Cops and Commercials: The Rainbow Reader Part V

Over the next month we’re excerpting Tessa Laird’s social history of the spectrum A Rainbow Reader. Last week in Part IV she wrote of green the color of love and seeking, not money, not jealousy.


BLUE, BLUE, WHY is it when I think of you I see, not fathomless sea or sky, but a policeman, barring the way of my imagination? Why is it, when I look at the blue flames of the peacock’s tail that I think, not of illumination, but of advertising, and not just of the flaming fruits, flowers and feathers of nature but of inane billboards and radio jingles? How is it that this most cosmic of colors is inflected with everyday drudgery, so much so that I want to call this chapter about iridescence – peacocks, paua shells and glowworms – the unfairly pedestrian “Cops and Commercials?”

Though I advocate for inclusivity, I’m inexorably attracted to the language and drama of fierce dualisms. As soon as I think of blue, I think “boy,” and the “girl” in me rises like Kundalini, the kohl-eyed girl-snake, and hisses. And this with the knowledge that the gender-assigned colors, blue for boys and pink for girls, is a relatively recent affectation (post-World War II), and that, in 1918, pink was being recommended for boys as the baby version of warlike, masculine red.

But why is blue so bloody hard? Why did it take me the better part of a year to start writing about my least favorite part of the spectrum? Is it because blue is always the sober sign of patriarchal law and order? Moses’ tablets, emblazoned with words of the bearded skyfather, were said to be made of blue sapphire (more likely lapis lazuli).[1] Even the wild Britons, stained blue with woad, are now forever associated with Mel Gibson in Braveheart, that self-appointed Christian watchdog and “sheriff of Malibu.” For many years, the uniforms worn by British bobbies were died blue with woad.[2] Law makers and law breakers – men paint themselves blue on both sides of the fence.


 Yves Klein’s trademarked International Klein Blue – a gorgeous, deep, powdery azure – not to mention his buying and selling of imaginary space, his tugging around naked women covered in blue paint, his passion for judo and his leap into the void – are color-coded masculine with the finality of a French noun. Klein is universally adored, but even one of his champions queries the necessity for IKB to be patented, in a bid to commodify transcendence.[3]

Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962.

Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962.

And yes, there’s Wilhelm Reich’s orgone, a blue cosmic energy which the radical psychoanalyst named for orgasm and organism, building person-sized silos for its accumulation; then there’s Jean Genet’s penchant for blue-clad policemen – even these sexy blues are still cold and steely like the reptilian sapphire of Paul Newman’s eyes.

William Gass wrote On Being Blue: A Philosophical Enquiry, an ineffably beautiful book about color and language, in which blue is the very color “consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell…”[4] Gass takes the porno-quotient of blue seriously, peppering his text with dicks, cunts and breasts, much of it in jest, such as a burlesque skit in which the vagina is a gondola, or reference to “Ellen’s merry whiskered friend.”[5] Gass has a hard-on for wordplay, even when those words recount the rape of the whoreship Cyprian (in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor) or the merciless beating of a woman black and blue (in John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig). In fact, of the latter, Gass says “This passage is impossible to over praise.”[6] Perhaps it’s because Gass wrote these black words on blue in 1976, “in a world of prick-skinning women.”[7] Following the dark insides of his sentences makes me feel blue. Finally he asks: “What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s end muff?”[8]


Even William Burroughs’ hallucinating blue in the Amazon seems cold and hard. Michael Taussig wrote about it in What Color is the Sacred? – in a chapter called “A Beautiful Blue Substance Flows Into Me.” Taussig is quoting Burrough’s elliptical description of a yagé or ayahuasca trip written up in Naked Lunch. But Burroughs transcendent blue still seems, in spite of his protestations against the One God Universe or OGU, to align with the blue of the masculine sky god rather than the green/brown/red of earth and blood. I cannot dissociate this blue from conformity and control.

