Elia Bettaglio, “Face of an Ostrich”, (2011) (Courtesy of The Painting Center)

There is no gray stripe in a rainbow. And has anyone ever noticed or even complained? Other colors have personality like fiery red, glowing yellow and dreamy blue. But gray is special because it isn’t. It is neutral. It is the color of public television.

On August 6, The Painting Center closed its summer show devoted to gray, Grey Matter. I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that the show wasn’t widely reviewed as a summer blockbuster. It didn’t have nearly enough color for that. I can only imagine that the press releases received by most reviewers were tossed aside when their interest wasn’t piqued by the idea of exploring something that is neither here nor there. Their loss.

This curious show was actually worth a look, it was a nice take on the most underdog of colors. In fact, despite its frankly dull reputation, gray can achieve visual and optical effects that other colors cannot. Gray makes the colors near it explode. The strongest abstract works in the show made this popping effect the crux of their composition.

Julie Shapiro, “Bemist 1” ( 2011) (Courtesy of The Painting Center)

In  “Bemist” (2011), Julie Shapiro places a set of light blue stripes in a gray field. The lines looked so bright, intense and almost neon because they float on layers of gray. More muted blue lines are buried in the composition and all this adds formal density to the work, particularly on the lower-right corner.

Stephanie McMahon, “Thaw” (Courtesy of The Painting Center)

Stephanie McMahon’s “Thaw” from 2011 also taps gray as a team player for her other colors. Gray lines coil together like the lattice of a birdcage. This composition creates several small white openings that make the work feel like a quilt of mini-paintings. Seeing these more boisterous colors framed by this much gray was like experiencing them on visual steroids.

Sure gray may never muster a place on a rainbow, but we should remember that moisture from a gray storm cloud made that rainbow possible in the first place.

Grey Matter at the Painting Center (547 West 27 street, Suite 500, Chelsea, Manhattan) took place from June 21 to August 6, 2011.

A man once knocked Daniel Larkin off his bar stool and flung mean words. He got up, smiled, and laughed as the bouncer showed him out. He doesn't give anyone the power to rain on his parade. It's more...

4 replies on “Is the Color Gray Doomed?”

  1. those last 2 are wonderful, the color does pop. you know there are also so many different grays- torrit gray is a favorite that comes out only once a year! And then there are all the ones that emerge on the palette by mixing your own.  I have a series now with a multitude of grays, each with its own life history.

    long live gray!

    1. Julia, I agree that the works have a wonderful glow. You are right on the money that there are so many different hues and shades of gray. I’m so over the reductive “h & m undershirt clearance rack” approach to the color wheel, where every color has just one version that is mass produced. Sounds like your project is giving gray some sorely deserved attention. Carry on!

  2. I have a whole series of gray artwork made with pastel and charcoal on canvas and paper. Quite a few people find the Lost Corners series depressing. But the thing is, gray is not just gray, there are many variations and indeed, if you use one real color it explodes magnificently. Thanks for this article!


  3. “…yeah, well you know that gray is my fav-or-ite color
     I felt so symbolic yesterday
     if I knew  Picasso
    I would grab my gray guitar and play

    Mr. Jones and Me…”
    – Counting Crows

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