Saturday, April 15, 2023

Colored Objects by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In his “Introduction” to the 1970 edition of Goethe's Theory of Colors, Deane B. Judd humorously stated that “In view of the fact that Goethe's explanation of color makes no physical sense at all, one might wonder why it is considered appropriate to reissue this English translation." The same might be asked of my current printing of “Colored Objects,” a chapter from Goethe's larger Theory. The answer to both conundra is the same. Even if Goethe's scientific conclusions lacked substantive merit, the chromatic phenomena he describes in Theory of Colors are observably true. Goethe was able to accurately describe the way in which color is experienced and the ways in which colors interact with and elicit one another. It was only the scientific explanation as to why these phenomena occur that he could not quite knit together. Goethe's continued relevance as a color theorist, then, is for artistic and poetic, rather than scientific, pursuits. It is not likely that Goethe would have appreciated this assessment. As he wrote to J. P. Eckermann in 1827, “I never observed the natural world for poetic reasons.” Whether this assertion was an example of bombast or a failing of self-knowledge is irrelevant. We can all benefit from Goethe's poetic approach to science. 


When considering how to illustrate Colored Objects, it seemed dubious to use diagrammatic or scientific imagery. Rather than illustrating the disproven science, why not make a book in which the phenomena Goethe describes are able to be experienced by readers as they page through the book? In order for this to work, though, the pace of the reading needed to be slowed down, as each experiment requires time to produce the desired results. This is an important point that Goethe never fully clarifies: for a red disk to elicit a green one, as in the first experiment, the red disk must be viewed in focus for at least twenty seconds before turning the page. Then, after a few seconds, a green disk will appear in its place on the white page. To help slow the reading down, the text is set in my Rapid Stencil typeface, an alphabet of capital letters that conveys a sense of Goethe’s declarative style and marries well with the highly graphic illustrations, while taking slightly longer to read than a traditional upper- and lowercase typeface. In this slowing down of the text the reader is further able to appreciate the beauty of Goethe's scientific “method.”  


Colored Objects is printed on Rives BFK and a variety of other papers, with a number of laser-cut parts (some of which move or can be moved) and two pairs of paper glasses with tinted lenses. The laser cutting was done at Makerspace NYC; the glasses were made by American Paper Optics. Emily Martin provided invaluable insights and technical instruction; and her students at the University of Iowa Center for the Book helped come up with an innovative solution to a challenging illustration. The book was designed and bound by Russell Maret and printed by him and Sarah Moody in an edition of seventy-five copies. 


               A quick gif of the book's content


                  The prototype of the book's slipcase.