Had they lived in the same city and century, Cologne-based artist Hanno Otten and Ludwig van Beethoven might have found themselves in the same book club. The two creatives have both cited a particular affinity for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours, the German writer’s seminal discourse on color perception.
While originally proposed by Goethe as a scientific study, Theory of Colours has always resonated more persuasively as a philosophical exploration of the phenomenal effects of color on human experience. Goethe’s descriptions of individual hues brim with his own psychological responses. His passage on yellow, for instance, reads: “In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.”
Hanno Otten’s photographs, photograms, and sculptures—made primarily from blocks and swathes of lucid color—explore the atmospheric capabilities of tone and light, and offer a visual extension of Goethe’s musings. This September, at Cologne’s Priska Pasquer Gallery, Otten’s extensive engagement with chromatics is presented in “Color,” a mini retrospective of works made from 1992 to the present day.
Otten’s newest work, “13 Colour Families,” offers a vivid study of monochromes in a grouping of c-prints. The series captures the abundant nuances of individual colors that we might—perhaps unjustly—sum up in a single word. The honed, albeit faceted, palettes invoke a range of references from emotional to social to art historical. Purpur (2) (2014), for instance, which resembles the scion of a Mark Rothko painting, or the visualization of lust, could moonlight as a psychedelic poster for a 60s rock band.
A selection of photograms from Otten’s ongoing “Colorblock” series, which he began in the early 1990s, grounds the exhibition in small compositions made from a refracted spectrum of reds, blues, and yellows. Created by directing light through multi-hued filters onto photosensitive paper, the resulting geometric fields of color surface as both medium and subject. At their edges, the forms overlap and blur, creating a sense of movement, incandescence, and practically anthropomorphic energy. Do Otten’s colors have personalities—as Goethe seemed to imply—or at least induce and express ours?