fall, they fall from this greyness into a kind of hyper-chromatic Munchkin Land. So, she falls into colour. But then you realise of course by the end of the film that she doesn’t just fall from the tornado into Munchkin Land, you learn, at the end of the film, that she falls into unconsciousness. Colour represents a kind of space not bound by rationality, not bound by good sense and logic and order. And then of course at the end of the film she says: ‘There’s no place like home’. She has to leave colour and return to the greyness of Kansas.

I went to art school in the mid-1970s and no-one used colour. Not only did no one use colour, no one noticed that they weren’t using it. Including me. And one day I was trying to remake a work that was going wrong, and I thought, what I really need to do is emphasise the difference between the front and the back, so I painted the front of the sculpture pink.

But the minute I did that, I thought, ‘Oh, hang on a minute – where’s the colour?’. And I realised that none of the work I’d made previously used any colour at all of any significance. When I talk about my work now I describe this moment of making this little pink sculpture as if it was some sort of shaft of light. I began to read more widely about how colour was represented in art and art history and I pretty quickly began to notice that colour was often seen as being primitive or oriental, it was seen as being feminine rather than masculine, or infantile rather than grown-up.

So, colour has often in this way been aligned with the female and line with the male, and this traditional opposition of line and colour, masculine and feminise, has continued, it seems to me, in different formations but almost throughout Western art history.

I never planned to write a book called Chromophobia, but it kind of emerged seeing these patterns of resistance to colour. The moment of conceptual art in the 1960s was also a moment of the rubbishing of colour. It’s also a moment when art began to go into universities and you find a more academic type of teaching in art schools, and the emergence of a magazine or journal like October, which is published in New York, which certainly since the mid-seventies when it was first published became probably the most widely-read journal about modern and contemporary art and there’s no colour in this journal ever. It’s a complete, unspoken absence. And for some years, I’d had an idea, and I thought wouldn’t it be great, just to put the colour back in where it had been excluded.

Andy Warhol is one of the great colourists of the twentieth century, and each portrait, the colours would be configured differently, the lips would be green or maybe pink, the face would be orange, or yellow or brown, and so colours are constantly mobile. In a way he applies colour like people apply cosmetics, that would tend to identify colour as the feminine again, but at the same time it could also be camp or queer. It fits within the world of drag queens, and clubs that we know Warhol was at least observing if not fully participating in.

There was a moment certainly in the sixties, particularly with Pop Art and with Minimalism, where you find intense, urban, shop-born colour like hardware store colours rather than artist colours. Frank Stella, the American painter, who used metallic paints and gloss, he had a brilliant phrase which was: ‘I wanted the paint to look as good as it did in the can’. And I think when you open a tin of industrial paint, it looks phenomenal. And I think that Stella was entirely serious, that the job was to try and hold on to that moment of pure colour, and I think to some extent I’ve tried to apply that same principle to my work.

When I began using colour in the studio in the mid-nineteen nineties, it’s not a subject I chose, I think, but in some respects chose me. When I looked a bit more closely I realised it wasn’t just colour that was interesting me, it was urban colour. It was the colours of the city rather than the colours of nature. In the city, there’s a very, very particular and unique relationship with darkness and colour, with advertisements and neon lights projected against the dark night sky. And those for me are the greatest moments of colour, and it’s a strange relationship between colour and darkness.

I became interested in restaurant signs or shop signs of one kind or another. So, I began to gather them and ended up stacking them on top of one another. One of the things about working with coloured lights is with electric colour, the colour can escape its container and spills onto any surface that would accept it. For me, that’s one of the real pleasures of working with illuminated colour, is that moment when you switch it on, the colour spread beyond itself. The problem is that also it has an off-switch, and with any electrified work there’s always a sense that the colour is there but it’s only temporary, it’ll switch off at some point. And I think that’s part of the attraction of illuminated colour. You know that it’s not there for long. It’s fugitive and it’s ephemeral, but that’s part of the pleasure of it.

One of the pleasures of doing Sixty Minute Spectrum on top of the Hayward is that the Hayward itself is a rather dark, monochromatic, grey-to-dark brown building. Over the course of an hour, the colours would change very gradually through the visible spectrum. So on the hour it would be red, and gradually go through orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and back to red. In essence it’s exactly like looking at a minute hand on a clock.

Grey is in itself actually a fantastically strange and elusive and interesting colour. We have a notion of grey, we have a notion of greyness, but actually to find a version of grey that is not inflected by another colour is almost impossible. Colour can expose the limits of language. We think of red as a hot colour, but we think of grey as a cold colour. Why can’t we imagine a grey hot? People talk about someone being a colourful personality, and the colourful personality is the opposite of the grey man.  Someone who’s probably very trustworthy but really boring. So, for example, in Spitting Image, the satirical television broadcast from the late eighties and mid-nineties, they would make extreme versions of whatever physical characteristics typified a person. But in the case of John Major, the then prime minister, the way they went for him was by making him entirely and uniformly grey, and he spoke in a sort of grey monotone. It was devastating.

