Colour me neutral

The Free Dictionary defines neutral-coloured as a colour that doesn’t attract attention. The term not only relates to home design, but also to clothing, make-up and the white cube, the cliché that now references the spaces where art is shown.


It could be argued that neutrality, in this sense, signifies a kind of nothingness.  The colour operates as an unimposing backdrop, a bland realm that doesn’t intrude or inspire excitement.

The range of tones considered to be neutral include black and white, as well as a host of colour mixtures. Ivory, magnolia, eggshell, beige, taupe, fawn, ecru, parchment, caramel, sand, buff and tan are just some of the names used to describe its family members.

As an idea, ‘neutral colour’ seems a fanciful notion. The impression a colour makes depends on various factors: the context, a person’s mindset, as well as his or her visual abilities. The process of looking is often clouded by our preoccupations. Setting them aside takes effort and time.

Take for example Alexander Theroux‘s impression of Estonia. In 2011’s Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery he finds”its skies, the buildings, the cobblestone walkways of the Old Town in the major cities, the colour of stone.”But as Theroux gradually becomes familiar with the habits of its people, history and the country’s natural beauty, the monotony is broken. He describes an elliptical, yet wholly intriguing, place.

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This sense of contradiction also reverberates through Howard Hawks’ film Bringing Up Baby. In his documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey film critic Mark Cousins notes how the neutral set focuses viewers’ attention on the actors. But the lavish trappings of the set can also have the opposite effect. It can easily become a distraction – if only temporarily – that undermines the action taking place before it.

Visual artists have often produced work that explores the nuances of colour, texture, light and space. The absence of recognisable imagery in paintings and installations by artists such as Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman or Robert Irwin, though, can confuse gallery visitors who might be indifferent or just happen to miss seeing the subtleties inherent to their work.


Such rigidly minimalist presentations convey no emotional content. They also lack design elements. We see no recognisable subject matter such as figures or brushwork that bristles with colour. Their existence is solitary and reticent.

The obvious absence of detail doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see. It just means that attention must be directed to other – let’s say unexpected – features. And it is these which must now be considered. The austere simplicity of Ryman’s panel, its pallidness and seeming emptiness demands certain adjustments. Unlocking something of their content demands prolonged looking and thinking about more than just the object itself.

This type of shift also informs Spring Hurlbut‘s hauntingly beautiful The Final Sleep/Le Dernier Sommeil. Sifting through the Royal Ontario Museum‘s holdings, Hurlbut assembled a collection of more than 400 white objects that ranges from natural history specimens to fashion items, which effectively defies the heterogeneity of the institution’s holdings.


This dramatically atypical presentation immersed the viewer in an ethereal environment, the whiteness of which conveys multiple associations. On one hand the absence of colour suggests purity. The atmosphere is somewhat angelic. It evokes a dreamlike air. On the other death is also readily apparent. Though the objects have reached the end of their practical existence, their use has not been completely erased. They continue to exist, although the nature of this existence has changed.

Hurlbut placed them in a new context and this draws out alternate impressions and meanings. It makes viewers aware of unexpected affinities and differences. The initial sameness belies a richness that causes reflection on the specimen’s material qualities, entropy and mortality.

It shows that neutral colours are anything but nullifying.


Photo sources/credits:

Frankaboutart, Ad hoc study in grey

Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby,

Robert Ryman, Initial 1989,

The Final Sleep / Le Dernier Sommeil: Spring Hurlbut, Institute of Contemporary Culture, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 2001.


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