Burroughs himself appears to agree with me. In Ah Pook is Here, a short, hallucinatory tale deciphering Mayan codices, the anti-hero is one Mr. Hart, a racist misanthropic miser of immortality that’s rather cruelly predicated on the mortality of others (the immortality achieved through killing others before their time…). Contempt affords him a “mineral calm,” and he is addicted to “a certain brain frequency, a little blue note.” This “cool blue frequency” results from “making hands tremble and sweat, from feeling the dear meritorious poor wriggle and slobber under his feet, from making people feel ugly and grinding their faces in it…” In junkie’s parlance, Burroughs writes, “Blue note fixes him right, just swim in it forever.”[9] As a man cowers like a frightened dog, “Mr. Hart lights up with blue junk cold and blue as liquid air.”[10] Air, blue and money, just as for Klein, are intertwined; Mr. Hart sits in a “blue mist of vaporized bank notes.”[11]

William Burroughs in the jungle.

William Burroughs in the jungle.

So what does it mean, then, when Burroughs writes that a “beautiful blue substance flows into me” when he ingests ayahuasca in the jungle? Is it the cool beauty of immortality predicated on the mortality of others? I don’t get that sharp whiff of masculinity from Terence McKenna’s goofy portrayal of his own time on those same drugs in that same dense jungle. He writes about blue, too, but about shifting, cavorting colors and “the diffraction of light that occurs in natural phenomena such as rainbows, peacock feathers, certain insects, and the colors that appear on surfaces of some metals during heating.” These colors are, he notes, “persistent motifs within a particular stage of the alchemical opus. The cauda pavonis (the peacock’s tail) is the brief stage that heralds the final whitening.”[12] McKenna, who collected big blue butterflies in his big white net, uses what he terms “exotic intuition” aided by continual ingestion of the potent jungle vine to associate iridescence in nature with the presence of hallucinogenic compounds.

Terence McKenna catching butterflies in the Amazon, early 1970s. Frontispiece to his book "True Hallucinations."

Terence McKenna catching butterflies in the Amazon, early 1970s. Frontispiece to his book “True Hallucinations.”

It’s strange, my ambivalence to blue, given that my favorite color is blue, or at least, a large part thereof: turquoise. It is neither blue nor green but the best parts of both. The populist color psychologist Faber Birren has something to say about the “finical nature” of people like me who prefer intermediate colors “such as blue-green,” for “average people like simple colors; when the preference is at all fastidious, the person is one who may not get along well with others.”[13]

Turquoise means Turkish in French, and like a lot of things ascribed to that country, turquoise wasn’t really Turkish at all, but probably Persian in origin.[14] I’m also thinking of the turkey bird, that symbol of the New World dressed up in syllables of the old. According to Christine E. Jackson in Peacock, it was the introduction of the turkey into Europe that saved the poor old peacock from many a pie. Suddenly, the rather tough peafowl from India was appreciated for its plumage, not its meat.

Natives of the Americas understand turkeys and turquoise. Mesoamericans knew that this opaque, alert and insistent stone was the property of the gods and was thought to emit smoke.[15] This sky-color, found in the earth, was also present in dense jungles, flitting through trees: the prized feathers of the quetzal bird. Righteous living, according to the Aztec, would transform the psyche into a quetzal feather of iridescent turquoise.[16]

On a different continent, the iridescent blue-green of the peacock feather drove Isaac Newton to distraction. He who had conquered the rainbow with a prism could not decode the magic of an Indian feather. While he guessed correctly that light might be refracting through layers, as it did on the floor of a glass factory covered in sparkling slivers, he didn’t have access to the theory of light travelling as a wave and its subsequent overlapping in peaks and troughs. Apparently, the eyes in the peacock’s tail feather are made of photonic crystals, and very large computers are required to break down this optical trickery.[17]

But why would you want to ‘break down’ optical trickery anyway? Why not immerse yourself in it, as with the Mayan warrior class who wore elaborate headdresses of quetzal feathers? They Mayans were one of many races that did not distinguish verbally between blue and green. Their word for blue-green (what comparative psychologists have agreed to call the awful “grue”[18]) was yax. Zippy, zappy yax “connotes a sense of freshness, newness, and, because of its vegetal basis, ‘moistness’ or, in aquatic settings, ‘clearness.’”[19] I agree with the Maya, because when aged twelve I was asked to name my favorite color and why (as part of a protracted pop psychology quiz – turns out all the answers had sexual connotations) I said turquoise because it was fresh.

