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What is white? What is any color? Philadelphia-based abstract painter Odili Donald Odita talks with us about his work and offers us an assignment about color. Your specific instructions:
1. Find a white object and place it next to another white object. Compare how the two colors change.
2. Describe the difference in color
3. Change the lighting and take not of how the colors change
4. Name the colors in the new lighting
5. Share your findings in whatever way you see fit, using #theartassignment

Recommended reading:
- David Batchelor, Chromophobia (2000)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)
- Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (1963)

This assignment was filmed in Indianapolis at the Deborah Berke designed Global Distribution Headquarters for Cummins, Inc., and the Julia M. Carson Transit Center.

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 (00:00) to (02:00)


(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Sarah: We're in Indianapolis today, inside the new Global Distribution headquarters for Cummins, Inc, designed by architect Deborah Berke.  I'm standing in front of a new six floor wall painting by Philadelphia-based artist Odili Donald Odita, who we're gonna be speaking with today.  This new work, titled "The Wisdom of Trees" was inspired by Odita's visit to the (?~0:20) Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, as well as his interest in trees as metaphors for adaptability and change. 

Odita is an amazingly talented colorist whose dynamic compositions are rendered directly on the wall, as well as on canvas and panel.  He explores a wide range of ideas through a language of abstraction that he has developed and evolved over a number of years.  In his works, color is not a mere hue or means of representing things in the world, but is a way of considering how color can reflect the complexity of social and cultural and political contexts.

Color and color theory are things that we learn about from a very early age, but Odita is gonna encourage us to reconsider our approach and think about color in a much more complex and contingent way.

Odili: Hi.  I'm Odili Donald Odita, and this is your Art Assignment.

(Intro)

Odili: Color for me is super important but I really see it specific to, say, periods or times or cultures.  I mean, for me, that's how I really engage color.  Like, like, for instance, you can say, oh, 80s color or you know, 90s color.  Like, I like to look at color in these ways in the sense of how it might have been used commercially, how it might have been used aesthetically, how it changes in a painter's work, as well, between painters, cubist color vs pop color, you know, so, for me, it's--color plays in a lot of these different contexts for me, and I know with the color that I saw on the house, it was, color like that, it's almost too period-specific for me to actually go forward with that, but I did play with the notions a little bit, but I credit really my mother and having to go with her to, she loved to go to garage sales and just relax shopping.

 (02:00) to (04:00)


That always just, she'd take us along as, you know, taking care of the kids, she'd take us along and I'd always look at stuff and I'd always look at, I'd always appreciate the color of stuff and that kind of maybe gave me my education of being able to like, place color in time frames or you know, time capsules.  Be able to say like, this is from this period and that period, just looking at things, and I think that it's really great for me to watch the students I work with, when they're dealing with color, to actually express their fear of it, because it's really, I mean, essentially, color is something that is surprising and that surprise always is discomforting in fact, you know, because it gives you, it brings you to places you just don't expect. 

When I'm dealing with my painting, I make a drawing in black and white, a grid drawing, and then I plot the color in the sense of I map it conceptually.  I use codes to map the color in the drawing and then I make the painting and so I don't know what it's going to look like because if you have more, let's say, if you call it ingredients like cooking, if you have 60% blue and 30% yellow and then 10% red, you'll have a kind of vibration.  If you have 20% blue and 40% yellow and then another for the red, it's gonna create another kind of vibration, another kind of mood or temperament for the space.  Another thing is that color seen in this scale versus color seen in this scale is, and you use the same color, it becomes a different color just because its size is bigger, because its absorbing more light, so there are all these kind of physical aspects to color that are conditional in addition to say, just what the color's name is.

