Detail, Lunar Synthesis by John D'Agostino
The Rising of Invus

“Color: humiliated, defeated, prepares its revenge over the long years.”

Yves Klein



WORDS BY: John D’Agostino


Devil’s Dyes


Since 1903, the Crayola crayon company has had an evolving array of nomenclatures, from Granny Smith Apple, Asparagus and Cerulean, to Apricot, Pink Sherbert and Canary. In 1962, Crayola’s apt but disturbing color ‘Flesh’ was renamed into ‘Peach’ – in response to horrified complaints.

Today, in a world full of plentiful artificial dyes, it is harder to truly appreciate the mysterious business that once was the world of color. But, back in the day, color was full of great secrets, prohibitions and tragic histories. The ghosts of pigments past are a lurid expose of suffering, murder and tragedy. A few examples for each hue will suffice.

Euclydian Abyss by John D'Agostino

John D’Agostino, Euclydian Abyss, 2010.

In 1609, Henry IV of France imposed the death penalty on the use of Indigo, the “deceitful and injurious dye.” Of course, many colors were originally made from crops in the colonies that relied on forced human labor and slavery. Protestant Black, the well known color of the Puritans, was banned when the British did not have access to the Spanish’s colonies of logwood dyeing plantations. Perhaps the cruelest of the colors was the incredibly poisonous Lead White, whose notorious toxicity did not sway artists from use. Carmine Red, used for cardinal’s frocks and young ladies’ lips, was literally made of blood – from the crushing of the white insect the Cochineal beetle, a secret which the Spanish jealously guarded for years. Stradivari, the master violin maker – made a special orange varnish – Tiger Varnish – that to this day is still unknown, perhaps the reason why his instruments play so beautifully.

Scheele’s Green, invented in the late 18th century, replaced all older green pigments. It became popular for use with wallpaper, brightening the rooms of many schoolchildren. Unfortunately, it was made from arsenic. In the 19th century it was used as a food dye for sweets, by the 1930′s, it was recognized as a poison and insecticide. Many speculate that Napolean himself may have been sickened by it when in exile in the luxurious green rooms of St. Helena.

Tyrian (Royal) Purple suggested the height of luxury, wealth and prestige. To extract this color, every toga required the deaths of thousands of shellfish, leading to the extinction of certain species of the murex. Eventually the Byzantine emperors banned the common people from wearing purple, and so the saying goes, “born in purple.” Bone Black was made from the scraps of the slaughterhouse – cattle or lamb thighs mostly. And what was really in Egyptian Brown or ‘Mummy Brown’ one must wonder, although we do know the Egyptians wrapped their mummies in canvas. It’s not a terrible leap to imagine that at some time in human history remains may have provided for an excellent hue. And so perhaps we should all be giving our pigments a proper burial, just in case.

“Space, outside ourselves, invades and ravishes things.”

– Rilke

John D'Agostino, Lunar Synthesis, 2010.

John D’Agostino, Lunar Synthesis, 2010.



When the straight line tells the truth, color tells beautiful lies. So thought Yves Klein: dreamer, alchemist, performance artist and painter. A self-described proprietor of color, Klein claimed that his first work of art was made when he ‘appropriated’ blue straight out of the sky. As an artist who worked in intense color fields for years, Yves felt that color was unappreciated – forgotten, ignored, and rarely used to its fullest powers. Whereas the line, on the other hand, got too much credit. The line, he said, cuts through space as a ‘tourist’ – it is always in transit. The line ‘expresses’ itself by dividing and separating, making limits. But color, Klein thought, is open, a true inhabitant of space. If the line cuts space, then color impregnates space. It is space. And so this was Yves’ revenge, the domain of color. To make works where color predominated, and reigned supreme. As he said:

“Through color, I experience a feeling of complete identification with space, I am truly free…”


Jean Luc Marion described this kind of experience, this “rising of invus,” as a saturated phenomenon: an extra-dimensional kind of space. By overwhelming our ability to represent or categorize what we are seeing, a saturated phenomena has the ability to create atmosphere and presence. As he describes, “the artwork becomes a unique locus in which time, space, and the horizontal field of vision are compressed into a confined arena.” Scientifically speaking, the eye can only distinguish the wavelengths between 0.00038 and 0.00075 millimeters, barely scratching the surface. And yet, these little differences are everything. With a myriad of nuances, color calls attention to surface while also colliding with deep space. Its being is in infinity. Colors overwhelm us, envelop us, invade us.

In the dark – when it is even more strange – is when color really gets interesting. Many a color is re-discovered in the dark. Colors on the verge are particularly dangerous, for they are not quite the same. Never one color, but many. Colors at the ends of the spectrum move and shift. They are on the threshold of existence. Perhaps this is why many of Yves Klein’s colors, including the one he named for himself – International Klein Blue, verge occasionally just towards the dark of the spectrum. They confound, confuse – and delight. The mystery and power of color – as he reminds us – is to be marginalized, ignored, and forgotten at our own peril.

Close your eyes. Now rub them. Even with no light whatsoever – strange colors appear out of the darkness. No wonder then a child might ask his mother: “What is it that I see when my eyes are closed?” In the dark lies the forgotten colors of the crayola box. What names we must invent for the impossible colors to come, still remains to be discovered.   •

abyss catalog 275This text first appeared as part of the paper The Abyss Gazes Also: The Pains and Pleasures of Seeing in the Dark by John D’Agostino, 2012.
View the full paper online here.
Purchase Hardcopy here.