In the same quiz I chose lake for my favorite water source, for similar reasons. I don’t think of lakes as being particularly turquoise, while there are those beguiling waters around coral reefs turquoise-brilliant and eternally shimmering, advertising Pacific Island retreats for tourists. Yet Henry David Thoreau, in his meticulously loving portrait of Walden Pond, exclaims that the lake keeps changing color, from blue to green and back, since “Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both.”[20] In the snow, it is “almost as green as grass.” From on high, it reflects more of the sky, from below, more of the sand and shrubbery. Thoreau works himself into an ecstatic state in the observance of this body of water, where he discerns “a matchless and indescribable light blue, such as watered or changeable silks and sword blades suggest more cerulean than the sky itself…”[21]

For a short window of time, the entire universe was announced to be fresh, yax, grue. Astronomers from John Hopkins University had figured it out. It was official: the universe was turquoise. I was pretty joyous when I read this, but by then the statement had already been retracted, and, in fact, the astronomers had got it wrong. The color of the universe turned out to be a tragically dull beige.[22] [23]

Jorge Luis Borges’ universe was blue-green. These were the only colors the blind writer could still see – his vision deserting him in later life. Strangely, it was black that he couldn’t see, as he learned to sleep in a “world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind.”[24] According to the Ancient Egyptians, this blue-green world is the backdrop against which the afterlife is staged,[25] and perhaps why the Aztecs, mixing indigo with local clay to make a turquoise blue, daubed their sacrificial victims in this color before cutting out their beating hearts.[26]

In the twilight world of the afterlife, what lights the paths of wandering souls? Fireflies and glowworms, I guess, which create light without the sun, from a chemical reaction: bioluminescence. This is light without heat, known as “cold light.” Even fungi, those most chthonian members of the vegetable kingdom, can be bioluminescent.[27]

In Aotearoa (the Māori’s far more poetic assignation for New Zealand), the Waitomo caves are full of stalactites and stalagmites and pale blue glowworms that hang unblinking, while American fireflies seem to be yellowish green, mobile and winking, like airplanes with their anti-collision strobe lights. I had all the majesty of Waitomo wrung out of it by a guide who insisted on pointing out which rock formations looked most like Donald Duck. I prefer to imagine it as Dr. F.W. Edwards saw it in 1924, a “radiance of such a massed body of glowworms as cannot be found anywhere else in the world, utterly incalculable as to numbers and merging their individual lights in a nirvana of pure sheen.”[28]

The Waitomo Caves

The Waitomo Caves illuminated with their “radiance of such a massed body of glowworms.”


The morning star is personified variously as Lucifer, Phosphorus, and Quetzalcoatl (a serpent sporting the turquoise plumes of the quetzal). It was the residue of phosphorus matches that jailed Māori prophet Te Kooti rubbed on his hands before preaching to fellow prisoners on the Chatham Islands, gaining their devotion and effecting a successful escape. Te Kooti had been wrongfully imprisoned in unsanitary conditions in 1866 along with other ‘rebel’ Māori numbering near 300. With what is now understood to be tuberculosis and at death’s door, Te Kooti had many visions, including “the flame of light” which appeared upon his hand “but did not burn.”[29] Like bioluminescence, which radiates light without heat, Te Kooti’s hand glowed like the glowworms in the Waitomo caves as he preached in the darkness, promising a nirvana of pure sheen to his followers. Ringatu, the upraised hand, became the name of this religious movement that used the Christian scriptures of their captors against the captors themselves, as a vindication of their freedom from bondage and their place as a chosen people.