 (04:00) to (06:00)


This is the first part of the Assignment.  I want you to take a white object, any white object, and place it next to or on top of a second white object.  What I want you to do is compare the two whites to see how they change and if you are able to still call the both objects, the two objects white or in fact, what will happen where you're going to have to be more specific to describe what the white becomes.  Then, I'd like you to change the lighting in the room.  If you will maybe change one source or all of it so that you can still see the objects in the room, but know that you've changed the lighting in the room and then I'd like you to then name that, those same objects to see if you can in fact call them what you called them before and identify how they change from one state, one light state to the next.

Sarah: This is a good one, isn't it, John?

John: Yeah, it's very, very good.  So Odili brought up the opening chapter of David Batchelor's book called Chromophobia titled "Whitescapes" in which he explores Western conceptions of "white" as its written about in Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, but he begins the book by describing this visit he had to the home of an art collector in Europe in the 90s, where the inside of the house was all white.

He says, "There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was that kind of white.  There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything.  This was that kind of white.  There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach, but that itself is bleach.  This was that kind of white.  This was aggressively white."  

John: I also thought about Ta-Nehisi Coates' brilliant book Between The World and Me in which he refers to the people who believe themselves to be white.

 (06:00) to (08:00)


Sarah: And this assignment is so instructive and revealing about Odili's work, because what he's doing is not just abstraction for the sake of abstraction.  He's juxtaposing color and form to think about complex social and political issues and the real underpinnings of this assignment lie in the teachings of Joseph Albers, an artist who taught at Black Mountain College during its heyday in the 1940s, who believed in learning by doing, exactly what our assignment is today, something that teaches you to see the world differently.

John: Albers' book, Interaction of Color was first published in 1963 and it's still a critical resource for artists and also pretty much anyone else.  Our animation today is gonna share with you a few selections from the book's first chapters.

Sarah: If one says red and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds, and one can be sure that all of these reds will be very different.  Even when a certain color is specified, which all listeners have seen innumerable times, such as the red of the Coca-Cola signs, which is the same red all over the country, they will still think of many different reds.  Though there are innumerable colors, shades, and tones, in daily vocabulary, there are only about 30 color names.  

Our concern is the interaction of color, that is, seeing what happens between colors.  We are able to hear a single tone (beep), but we almost never, that is, without special devices, see a single color unconnected and unrelated to other colors.  Colors present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions.  It is this continuous flux that Odita is asking us to acknowledge, explore, and demonstrate for ourselves at this time and at every moment moving forward.

Odili: So here's a demonstration of part one, taking a sample of white, say this sheet of white paper.  First of all, we have to verify that it's white.  You might want to ask someone else to participate with you to say, help you to decide together that this is white, that you can both conclude that this is a white sheet of paper, and then just simply take this white sheet of paper and place it against another white.  

 (08:00) to (10:00)


We have to also then declare together, is this white?  We could say this is white.  If we can agree with that, then we put together and we start to see that there's clearly some kind of difference between this white and that white.  This white, in fact, starts to become blue or grey, versus this white which is a paper becomes maybe a touch lavender, a touch even rosy or pink.  Okay, so then we want to test further.  We take this white, the first white again, and place it against another surface that we might call white, this surface here, and we start to see another shift, another change that this table white becomes maybe a yellow, a very rosy kind of color, and then this white in a way becomes colder and bluer, whereas here, it was one--it had one condition and state, here it has another, and then we can take it further on and start to find other whites that we can find and that we can grab on in the environment and we start to see other things happening where this is now a yellow white, this is red, rosy or pink white, and this is a blue, and so the question is, why do we use the word white if in fact this is now yellow, this is a rosy pink, and this is coral blue?  So then we start to realize that this word in and of itself is a construct that possibly, this was a means of being able to codify a range that we call white, not specifically one object that's uniformly seen as white, but that this term covers a range or a wavelength, but again, that is, I like to say to students, that is an abstracted way or a generalized way to call these objects.

 (10:00) to (10:57)


(Endscreen/Credits)

The use of color is not limited to a certain type or a certain kind of intensity, but it's really about how one personifies, personalizes, and experiences space, time, and being through that material, through that energy.