Infinite Blue: A Survey in Color Symbolism & Global Connectedness

The color blue is: spirituality, open skies, a symbol of power, status and beauty. Infinite Blue, the blue-hue themed exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, examines representations of the color across history, cultures and mediums. Among the featured works are objects, paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, decorative arts, illuminated manuscripts, printed books and contemporary art pieces. These symbolic works were curated from the museum’s holdings of Asian, African, Egyptian, American, Native American and European art, spanning from ancient to present day civilization. Binding this vast, multidisciplinary collection is the color itself, in relation to world history, cultural expectations, technological advancements and global commerce.

Infinite Blue commences with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Water),” a curtain of blue glass cascading beads, and Joseph Kosuth’s “276 (On Color Blue),” a back lit, neon blue quote from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein about color perception. Other significant contemporary works include Hito Steyerl’s “Liquidity Inc.,” a social commentary video exploring water’s multiplicity of purposes and meanings, and Byron Kim’s “Sunday Paintings,” a series of portraits of the sky on different days with descriptive superimposed text.

 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Brooklyn Museum

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water) (1995), Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum, New York City. Infinite Blue Installation Views (C) Jonathan Dorado

Joseph Kosuth, Brooklyn Museum

Joseph Kosuth (American, born 1945). 276 (On Color Blue), 1993. Neon tubing, transformer, and electrical wires, 30 x 162 in. (76.2 x 411.48 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Mary Smith Dorward Fund, 1992.215. © 2016 Joseph Kosuth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Hito Steyerl, Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

Hito Steyerl: Liquidity Inc. (2014)
Photo Jonathan Dorado

Byron Kim, Brooklyn Museum

Byron Kim (American, born 1961). Sunday Painting 2/18/07, 2007. Acrylic and gouache on canvas, mounted on panel, 14 x 14 in. (35.6 x 35.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Gift of the Contemporary Art Council in honor of Eugenie Tsai and Patrick Amsellem, 2011.37.1. © Byron Kim/ Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/SHANGHAI

 

The exhibition also highlights blue-and-white ceramics from ancient China and the Middle East, such as “Wine Jar with Fish and Aquatic Plants” from the 14th century Yuan Dynasty and “Vase with Three Handles” from the New Kingdom of Egypt. These celebrated artifacts exemplify how commerce and limited trade access rendered blue ceramics precious and exclusive to elite classes. Zanobi Strozzi’s fifteenth century Florentine painting, “Virgin and Child with Four Angels and the Redeemer” shows how the color functions as a symbol of Christian iconography. European art has long-equated blue with spirituality, such as the color of Mary’s celestial mantle, the heavens and the Holy Spirit’s aura. The historic rarity and cost of materials for blue pigments, such as those used to depict the icons in art, tangibly affirms their elevated image and sanctity.

 

Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

Wine Jar with Fish and Aquatic Plants. China; Yuan dynasty, 14th century. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration, height: 11 15/16 in. (30.3 cm); diameter: 13¾ in. (34.9cm). Brooklyn Museum; The William E. Hutchins Collection, Bequest of Augustus S. Hutchins, 52.87.1. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

Vase with Three Handles. Saqqara, Egypt; New Kingdom, circa 1352–1336 B.C.E. Glass, 3 7/16 x 2 9/16 in. (8.7 x 6.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.340E. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Zanobi Strozzi, Brooklyn Museum

Zanobi Strozzi (Italian, Florentine, 1412–1468). Virgin and Child with Four Angels and the Redeemer, circa 1450. Tempera and tooled gold on panel, 31 x 20¼ in. (78.7 x 51.4 cm); frame (original): 59¼ x 36½ in. (150.5 x 92.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Gift of Mrs. Arthur Lehman, 53.189. (Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum)

 

“Amulet in the Form of a Ba as Human-Headed Bird,” a treasure from the Egyptian Ptolemaic Period, incorporates some of the most expensive materials then accessible: gold, turquoise and lapis lazuli. The latter was traditionally revered as the most noble and perfect blue and the highest standard of the color for wealthy patrons and commissioned art works. Lapis lazuli remained in high demand for arts throughout the Western world and Asia until the technological development of synthetic dyes. Examples of nineteenth century clothing reveal intercontinental use of the finest, most delicate textiles in blue tones for specialty dress in the American “Wedding Dress” and French “Booties,” illustrating yet again that blue is synonymous with what is most culturally valued and esteemed.

 

Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

Amulet in the Form of a Ba as Human-Headed Bird. Reportedly from Saqqara, Egypt; Ptolemaic Period, 305?30 B.C.E. Gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise, steatite, 1¼ x 2 11/16 x ? in. (3.1 x 6.8 x 0.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.804E. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

Wedding Dress, circa 1860. United States. Silk, cotton. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the Jason and Peggy Westerfield Collection, 1969. 2009.300.923

Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

Booties, 1898. Probably France. Leather, silk, linen. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Cuyler T. Rawlins. 2009.300.1974a–d

 

Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, states: “Infinite Blue is an inspiring demonstration of how Brooklyn Museum curators can work collaboratively across departments to examine the rich and intertwined history of world cultures. They are rethinking the global collection through the lens of blue, in order to illuminate shared cultural themes through the ages, such as trade, spirituality, symbolism, and material innovation. The goal is not to homogenize the representation of different world cultures but rather to demonstrate points of confluence as well as points of great, if not irreconcilable, difference. Blue will provide a connective tissue with which to examine how the color has been manifest physically and symbolically in cultures as far afield as ancient Egypt, Asia, and Africa to nineteenth-century European and American painting and decorative arts, to the art of the present.”

The color blue is seen in a breadth of expressions throughout history, culture and the arts. Blue shows the diversity of our civilization. It is a testament to historical disparities, its use and symbolism often echoing more tangible realities. Yet blue also symbolizes what is most prized and venerated. It is associated with the perceived highest and best in a given time and culture. Blue is at once an account of global difference and connectedness. It is timeless and enduring, with as many forms and nuances as defined shades of this infinite color.

Infinite Blue will be shown at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City through November 18, 2017.

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by Jennifer Sauer
in Focus on the East Coast

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