A nirvana of pure sheen describes another source of iridescence from New Zealand: the paua shell. Paua, like opal, is no fixed color and all colors. It is like the shimmering afterbirth of a cow in a grassy paddock at dawn, like a rainbow slick of oil on wet asphalt. Paua are so common in this land, that their shells have never been prized for personal adornment among Māori, compared to the venerated pounamu or jade. For practical purposes, slivers of paua shell were used for fishing lures. The prevalent use of paua shell in the decorative arts of the Māori is to represent the eye in ancestral carvings.

Interestingly, paua shells and peacock feathers – examples of blue-green iridescence across continents, species, and cultures – both represent the eye (and in countries where human eye color is neither blue nor green, but predominantly brown). The paua’s heavenly hues are “incidental,” a cosmic accident based on infinitesimally thin transparent layers in the shell which create a multilayer reflection.[30] Paua’s exterior is a mucky brown that blends well with its rocky environs. It has no use for the beautiful colors it accidentally manufactures in its interior. And this blind creature bequeaths its empty shells to a people who use them to give sight to their ancestors.

The peacock dazzles potential mates, shaking his tail-feathers to effectively double the number of eyespots.[31] This is all in the aid of sexual selection; male peafowl never use their impressive trains for defense, indeed, their long tails make them more vulnerable to predation. Peacocks have been the bane of science: not only was Newton flummoxed by the physical properties of their feathers’ hue, but Darwin couldn’t reconcile his survival-of-the-fittest theory with the bird’s encumbering tail, and wrote that the very “sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.”[32] He later solved this quilled conundrum with the theory of sexual selection.

The writer John Berger corresponded with the artist John Christie about colors. At one stage, Christie extols the virtues of Mother of Pearl, which he writes is “as brilliant as peacock feathers and as temporary as the color of soap bubbles.”[33] The opalescence of the shell comes “not from pigments but from the interference of light refracted through prismatic crystals of Aragonite.”[34] He finds a dusty old shell used as a dish for buttons and pins – green abalone from California. From the photo, it looks like New Zealand paua, but then I guess these creatures are all related via the vast Pacific, and (reluctantly) that not everything originates from my tiny island nation.


At 19 or 20, with a boyfriend and some friends, I took magic mushrooms on a beach. I can’t remember where it was, north or south, but it was deserted and rocky, and full of tide pools which were being gently, beguilingly lashed by waves. It was embarrassingly sexual – suppurating orifices, fringed with pubic weed, pulsating with tidal pleasure. I felt I shouldn’t be watching this salt-tinged cosmic orgasm. But then I became aware of singing. Weirdly, it was an advertising jingle. The sea and sky, the pulsating orifices and lapping waves were all singing, “Buy me, buy me, buy me” in the most seductive, breathy tones.

I was dumbfounded by this debasement of the wild, pure forces of nature into the man-made world of commodity. I started to wonder if radio waves were being decoded by my brain, and my hyper-sensitive state had made it possible to hear what would normally require a transistor. I had heard of people picking up radio broadcasts on their metal fillings. Perhaps something similar was happening here?

Later though, I started to wonder if advertising was natural, not cultural. Just think of the strutting peacock (and the number of times in India and other parts of Asia in which that bird becomes a brand, for fireworks, matches, and other incendiary delights). The peacock has much in common with another creature of iridescent blue advertising: the glowworm. After all, sex sells. Glowworms and fireflies have limited time to mate, so much so that, a friend reported, in the woods of upstate New York, several fireflies attempted sexual congress with the glowing screen of his laptop as he wrote into the night. The Greek word for gadfly, oistros gives us estrus – to be ‘in season’ or ‘in heat.’ Think of butterflies and flowers and hummingbirds and quetzals, and us, in our peacock threads, our rouge and our labial lipsticks, as unabashedly suggestive as the pubic rock pools, just begging to be stroked and poked.

