top of page


Charles A. Riley - Color Codes


New York



In Jaime Franco's case, at first glance the paintings seem quite colorless and leaden. Franco's exploration of color in the depth experience of gray places him in a great tradition of Modern chromaticism that goes back to the Impressionist palette and the atmospheric haze Monet called the enveloppe. After Monet, the next great poet of gray was Matisse, as visitors to the recent retrospective discovered in a powerful group of paintings hung in one room, including The Piano Lesson and Bathers by the River. The fertile gray field in Matisse's Piano Lesson (1914) or Open Window, Collioure (1914), along with the quiet gray squares of Mondrian 's Compositions, provides the foundations for Modern colorism. The relationship between Franco and Matisse is an important one, and Franco points to the influence of his close study of two late works by Matisse: The Open Window, Collioure and View of Notre-Dame (1914). They stand out from Matisse's career as two of the most abstract and difficult works he created. The relation of the intersecting black lines of View of Notre-Dame and Franco's similarly thickening and thinning, brushy lines is immediately apparent. In the Matisse work, you will also find the precursor of Franco's gentle curve and the ghostly shadows of other intersecting lines below the light veils of blue, violet, and pink.  What is more, inside the window of the Matisse the technique of removing black paint to reveal layers of color behind is similar to Franco's own use of scraping and removing outer layers of paint to expose color and light below.


The most striking similarity between Open Window, Collioure and Franco's work involves the compositional motif of the calibrated side panel on the left of Matisse's work (an abstraction of the louvered shutter in the more representational versions of the work) and the division of the picture into one strong black rectangle surrounded by roughly outlined, angled sections. On a more subtle level, compare the black central area of Matisse's window with the black panels of Franco's early triptych drawings or paintings, as well as the heavy black mass of Wall (Citta De Dite) or, especially, Malebolge, and you will see that glimmering through the darkness in both the Matisse and the Franco are slow-burning flecks of light. Franco began to draw these moments of light from behind the dark planes of his earlier paintings, in a manner that is slightly reminiscent of Ross Bleckner's work but not nearly so obvious. Within the context of the Dante series, it is impossible not to interpret them in terms of the stelle, or stars, the exact word with which each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy concludes. Surrounding them, if viewed really closely, both Matisse and Franco have woven vertical and horizontal strokes of black, gray, and other colors in a tight fabric of color that, like the cruciform patterns of an Ad Reinhardt black painting, are not at first evident, especially from a distance. The closer you look, the more complex and colorful the work becomes.


After Matisse, the Abstract Expressionists had their own poets of gray. Franz Kline and Mark Tobey and, to a certain degree, the young Willem de Kooning plumbed the color's expressive depths. Among the artists of a later generation, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly are notable adherents of grisaille, who return again and again to a subtly modulated palette of different shades of the color. In recent years, Peter Halley, in his prison series and subtly in other works, as well as, to a lesser degree, Sean Scully have mined this gray, but it is Johns who is its undisputed master. A seminal work in his career, and in the course of recent painting, is Gray Rectangle (1957), once in the collection of Victor Ganz. Ostensibly a square field of modulated grays in vigorous, brushy patterns, on closer inspection it yields three subtle rectangular units cut into the canvas in a simple line. Their edges are limned in traces of bright color, as though below the surface a color world lurked that could be tapped by penetrating the layers of gray. As Johns explained, "I used gray encaustic to avoid the color situation . . . this suggested a kind of literal quality that was unmoved by coloration and this avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color." The use of the semitransparent medium of encaustic is a hint at depth effects, and the incision into the surface confirms the suspicion that there is more there than meets the eye. In later oil paintings, including 0 through 9 (1961), Johns allows yellow and blue and red to peep through from behind a heavy, elaborately worked surface of grays.


An introduction to Franco's work would bring Gray Rectangle together with Matisse's Piano LessonOpen Window, Collioure, and View of Notre-Dame, along with Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series and the drawings of Brice Marden. As these works demonstrate, there is nothing drab or inanimate about this gray. While physicists insist that it is the very antithesis of color, it has captured the imagination of thinkers for generations. Just as Wittgenstein was thoroughly intrigued by the idea of an impossible "luminous grey" and William Carlos Williams's epic poem Paterson celebrates the luminous powers of the ashen gray enigma, radium ("predicted before found"), so in Franco's work its possibilities in paint are realized in a refreshing new way.


Jaime Franco was born in Cali, Colombia, in 1963 and early on distinguished himself as a prodigy in mathematics and physics. After two years in an undergraduate program in computer science and mechanical engineering, he left Colombia for Paris, ostensibly to study basic science.


Gradually, he drifted to sculpture and began assisting young sculptors in their Paris studios. This led to a two-year stint at the Ecole des Bcaux Arts, where he concentrated on drawing and sculpture. Throughout the four years he spent in Paris, Franco's intellect and eye developed with tremendous rapidity through the study of film, sculpture, music, art- he became an inveterate museumgoer and filled sketchbooks with his drawings and the writings of Camus, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Dante. His training in sculpture helped, among other things, to teach him about the quality and variegation of surfaces. The engaging and complex textures of Franco's paintings are remarkably similar to the patina of old bronze or the polished grain of stone.


