Symposium Overview

Discovery Building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison
330 N. Orchard Street, Madison, WI  53717

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This symposium proposes to bring together artists, scientists and scholars for whom color matters in quite different registers, across the globe and across modernity. From the Early Modern era to the present, color theory and practice cross disciplines and sponsor debates about what color is. This 21st century symposium looks forward and back in time to invite collective thought about color’s modernity. The symposium invites scholars, artists and participants to think about how their research addresses two questions: crossovers between color theory and material practices now, among artists and scientists, and as part of the global exchange of color, pigments and artifacts.


In the history of its theory and practice, color has always been a cross-disciplinary event, and as often a cross-disciplinary problem. Color is everywhere in art and in science. In philosophy color continues to trouble efforts to define secondary and primary qualities of objects, even as it remains a disruptive middle term in theories of perception and embodiment. Color theory, theories of vision and neuroscience constitute the other disciplinary side of color’s persistence in questions about materiality and perception. This symposium will present the ongoing investigation of color and its objects to a wider public drawn from UW and the Madison community. The symposium will feature conversations, videos, demonstrations, and an exhibition of color art and books and documents drawn from the Memorial Library Special Collections archives. The symposium will coincide with one of the WID Science Saturdays that emphasizes nature by featuring color research in the natural world and in art.


fractal imageThe cross-disciplinary character of color practices is especially clear in the crossovers of technique and materials between cloth, paper, canvas and pigment. The complex processes that artists and artisans have developed to apply or embed color also challenge an older binary in which artisanal practices were understood as distinct from art. Modern physics and the science of perception study color as the creation of light, refraction, and absorption. Color practices challenge this putative divide even as such practices, along with color theory, tends to seep through the national and regional boundaries of modernity. The global history of color processes is only beginning to be understood, entangled as that history is with economic competition and trade secrets. The cross-disciplinarity of color arises as much from its transnational operations as it does from its location across the domains of art, artisanship, and science. To limit thinking about color practices to one country or region is, this proposal contends, to miss a story about color that is inextricable from the history of the modern world and the role of color in the present.