Peacock brand fireworks, explosions of beauty, sparks of light.

Peacock brand fireworks, explosions of beauty, sparks of light.

In the West, the peacock is associated with the sin of pride, but in the East the peacock gets a better deal. Because peacocks eat snakes, they are believed to provide an antidote to poison, both literally and figuratively, as in the poisonous human emotions of anger and greed.[35] Gass calls blue “the godlike hue”[36] and, indeed, immortals often come in blue garb – think of peacock-feather-crested Krishna, who, in his rasalila, or dance-game with the gopis (cowgirls), assumed multiple forms. Each enchanted gopi thought the god was hers alone, and each iteration of the divine being varied “from dark blue to hyacinth.”[37]

Buddha, meanwhile, has “almost violet hair,”[38] while Shiva is often represented with a blue throat. When gods and demons churned the milky ocean to create amrita, nectar, a side effect was deadly poison that would destroy the universe. Shiva was the only being who could swallow and contain the poison, but it turned his throat blue, so he became known as Nilakantha, the Blue-Necked One. Roberto Calasso imagined the moment young Parvati, Shiva’s consort, first saw the efflorescence of the god’s throat, when “all her desire had concentrated on the tip of her tongue, which longed to lick that blue stain, even if it meant splitting in two, as the snake’s tongue did.”[39] Some traditions hold that it was the peacock who swallowed the poison instead of Shiva, and that by “absorbing the very poison he remains impervious to” the bird becomes a “toxic lord of protection.”[40] Coincidentally or not, the throat chakra, Vishuddha, is blue in color, and represents clear communication, unpoisoned by falsehood. Those unable to communicate what they feel are destined to suffer ailments of the throat, or speech impediments.[41]


Optically, blue is hard to fathom, yet fathoms below the sea’s surface, it’s all there is to see. As one submerges deeper into the big blue, the sun’s spectrum becomes shorter. First, red drops out of the environment, then orange, violet, yellow. At 300 feet, only blue and green remain, then at around 650 feet, even the green drops out, leaving blue the only color at the bottom of the ocean. Zoologist Andrew Parker, who writes about the evolution of vision, and of the myriad colors in nature, met a scientist who photographed the bottom of the ocean without a camera flash. “His thirty-five-millimeter slide lit the projector screen blue; pure, uninterrupted blue.”[42]

Derek Jarman made a film called Blue, (1993) which filled the cinema screen with that color, pure and uninterrupted. He was plunging, not into the depths of the sea, but into blindness, and eventual death. He knew this, as he was dying of complications from AIDS, and like Borges, started to inhabit the blue-green haze.

Jarman’s goodbye to the world of light was a book on color, called Chroma, and a feature film that was simply this, Blue, against which he projected the soundtrack of his thoughts. Descriptions of pain, fear, resentment, of mourning the loss of lovers. Blue is both a requiem the artist composed for himself, and for the entire homosexual holocaust of the 80s and 90s. But it is also a requiem for the human race, and our beautiful blue planet, which is ebbing, fading into irreversible illness just as he is. In coming to terms with his own encroaching death, he is, at least, one step ahead of the rest of us. His parting shot is a reminder that we all die: “I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.”[43]

Not just at the bottom of the ocean, but in the depths of night, is where blue rules supreme: before sunrise, blue is the first color to appear.[44] It is also the last color to be identified in human visual development, at around sixteen months after birth.[45] Strangely, many babies are born with bluish eyes that then turn green, brown, or grey, as though the blue ebbs from the eyes in order to be reflected back to the brain via the optic nerve: they give up looking blue in order to see blue. Those that retain blue eyes are favored, as if their eyes were windows into the ocean, or the sky, or even fragments of Moses’ sapphire tablets.

