“Mere Color,” Art, and the Soul

“Remembering the Rain”
©2019, Molly Larson Cook
18″ x 24″  Acrylic and Ink on Canvas
Colors of Jazz series


“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form,
can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. ” Oscar Wilde  

I’m trying hard to imagine “Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form…” as anything but abstract expressionism.

And when I think of it that way, I slide right to the idea that abstract expressionist paintings might “…speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”

I don’t mean to be uppity about this, but visitors to my gallery shows have let me know that my paintings have messages for them and stories and images. The messages are different for every person who sees the art, and it’s one of the reasons I love working in this genre.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer and storyteller myself that I love to hear the narratives different viewers find in the work, usually things I didn’t see myself but I recognize when I hear about them.

I’m never trying to paint “anything” and I don’t title the paintings until they’re finished. Abstract expressionism is about emotion and – as the name says – expression.  It’s not about landscapes or still lifes or portraits.  Those are somebody else’s subjects.

So for me, this leaves what short story writer Grace Paley once described as an “open destiny” for the characters in her stories.  I like to think there’s an “open destiny” about what anyone sees in my work.  I like that there are no wrong narratives.  We all see what we see.  We all find connections in abstract work that come from our own experience no matter what the artist had in mind.  We all find meaning wherever it resides for us.

I once saw an abstract painting that carried an unexpected story for me in the colors – white, red and green.  No, it had nothing to do with Christmas.  The colors evoked for me memories of my long gone mother.  When I was a child, she had a lovely and elegant pair of silk lounging pajamas unlike anything she usually wore. The fabric was white, with red flowers and green leaves.  I stood in the gallery before that painting with emotions welling.

The artist might have been surprised by my response, and when someone asked why I liked the work, I talked about design and values and line – the usual things. But it was my soul that had been touched, not in a thousand ways, but in one deeply meaningful way.

Abstract expressionism is not for everybody but when I think about the overwhelming emotions many people report when seeing Rothko’s color field paintings, I think, too, of Wilde’s words.

Colors have power.  We know that colors have been labeled and put in boxes like white for purity, red for passion, green as a cool color and so on.  Black for funerals (in our culture) and white for weddings.  Pink for girls and blue for boys.

Flowers get the same kinds of designations.  Red roses mean one thing and yellow roses mean another.  Lilies mean one thing and carnations mean another.  But meaning is not what abstract expressionism is about for me.  Nor was it for Rothko.

It is the power of the colors themselves and their relationship to each other, the power to evoke emotions that belong entirely to the viewer.  Emotions that tell very personal stories and do, as Oscar Wilde noted, “…speak to the soul” in one way or perhaps a thousand.

We simple humans do not always have the words to express why we love one piece of art or another.  Do not worry.  Your soul knows, and that’s all that matters.











2 thoughts on ““Mere Color,” Art, and the Soul

  1. Ah, Lesley, you are exactly right about the shapes of the colors and I find that black in the right place and shape can positively act on all the rest of the colors. Your mother’s evening dress sounds delicious – that was a wonderful color combination in the fifties. One of my mom’s friends used it, too, and I still remember how lovely it was. Love the parrot bit!
    From across the pond,

  2. I wonder if it’s not also about the shapes of colours and how they sit next to each other. A long strip of black in a painting will says something different to me than a square of black. Their power can shift. I remember so many of my mother’s clothes, too, a beautiful strapless evening dress in particular, with huge lilac orchids on a cream background (this was the late fifties). We used to have a parrot that loved her purple gingham sundress, too.

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