A Crash Course in Color Theory With Hanno Otten

Alexxa Gotthardt
Aug 28, 2014 10:30PM

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?

Alexxa Gotthardt

Hanno Otten” is on view at Priska Pasquer, Cologne, September 6–October 31, 2014.

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