Parallel to the development of our vision in infancy, our species’ love affair with the color blue has been a comparatively recent historical development. In Blue: The History of a Color, Michel Pastoureau charts the changing fortunes of the color that many races didn’t even bother to name. Ancient Romans disdained blue because of its association with barbarians who smeared themselves with woad.[46] In the late middle ages, however, advances in technology and trade led to improvements in blue stained glass, enamels, paints and dyes.[47] By the 14th century, woad was known as ‘blue gold,’ and violent conflicts between merchants of madder and woad emerged.[48] In Thuringia, madder merchants sponsored the depiction of blue devils in stained-glass, while in the madder capital of Magdeburg, hell was painted blue in frescoes, the better to associate the rival color with eternal damnation.[49]

Amy Butler Greenfield, historian of blue’s biggest opposition, red, writes that after the French Revolution, blue soared in popularity, and was identified with traits as various as republicanism, romanticism, loyalty and respectability.[50] Throughout the twentieth century, our love affair with blue continued, and it is frequently named the favorite color of European and North American adults.[51]

Jarman writes a ditty about blue, less an advertising jingle than a shaman’s chant, travelling from one level of experience to another. “Blue protects white from innocence/ Blue drags black with it/ Blue is darkness made visible.”[52] Blue protects white from purity by staining the hem of its mantle, by dragging darkness into the light, and giving darkness its own color, before sunrise or at sunset, the last color we see before we dissolve into darkness. Maria Schindler, a disciple of Goethe’s color system, notes that the ancient words for black and blue are often murkily entwined: “Nile-blue is a word much used today in Asia. Nila was the ancient word for black. Hiuan, the old Chinese word for black, today means blue. In the Nordic languages blaa meant black. Bla-mahd was a black man. Blaa is the Danish blue today. It is the German Blau, the English blue, which again is allied to black.[53]

D.H. Lawrence looked at a tiny, star-shaped blue flower and saw, not a reflection of the firmament, but the passageway to Hades. He had just been diagnosed with TB and, like Jarman, chose blue to light his way. But what a dark light!

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking
blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness
spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the
sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s
dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dio, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale
lamp gives off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.[54]


Newton, as much an alchemist as a scientist, decided to divide the seamless color spectrum into seven distinct hues. He might have chosen five or six, but settled on seven because of the seven notes of the diatonic musical scale, as well as the days of creation, and the (then visible) seven planets of the solar system.[55] In searching for a seventh color, Newton chose indigo, which, in 1666 had a far greater presence in popular consciousness as an important commodity than it does today, when even blue jeans are colored with synthetic dyes.

Newton is the symbol for scientific rationality, but also for market forces, not least because in later life he became Great Britain’s official Master of the Mint. Within months of this appointment, Newton had become the terror of the London underworld, convicting counterfeiters and taking a personal interest in their trials and eventual hangings.[56] There’s a delightful symmetry in Newton, at the end of his rainbow path, sitting on a pot of gold (at least, the silver coins of the London Mint). He even invested venture capital in the South Seas Company which came to be known as the “South Seas Bubble,” and lost his entire fortune.

Victoria Finlay points out that “indigo gatecrashed the rainbow party” at the time of the Great Plague, and that this was no coincidence.[57] London lost around 100,000 people; universities closed down and thousands of students were sent home. Newton was one of them, left to his own devices in his hometown of Lincolnshire. Perhaps it was the somber tenor of the times as much as indigo’s commodity status that inspired Newton to gift this darkest of hues a place in the celestial bow? Twelve years earlier, Emperor Ferdinand III had dubbed indigo “Teufelsfarbe,” or the devil’s color, primarily because imports were putting traditional woad growers out of business. As Jarman said, “Blue drags black with it.”


