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Vance Kirkland and Synethesia
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Vance Kirkland and Synethesia

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Painter Vance Kirkland was synesthetic--when he heard sounds, he interpreted them as color. Read about how that affected his art.

Painter Vance Kirkland was synesthetic--when he heard sounds, he interpreted them as color. Read about how that affected his art.

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Vance Kirkland and Synethesia Presentation Transcript

  • 1. NOTES ABOUT KIRKLAND’S SYNESTHESIA By Hugh Grant Vance Kirkland once said to me, when we were discussing his synesthetic abilities: “I can hear color”. Another time he commented, “When I hear music, I see color. The compositions of certain composers suggest exciting color combinations and shades of color to me. 20 th century composers that have some dissonance in their works, such as Bartok, Mahler, Prokofiev, Ives, Milhaud and Debussy, trigger and stimulate the palette to which I am drawn. The works of 19 th century Romantic composers, many of which I love very much, also suggest colors, but not the combinations I want in my paintings.” As further examples, Kirkland responded synesthetically to the dissonance of “Winter” in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Only a few other Baroque compositions or composers sparked what he sought, including some parts of operas by Cavalli with highcounter tenors. His color palette was stimulated by parts of Wagner’s Das Rheingold but not Die Götterdammerung, although he loved the latter even more than the former as entertainment. In the 1978 catalog by the Denver Art Museum, for Kirkland’s retrospective Vance Kirkland Fifty Years, he answered a question about his ability to transfer between music and color and his approach to color and composition in his paintings: Q. Does your knowledge of and great appreciation for music have any discernible effect on your painting? For instance, do you feel a relationship between the tonalities of sound and color? A. I have always interpreted sound as color. Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Ives all explored new tonalities that aided me in transposing sounds into colors. Q. Your work has always been closely allied with natural phenomena. Does direct observation still have a part in your recent work? A. Probably everything I see or hear has an influence on my work: a night sky, sun, clouds, as well as a sense of energy in space. Q. Are your paintings preconceived or do they largely develop as the result of the process? A. I limit myself to those color combinations which seem to vibrate and can, therefore, form illusions of floating mysteries or explosions of energy in space. Because the works tell me what to do and are always forcing me to invent new shapes and movements, I can hardly wait until I find out, after the work is completed, what has happened. Q. Should an artist consciously strive for the “tradition of the new,” or should originality evolve naturally as the result of the creative process? A. I have never tried to be new or shocking, and if any kind of originality has been evident, then the ideas evolved out of my own imagination. Q. Frequently your use of color sets up tensions and vibrations. Are these effects consciously programmed to stimulate predictable responses in the eye? A. At present I am working with around forty or fifty colors of full intensities that make it possible to achieve hundreds of tensions and vibrations. Using cadmium scarlet as a vibrating, hot color against various cooler reds has forced me to use even stronger colors to create a visually more active canvas. In a recorded interview I did of Vance, just after the 1978 Denver Art Museum catalog, and published in the 1978 Genesis Gallery, NY catalog, he remarked: “The rhythm of nature was something that apparently, penetrated me a great deal because many of my paintings were concerned with the rhythm I found in the Colorado landscape even.” I wrote a two-page chapter on The Importance of Music to Kirkland and Its Unconscious Relationship to His Paintings, which can be found in the 1997 Kirkland catalog for the National Museum of Art—Lithuania (pp. 46-47). Famous people who were and are synesthetic include artists Marsden Hartley and David Hockney, composer Alexander Scriabin, author Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita – 1955, Pale Fire – 1962) and the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman. The regionally renowned jazz pianist Louise Duncan was synesthetic. I had made a number of recordings of her, which resulted in a record with Charlie Burrell on bass (who played with Earl “Fatha” Hines), Gus Johnson on drums (one of Count Basie’s drummers), and also Lee Arellano on drums (one of Dave Brubeck’s drummers). Kirkland enjoyed jazz in addition to classical music and opera, as did Louise Duncan. One evening at his studio, they got into a discussion of music that led to a fascinating and intense discussion about synesthesia. Both
  • 2. of them were so relieved to find some one else who was synesthetic and could understand intuitively about that ability. THE STRAPS OVER THE TABLE In Kirkland’s Workroom To create large, abstract paintings with his unique oil and water mixtures and later dots, Vance Kirkland had to place them flat on a table. Since he then could not reach the center of a painting (he was 5’2”), nor could he bend over a painting for 10 hours a day, he lay across straps that were strung from the ceiling, about 1 ½ feet above the painting. He would already have attached skateboards to the painting’s wooden stretcher (see skateboard on table) and could take a cane or hook and pull the painting back and forth. He also could lie in either direction in the straps. A third reason he wanted to float over his canvases, which mostly depict imaginary nebulas and galaxies, was that he did not like to think of his paintings as directional, as having a bottom. “There is no up or down in space,” Kirkland stated, “and this is as close as I’ll ever get to being an astronaut.” For the same directional reason, he hated to sign his paintings. He would say, “By signing this abstract painting, I am condemning it to be hung one way for the rest of its existence.” Numerous Kirkland paintings are signed twice, along different edges, and he encouraged collectors and museums to hang them all different ways, regardless of the position of his signature. If it was a square painting, Kirkland would sometimes hang it in a diamond position. More information about Vance Kirkland is available at kirklandmuseum.org VANCE KIRKLAND AND SYNESTHESIA Perhaps the strangest aspect about Kirkland’s paintings is that many of his color combinations are derived from classical music. Kirkland was synesthetic meaning, as he applied it, that he could hear color. While he could sense color when he listened to most music, only certain classical compositions with moderate but not extreme dissonance would provide Kirkland with a desired alloy of colors. In 1978, Kirkland responded in an interview: “I have always interpreted sound as color. Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Ives all explored new tonalities that aided me in transposing sounds into colors.” In addition to orchestral music, Kirkland derived color schemes from chamber music, particularly the six string quartets by Bartok, and from operas with prominent high voices of coloratura sopranos and tenors, such as the composers Bellini and Donizetti as well as modern operas by Richard Strauss, Bartok, Berg, Britten, Janáček, Hindemith and others. Kirkland would rarely listen to music at the studio while he was creating about the first third of a painting, so as not to be distracted with other music that conveyed different colors than those of the painting in progress. He would listen to compositions at home, at night, write notes on scraps of paper when he heard passages that produced ideas for color schemes in his paintings, and then go to his studio and paint with the inspiration that music and his own imagination gave him.
  • 3. Additional composers from whom Kirkland derived colors include Stravinsky, Ravel, Piston, Debussy, Hanson, Milhaud, Scriabin, Carter and Nielsen, among others.