Mads Gamdrup, Noise, 2012, ink-jet print mounted on Diasec, 86 5/8 x 70 7/8". From the series “Noise,” 2008–.

Mads Gamdrup, Noise, 2012, ink-jet print mounted on Diasec, 86 5/8 x 70 7/8". From the series “Noise,” 2008–.

Mads Gamdrup

Mads Gamdrup, Noise, 2012, ink-jet print mounted on Diasec, 86 5/8 x 70 7/8". From the series “Noise,” 2008–.

When Goethe attacked Newton in his 1810 Theory of Colors, he launched what he believed would be his life’s greatest work: a defense of the natural purity of white light against the rational mechanics of Newtonian optics. To Goethe, the color spectrum was not contained within each ray of light, as Newton had suggested, but was the result of light’s struggle against darkness as it fell upon objects and obstructions. Color was lumen opacatum, shaded light.

Goethe was wrong, of course. White light is indeed a spectrum, usually divided into six colors, and darkness is neither the enemy of light nor a productive element of color. But his observations laid the groundwork for Schopenhauer, who relocated the sensation of color from external factors (light rays, encountered objects) to the subjective, psychological, and physiological perception of the human eye. This history forms the background of Mads Gamdrup’s series “Noise,” 2008–, and, not unlike Goethe’s, his work is singularly preoccupied with the materiality of color, light, and darkness. For the past five years, the artist has been collecting color samples produced by digitally scanning printed photographs. Gamdrup has amassed a collection of more than five thousand distinct hues, mostly of the candy-colored variety. In “Noise,” as with his 2009 series “Monochromatic Color Noise,” the artist has assembled this debris into neat grids of luminous orbs.

As investigations of color, Gamdrup’s compositions are concerned with detail and repetition in a way that is more painterly than photographic. He cites Rothko and Klein as influences, though the works also bear an uncanny resemblance to Damien Hirst’s Spot paintings. As photographs, the images come as close as possible to provoking an immaterial, purely optical experience. They seem to blink, pulsate, and whirl. They come in and out of focus. They disorient the retina and are challenging to look at for more than a few seconds at a time. In short, they create a visual phenomenon that has a physical impact on the eye of the viewer, tricking it into trying to fasten on images that appear out of focus, but are not. This effect is achieved through the manipulation of levels of light and darkness within each blotch of color, creating a system wherein degrees of transparency steadily increase with distance from a saturated center. The work borrows certain formal elements from abstract painting, and in many respects Gamdrup, like Rothko and Klein, is investigating the properties of surface and two-dimensionality.

What’s curious about these works isn’t only what we’re seeing, or what our eyes think they are seeing—Gamdrup confirms Goethe’s well-known maxim “Optical illusion is optical truth” with stunning simplicity—but that they raise the question of whether there is some tether between these blinking fields of color and ordinary photographs. In Untitled, 2011, a diptych included in a group show on view at the same time as Gamdrup’s solo show, we are teasingly offered a peek behind his process, but it’s a frustrating one. Two photographs side by side: one, a factory building with a bluish sky above and water in foreground. Beside it, a grid of pinks, blues, purples, and greens. How the organic colors of the first might yield the kaleidoscopic noise of the second is not revealed, nor is the process by which these images move from representation to total abstraction.

Julie Cirelli