In spite of blue’s masculine associations, working with indigo is said to reduce male potency.[58] In some parts of Asia, men are prohibited from working the dyers vats, which are associated with childbirth. Finlay catalogues many of the stories surrounding the sacred but slippery indigo vat, of vats suffering from depression, or having their color stolen by an unborn child. Her favorite tale from Morocco encourages dyers to tell lies, literally to “spread blackness” in the community and thus encourage the indigo to darken.[59] And I think of Newton’s insistence that indigo make the rainbow guest list, like a bad fairy at a Christening party, and I wonder what kind of imagination sees blackened blue in the ethereal bow in the sky? Thomas Pynchon offers a clue – it’s only after huffing “Leunagasolin” that one sees “a long rainbow, mostly indigo… indigo and Kelly green.”[60] Pynchon’s noir psychedelia offers an inverted reality where the rainbow is negative, a lunar ‘other side.’

So Newton, the Apollonian scientist, left a chink in the rainbow with his indigo-colored white lie. His creative license allows for a gateway, an opening, into another world; a firefly world, in which the rules of his own invention, like gravity, might be for a little while, suspended.

Next week Tessa Laird delves into purple, the final color of the spectrum and one suffused with death.

[1] Graham, F. Lanier, The Rainbow Book (Berkeley, London: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in association with Shambhala), 1975, 150.

[2] Balick, Michael J., and Paul Alan Cox, Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany (New York: Scientific American Library), 1996, 124.

[3] In “Monochromatic Interventions: Yves Klein and the Utopia of Spectacular Sensibility” Nuit Banai writes that: “The advent of International Klein Blue, the industrially produced ultramarine pigment that Klein claimed as his rightful property, is an almost spontaneous manifestation of the capitalist system of fear, one in which freedom and paranoia go hand in hand.” Alison, Jane (ed.), Colour After Klein: Re-thinking Colour in Modern and Contemporary Art, (London: Barbican Art Gallery: Black Dog Publishing), 2005, 42. Klein’s vainglorious act presaged such atrocities as “Vodafone Red” and a Dutch telecommunications company who tried to patent magenta, only to open themselves up to ridicule from the art and design communities, see: Lava Design, Free Magenta, Accessed 31 October, 2012.

[4] Gass, William, On Being Blue (1976), (Boston, Mass.: David R. Godine), 2007, 57.

[5] Ibid, 21.

[6] Ibid, 31.

[7] Ibid, 51.

[8] Ibid, 85.

[9] Burroughs, William S. Ah Pook is Here, and Other Texts (London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun Press), 1979, 37.

[10] Ibid, 39.

[11] Ibid, 40.

[12] McKenna, Terence, True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise (San Francisco: Harper Collins), 1994, 142-143.

[13] Birren, Faber, Colour Psychology and Colour Therapy: A Factual Study of the Influence of Colour on Human Life (New Hyde Park, New York: University Books), 1961, 172. But then, Birren’s ‘factual study’ also includes a description of the characteristic colours of the (and I quote) “aura of the savage”!

[14] Finlay, Victoria, Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (London: Sceptre), 2002, 474.

[15] Saunders, Nicholas J., “A Dark Light: Reflections on Obsidian in Mesoamerica.” World Archaeology Vol. 33, No. 2 (Oct., 2001), 221.

[16] Saunders, Nicholas J., “Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492,” World Archaeology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Oct., 1999), 245.

[17] Parker, Andrew, Seven Deadly Colours: The Genius of Nature’s Palette and How it Eluded Darwin (London: Free Press), 2005, 75.

[18] Houston, Stephen, et al. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Colour (Austin: University of Texas Press), 2009, 40.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Or Life in the Woods (New York: Dover Publications), 1995, 114-115.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Goggin, James, “Now in Full Colour.” Dot Dot Dot 6, Winter/Spring 2002/2003, 23-33. Astronomer Karl Glazebrook calls the colour “cosmic latte.” Finlay, 479.

[23] [Editor’s note, poet Maggie Nelson also writes of the universe turning out to be beige not blue not turquoise in her essay Bluets, which Laird hadn’t read when she wrote her book]

[24] Theroux, Alexander, The Secondary Colours: Three Essays (New York: Henry Holt & Co.), 1996, 222-223.

[25] Parker, Andrew, In the Blink of an Eye: How Vision Sparked the Big Bang of Evolution (New York: Perseus), 2003, 171.

