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
Q. Should an artist consciously strive for the “tradition of the new,”
or should originality evolve naturally as the result of the creative
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
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,
“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
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.
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
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
More information about Vance Kirkland is available at
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.
Additional composers from whom Kirkland derived colors
include Stravinsky, Ravel, Piston, Debussy, Hanson, Milhaud,
Scriabin, Carter and Nielsen, among others.