The first colour charts were unsystematic. They were based directly on commercial colour samples. They were still related to Pop Art. In the canvases that followed, the colours were chosen arbitrarily and drawn by chance. Then, 180 tones were mixed according to a given system and drawn by chance to make four variations of 180 tones. But after that the number 180 seemed too arbitrary to me, so I developed a system based on a number of rigorously defined tones and proportions.
Based on mixtures of the three primary colours, along with black and white, I come up with a certain number of possible colours and, by multiplying these by two or four, I obtain a definite number of colour fields that I multiply yet again by two, etc. But the complete realization of this project demands a great deal of time and work.
1,024 Colours in 4 Permutations
In order to represent all extant colour shades in one painting, I worked out a system which – starting from the three primaries, plus grey – made possible a continual subdivision (differentiation) through equal gradations. 4 x 4 = 16 x 4 = 64 x 4 = 256 x 4 = 1,024. The multiplier 4 was necessary because I wanted to keep the image size, the square size and the number of squares in a constant proportion to each other. To use more than 1,024 tones (4,096, for instance) seemed pointless, since the difference between one shade and the next would no longer have been detectable.
The arrangement of the colours on the squares was done by a random process, to obtain a diffuse, undifferentiated overall effect, combined with stimulating detail. The rigid grid precludes the generation of figurations, although with an effort these can be detected. This aspect of artificial naturalism fascinates me – as does the fact that, if I had painted all the possible permutations, light would have taken more than 400 billion years to travel from the first painting to the last. I wanted to paint four large, colourful pictures.
So, in 1966, when you started to paint non-figurative pictures, colours charts, did that also have something to do with a head-on confrontation with Minimal art? Was that another conflict situation, a rejection of American dominance, or was it through an evolutionary process of your own, rooted in the immediate, local context here in Düsseldorf? Was it through meeting Palermo, perhaps?
Yes, it certainly did have something to do with Palermo and his interests, and later with Minimal art as well; but when I painted my first colour charts in 1966, that had more to do with Pop Art. They were copies of paint sample cards, and what was effective about them was that they were directed against the efforts of the Neo-Constructivists, Albers and the rest.
I first came up with the idea for the colour-chart pictures back in 1966, and my preoccupation with the topic culminated in 1974 with a painting that consisted of 4,096 colour fields [CR: 359].
Initially I was attracted by the typical Pop Art aestheticism of using standard colour-sample cards; I preferred the unartistic, tasteful and secular illustration of the different tones to the paintings of Albers, Bill, Calderara, Lohse, etc.
A little later, I became more interested in the neutral and systematic categorization of the colours we can see and, in conjunction with that, their coincidental appearance within the painting. In this way, I could avoid creating a colour scheme, or any result that might be representational, and only had to determine the format of the painting, the proportions of the grid and the quality of the material. The paintings created in this manner tend towards total perfection and convey the idea of a practically endless number of possible pictures.
Turning to the colour-classification methodology:
The starting point are the four pure colours red, yellow, green and blue; their in-between shades and scales of brightness result in colour schemes containing 16, 64, 256 and 1,024 shades. More colours would be pointless because it wouldn't be possible to distinguish between them clearly.