[26] Finlay, 368.

[27] Parker, Seven Deadly Colours, 98.

[28] Ibid, 99.

[29] Binney, Judith, Redemption Songs: A Life of the Nineteenth-century Maori Leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (Auckland: Auckland University Press; Bridget Williams Books), 1995, 69.

[30] Parker, In the Blink of an Eye, 160.

[31] Ibid, 107.

[32] Jackson, 20.

[33] Berger, John, and John Christie, I Send You This Cadmium Red (Barcelona: ACTAR), 2000, unpaginated. Justin Paton wrote that Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s Soap Bubbles (after 1739) were “an illusion that has been threatening to dissolve for the past 270 years.” Paton, Justin, How to Look at a Painting (Wellington: Awa Press), 2006, 61. Goethe wrote about chocolate bubbles, and Michael Taussig wrote about Goethe as well as the magical cauldron of the indigo vat, changing colour like a cosmic churning of the milky ocean in What Colour is the Sacred? And all of these magical, iridescent substances have churned an inky ocean of words about colour, massed, messy, tossing, contradictory, and bottomless.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Jackson, 83.

[36] Gass, 69.

[37] Calasso, Roberto, Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. Translated by Tim Parks. (New York: Vintage/Random), 1999,


[38] Ibid, 352.

[39] Ibid, 234-235.

[40] Davis, Erik. “The Cult of the Peacock Angel.” Strange Attractor, Journal 4, London, 2011, 203.

[41] And yet in Dutch, “the blue cloak (‘de blauwe Huyck’) is the attribute of liars, hypocrites, deceivers, and traitors”, while the expression “Dat zijn maar blauwe bloempjes” (literally “those are nothing but little blue flowers”) is pejorative; it describes not fairy tales, but actual lies.” Pastoureau, Michel, Blue: The History of a Colour (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 2001, 203.

[42] Parker, Seven Deadly Colours, 231-232.

[43] Jarman, Derek, Blue, Estate of Derek Jarman, 1993, Accessed 11 April, 2011.

[44] Kristeva, Julia, “Giotto’s Joy,” Desire in Language (New York: Columbia University Press), 1980, 225.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Pastoureau, 26-27.

[47] Greenfield, Amy Butler, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Colour of Desire, (London: Doubleday), 2005, 256.

[48] Pastoureau, 64.

[49] Ibid. We haven’t come very far, with our Pepsi and Coke rivalry, New Zealand’s National/Labour, or the United States’ Democrat/Republican yin-yangery, like the South Korean flag – the eternal drama of dualism.

[50] Greenfield, 256.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Jarman, Blue.

[53] Schindler, Maria, Goethe’s Theory of Colour: Applied by Maria Schindler (Sussex: New Knowledge Books), 1970, 22.

[54] Lawrence, D.H., “Last Poems”, 1932. This excerpt found in Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield, Gardens of Delight (London: Cassell), 1964, 72.

[55] Theroux, Alexander, The Primary Colours: Three Essays (London: Paparmac), 1994, 34-35; Ball, 26; Birren, 70. Birren lists Newton’s specific associations of colours with musical notes in his section on synaesthesia: “red for C, orange for D, yellow for E, green for F, blue for G, indigo for A, violet for B” (163).

[56] Strathern, Paul, Newton and Gravity (Arrow Books, London), 2010, 75.

[57] Finlay, 375.

[58] Ibid, 148.

[59] Finlay, 374. I think again of the Dutch blue flowers “spreading lies.”

[60] Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York, Penguin Books), 2000, 532.

Tessa Laird

About Tessa Laird

Tessa Laird is a writer, artist and sometime lecturer who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. She completed a Doctorate of Fine Arts at University of Auckland in 2012 and published her resulting writings on color A Rainbow Reader the following year, link. Tessa was part of Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas at Auckland Art Gallery in 2013 and has written for Art New Zealand, Art and Australia, and numerous catalogs.
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