We have the ability to perceive about ten million different gradations of colour. We don’t have a language of colour, the science of colour is extraordinarily complex, so I think colour matters to me because it reminds you of the strangeness that’s within the most ordinary things in the world.

With thanks to…

Madeleine Ruggi

The Fruitmarket Gallery

The Hayward Gallery



Alamy Stock Photo

Bridgeman Images

Getty Images




Original composition

9 Lives Music


Full list of artworks shown


The Happy Accidents of the Swing

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767-1768

Wallace Collection

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Grande Odalisque

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814

Musee du Louvre Museum


Odalisque with a Slave

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1839-1840

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop


The Wizard of Oz

Dir.Victor Fleming, 1939

Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Warner Bros. Studios


Arcadia 10, After Gericault 1

David Batchelor, 1987


Lecture Notes 03

David Batchelor, 1985


Lecture Notes 02

David Batchelor, 1985



David Batchelor, 1993


The Carpet Merchant

Jean-Léon Gérôme, c.1887

The William Hood Dunwoody Fund / Minneapolis Institute of Art


The Little Bather

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1828


Music in the Tuileries

Édouard Manet, 1862

National Gallery

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Tribuna of the Uffizi

Johan Zoffany, c.1772-1777

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018



David Batchelor, 2000

Pub. Reaktion Books, London


What is Painting,

John Baldessari, 1968


One and Three Shovels

Joseph Kosuth, 1965

The Levine Residence

© Joseph Kosuth. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.


Painting for Kubler

John Baldessari, 1966-1968


Goya Series: No One Knows Why

John Baldessari, 1997


October Magazine no. 21

MIT Press, Summer 1982


October Magazine no. 118 inside cover,

MIT Press, Fall 2006


October Magazine no. 59

MIT Press, Winter 1989


The October Colouring-In Book

David Batchelor, 2012-2013


Gold Marilyn Monroe

Andy Warhol, 1962

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London .


Marilyn, right hand side

Andy Warhol, 1964

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London .


Warhol Star Holly Woodlawn

Jack Mitchel, 1970


Warhol Superstar Ultra Violet

Jack Mitchel, 1971


Andy Warhol Superstars

Jack Mitchel, 1971


Press Conference for Andy Warhol Exhibition Opening

Photographer Unknown, 1971


Untitled, 1968 (DSS 120)

Donald Judd, 1968

© Judd Foundation/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.


Untitled, 1967 (DSS 115)

Donald Judd, 1967-1969

© Judd Foundation/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.



Donald Judd, 1968

© Judd Foundation/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.


Flin Flon

Frank Stella, 1968

© Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.


Gray Scramble

Frank Stella, 1969

Private Collection / Mayor Gallery, London / Bridgeman Images

© Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.


Mantenela I

Frank Stella, 1968

Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

© Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.



David Batchelor, 2018


Haran II

Frank Stella, 1967

© Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.



David Batchelor, 2015



David Batchelor, 2016

Photo credit: Peter White


Idiot Stick V (candy pink)

David Batchelor, 2003


Spectrum of Brick Lane

David Batchelor, 2003


Green Pimp (install)

David Batchelor, 2006


Magic Hour

David Batchelor, 2004/2007

“Light Show”, Hayward Gallery, 2013

Photo Credit: Marcus Leith



David Batchelor, 2008


Spectrum of Hackney Road

David Batchelor, 2004


Slugfest 1

David Batchelor, 2012


Slugfest 4

David Batchelor, 2012


Sixty Minute Spectrum

David Batchelor, 2017

Filmed: The Hayward Gallery, 2018


Flatlands Spike Island, Atomic Drawings

David Batchelor, 2013

Photo credit: Stuart Whipps


Colour Charts, install shot 3

David Batchelor, 2013

“Flatlands” Spike Island, 2013

Photo credit: Stuart Whipps


Colour Charts

David Batchelor, 2013

“Flatlands” Spike Island, 2013

Photo credit: Stuart Whipps


Colour Charts, install shot 4

David Batchelor, 2013

“Flatlands” Spike Island, 2013

Photo credit: Stuart Whipps


David Batchelor’s Studio

Colour Chart 38

David Batchelor, 2011

Photo credit: Thierry Bal


The Luminous and the Grey

David Batchelor, 2014

Pub. Reaktion Books, London


Spitting Image, Series 12 Episode 13

Created by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn, 1996

Spitting Image Productions / Central Independent Television / ITV



David Batchelor, 2014

Photograph: Sam Lane


Chromolocomotion (detail)

David Batchelor, 2014

Photograph: Dave Valler


Magic Hour

David Batchelor, 2004/2007

Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico



David Batchelor, 2015


Disco Mecanique (detail)

David Batchelor, 2008

“Flatlands” Spike Island, 2013


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