Tangled up in blue, a sublime color of mystery and distance

Before I get going, I recommend opening up this YouTube link to Derek Jarman's film "Blue" in a separate tab and letting it stream as you read this post.

I was in a Charles Village liquor store when I first noticed the perfect blue shade of the newly rebranded Pepsi label. At the time, I thought it was perhaps the store's fluorescent light hyping it up, but every time I see it in stores I'm drawn to its electric synthetic hue. That is, of course, what branding and marketing are for—using visual aesthetics (colors, imagery, typefaces) to make a product more desirable, and thus more marketable. There's something about particular shades of blue which are, in the right light and the right context, truly sublime.

It's impossible to talk about marketing and branding and art—and blue, especially—and not include Yves Klein. Klein's color, "International Klein Blue," which he invented in 1960 with paint-maker Edouard Adam and then used in numerous paintings, sculptures, and performances, is a deeply saturated blue that looks similar to ultramarine (and probably uses ultramarine pigments). Ultramarine has its own significance and history. It traditionally derives from the lapis lazuli stone, and was ground into a pigment and used in Egypt in the sixth century BC. A few centuries later, as it was traded and brought over to Italy, it became known as ultramarine (Latin: ultramarinus, or "beyond the sea") and later became symbolic as a "holy" color because the Virgin Mary's robe was usually painted with ultramarine.

At the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin about two years ago, amongst Rothkos and Stellas and Fontanas, I encountered a human-scale Klein painting, 'IKB 49.' Despite its rather modest scale and the reflective protective glass, I stood there for a long time with the painting, letting my eyes absorb the rich, glowing blue that fills the surface. The main distinction of IKB from other hues is that the pigment's binder is a synthetic resin, which makes the color matte and more dense-looking. I took a picture of the painting with my phone, and the color is not even close to accurate; it's more of a lavender.

Color perception is different for everyone, anyway. Before he passed away in 1994 due to complications from AIDS, British artist Derek Jarman released his last feature film, "Blue." As AIDS destroyed his body, one of the things he struggled with was his loss of sight. The film is, appropriately, a film you don't have to actually watch. Throughout its 80 minutes, a saturated shade of deep blue fills the screen as Jarman (and a few other actors, including Tilda Swinton) deliver his poetic, stream-of-consciousness associations with the color blue that zoom in and out from minute, everyday details to bigger-picture musings on life and death (and AIDS awareness), along with a soundtrack composed by Simon Fisher Turner.

"If I lose half my sight, will my vision be halved?" Throughout the film, many lines like this stand out; it's at once a little obvious, but he's also concerned about his inner vision, his way of interpreting the world. At another point, Jarman chronicles a visit to the doctor, who informs him of the lesions on his retinas: "blue flashes in my eyes." Then he jumps into a description of a blue butterfly swaying on a cornflower, "lost in the warmth of the blue heat haze . . . slow blue love of delphinium days." Each line seems weighted by his knowledge that he's getting closer to death, and at times he gets understandably anxious and morose. "The worst of the illness is the uncertainty. I've played this scenario back and forth each hour of the day for the last six years. Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits." When he slows down and ponders blue, his tone and the music change, and these blue moments are calming, like taking a deep breath.

Most, if not all, of the narration in "Blue" can also be found in Jarman's book "Chroma," in a chapter called 'Into the Blue.' Each chapter offers a similar exploration of colors through personal and historical anecdotes, beginning with white and ending with translucence. Though he was losing his eyesight, his obsession with color, and the images and memories that he'd associated with them, seem like a way for him to hold onto his vision. If he couldn't experience anything like them again visually, he could concretize them with words and sounds.

Blue is a color of mystery and distance. It's associated with the unfathomable depths in the sea, and the unfathomable infinity of the sky. I've always lived in coastal places, near large bodies of water, for which I have a simultaneous love and fear. They're powerful, destructive, and vast; their currents can pull you under with no warning. But there's something calming and rejuvenating about swimming, floating around in water, weightless—a feeling not dissimilar to staring into a large swath of blue paint. Every day, I wear a bracelet with blue stones that are shaped like teardrops. It used to belong to my grandma, who had clear blue eyes, like shallow water.

When I went back to Florida a few weeks ago, I bought blue nail polish at CVS. It's a couple of shades darker than Pepsi blue. On Christmas night, I found myself slightly drunk on the beach with my cousin, the tide teasing our toes. At night the gulf and sky are a dark, black void, with slight variations in tone, like one of Ad Reinhardt's black paintings. Dotting our peripheral vision, light from the hotels and condos that line those beaches pulls us out of that void, distinguishing the water from the sky.

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