Birgir Andrésson – Mathematics of colour

Eftirfarandi texti um litafræði Birgis Andréssonar fannst í tölvu minni nýverið. Hann mun hafa verið skrifaður á ensku fyrir sýningarskrá sem ég á ekki í mínum fórum, en mig minnir að sýningin hafi verið haldin í Lundi í Svíþjóð nálægt síðustu aldamótum. Birgir var vinur minn og lést langt fyrir aldur fram 2007. Ég á ekki eintak af þessum texta á íslensku, enda mun hann hafa veið skrifaður á ensku.

The following text about the color-studies of Birgir Andrésson (1956-2007) was written around year 2000 for a cataloge of Birgir's exhibition somewhere abroad, maybe in Lund Swden. I don't have a copy of the cataloge, but recently I found the original text written in English in the depths of my HardDrive. Birgir was a dear friend of mine. 

The Mathematics of Color

On Birgir Andrésson’s Icelandic palette

When I asked Birgir Andrésson, after having seen his studies on “Icelandic colors”, if he had read Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, he said:

No, but I was born and brought up by blind parents.

This remarkable experience made him passionate for art as a child, and later led him into investigation of the relationship between language and visual experience.

A wise man has said that we do not see with our eyes, but our mind. The mind transforms immediately what we see with our eyes into signs that become part of a visual language[i].

In his Remarks, Wittgenstein makes a clear example: he has before his eyes a black and white photograph that shows an old car and two men standing by. Then he says: It would be very natural for me to describe the photograph in these words: “A man with dark hair and a boy with combed-back blond hair are standing by the machine”. This is how I would describe the photograph, and if someone said that doesn’t describe it but the objects that were probably photographed, I could say the picture looks as though the hair had been that color.[ii]

What amazed Wittgenstein was the fact that he immediately interpreted the grey spot in the picture as if it was the color blond. When a color that is grey in one sense becomes blond in another sense it tells us that the color is not a visual sensation, but a construct of the mind.

Wittgenstein points out that the concepts we use for colors are no more related to the vision than the concepts of numbers are related to the phenomena of nature. When we look at a colored surface we put what we see into a logical system which he calls mathematics of color[iii] or geometry of color[iv]. The rules of these “mathematics” or this “geometry of color” are in no relationship to visual experience, because they are of a different category.

When we learn in early childhood to master the concepts of colors, we are being introduced to a social custom that Wittgenstein calls game of language. We learn about the four primary colors that make the opposites in the color scheme. We learn that the colors black and white don’t belong to the color-scheme and that a transparent object can never be white, although it can look white. These, Wittgenstein says, are rules that have been constructed to adapt the language to the visual experience.

But they are a construct, just like the numbers or the traffic rules, and they do not belong to the realm of nature. What is there in favor of saying that green is a primary color, not a blend of blue and yellow? Would it be right to say: You can only know it directly by looking at the colors? But how do I know that I mean the same by the words primary colors as some other person who is also inclined to call green a primary color? No, – here language games decide.[v]

When Birgir Andrésson is showing us standardized colors and naming them “Icelandic” he is leading us into the danger-zone where we find the borderline between the rules of language and visual experience. The industrial standards of color that Birgir is using with his color experiments are the paradigm that Wittgenstein calls the “mathematics” and “geometry” of color. They are based on chemical factors which are as close to the visual experience as we can reach. Naming these colors “Icelandic” is based on a local experience that Birgir has obtained through his investigation of the use of colors in traditional Icelandic handicraft and housing. It raises the question if the category “Icelandic” is based on visual experience or on the “language-game”. This is an enigma that Wittgenstein poses in his paragraph on “reddish-green” and “yellowish-blue”: But even if there were also people for whom it was natural to use the expressions “reddish-green” or “yellowish-blue” in a consistent manner and who perhaps also exhibit abilities which we lack, we would still not be forced to recognize that they see colors which we do not see. There is, after all, no commonly accepted criterion for what a color is, unless it is one of our colors.[vi]

According to the rules of positivism we should be able to proof the meaning and truth of our statements through experience. But how can we proof through visual experience that a grey spot is blond? With his Remarks on Colors Wittgenstein has undermined the premises of positivism. He even says that the answer why he can make the statement that something has the color red could as well be: because I have learnt English[vii].

The questions Birgir Andrésson is confronting in his studies of the color “Icelandic” are rooted in his experience of growing up with blind parents. He was already as a child confronting the problem of communication between the blind and the seeing that Wittgenstein describes like this: When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says “Who knows what he imagines that to mean” – But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.[viii]

Why is the expression wrong? Quoting again the Remarks: We could say people ‘s concepts show what matters to them and what doesn’t. But it is not as if this explained the particular concepts they have. It is only to rule out the view that we have the right concepts and other people the wrong ones. (There is a continuum between an error in calculation and different mode of calculating.)[ix].

This means that the community of the blind and the community of the Icelandic do have some concepts of color that are as valid in their game of language as are the chemical standards of the industries of color. None of them is based on visual experiece, but on the rules of the language game. The works of Birgir Andrésson are rising challenging questions about the relationship between language and vision and how we use language and vision to understand reality.

Ólafur Gislason

Birgir Andrésson: Kyrralíf. Color Icelandic 2070 Y60R og Icelandic 2005 Y50R

[i] Paul Valery: Berte Morisot in Pieces sur l’art, 1924, here from Italian trans.: “Scritti sull’arte”, pub. TEA Arte, 1966, pages 124-125.

[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Remarks on Color, University of California Press, 1978, III., § 276

[iii] Ibid III § 3

[iv] Ibid III. § 35

[v] ibid. I. § 6

[vi] ibid, I., § 14.

[vii] Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, I., § 381

[viii] Wittgenstein Reflections, III, § 294

[ix] Ibid III, § 293

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