Throughout Europe, Franco took hundreds of black-and-white photographs of street scenes, objects, and architectural details-mainly concentrating on the play of shadows and movement-and drew constantly, at first in an academic realist manner and then in an abstract idiom reminiscent of Brice Marden and Agnes Martin. The turning point in the development of his style was reached in a series of seascapes done with pen and China black ink during a visit to the coastal town of Ladrilleros in Colombia. Franco used elementary horizontal lines to create the divisions of sand from sea and sea from sky. "These lines on the surface were used to delineate a sort of internal landscape," the artist recalls. It was the beginning of a highly personalized, "rationalistic" (to use his own term) abstract compositional vocabulary that he has refined slowly and with great care. Like many colorists, he began working in line and black and white and came to color only gradually.


In 1988, at the age of twenty-five, Franco returned to Colombia and began his first paintings. He emptied his room of furniture and started to work in oil on cardboard. Franco made the transition from cardboard to canvas a year later in a series of works using rough intersecting diagonals across an almost stonelike slate or brown field, or open rectangular forms similar to work by Robert Motherwell, Matisse, and, as the artist points out himself, Richard Diebenkorn. A later series of paintings, exhibited in Tokyo and Paris last year, uses rectangular and gridlike forms, not unlike a hybrid of Paul Klee's heavily layered landscapes and Agnes Martin's light-filled nets. Gradually, the size of Franco's canvases grew, but Franco maintained the steady practice of working through compositional and surface effects in studies on paper, sometimes in ink and often in oil.


On his own, Franco developed a special technique for working in oil. In addition to brushes, paint knives, and spatulas, he uses cloths and his hands to spread and work the surfaces. He loves hard surfaces and often restretches the canvas to make it more and more taut as the work proceeds. The key to understanding and enjoying one of his paintings is the appreciation of the layers by which it is built up. The artist takes an almost archaeological delight in the accumulation of variegated surfaces:


"I just use oil in coat over coat over coat. Some layers are thicker than others and the last ones are very, very thin. The whole buildup becomes very thick, and I often keep working on a single piece for a long time, accumulating a lot of paint. Then I begin working over the surface, and I find myself compelled to take off paint, to scrape and erase what I did. The final result is the summation of coats, which a viewer can read as an archaeological object with all the history of its formation present."


The viewer's first impression of a Franco painting, particularly from a distance, derives from the light gray or slate of the final thin coats. These scrims of fine pigment (Franco does not work with colors from the tube) momentarily conceal a deeper realm of color and compositional effects that it takes a close, long look to appreciate. Despite appearances, Franco is actually a consummate colorist and is taking care to develop his use of color under the utmost conditions of conscious understanding and control. Franco is gradually gaining mastery of chromaticism. For him, in the painting process this is a matter of embedding the color within the levels of more neutral tones. In the case of the works on view, it is largely the warmer tones of red and gold, whereas in the earlier work a cooler palette of greens and blues was used within the layers:


"The layer of color is set down in the middle, halfway through the process of building up the levels of the work. I take the painting in the direction of yellow or red at that stage, but after a while it becomes totally different chromatically as I cover the whole surface. The color disappears, but I scrape or scratch and it comes out again. I try to work color as if it were matter, as if I were sculpting in it. I have taken a lot of care with color, and been very cautious because I find it very difficult. I think a lot of artists have started too quickly with color, but it blinds them because they use a lot of it-after all, it attracts people- but it's dangerous. You get lost. You have to proceed with care, and you have to have a lot of experience to use color like a Miró or Matisse."


Ever since Giotto drew the poet's portrait, artists have taken up the challenge of interpreting Dante's Divine Comedy; and the notable successes of Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Auguste Rodin, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, have concentrated largely on the metamorphoses of the bodily forms of the characters whose individual stories give the work its human drama. This type of visual commentary aligns itself with the great tradition of manuscript illumination dating from well before Dante's time. It is predominantly a linear tradition, concentrating on the human figure and the distortions or changes it goes through in the tempests and fires of the inferno. Franco's favorite passage from Dante is the quintessential Ovidean moment of the poem: a tangled wrestling match of two spirits in Inferno, canto 2.5, in which they are described in two marvelous similes that both involve heat, movement, transfiguration, and color. The figures blend and twist themselves around each other.


"as if they had been of hot wax, they stuck together and mixed their colors,

and neither the one nor the other now seemed what it was at first:

even as in advance of the flame a dark color moves across the paper,

which is nor yet black and the white dies away."


Perhaps the treatment of Dante most similar to Franco's is Rauschenberg's formidable suite of thirty-four drawings on the Inferno composed during an extraordinary eighteen-month sojourn in Florida during 1959. Rauschenberg scholars point to it as the most intensely disciplined period in the artist's career. The drawings are avowedly narrative and figural, but they anticipate Franco's work in the way they make use of a clouded, semitransparent surface. Rauschenberg, who in these drawings pioneered his solvent transfer method of moistening illustrations with lighter fluid, placing them face down on paper, and drawing back and forth across the image in a kind of frottage, said that he discovered the idea of "hoarfrost" as a veiling device in Dante's poetry. You can see its importance not only in the silver-blue mist that sweeps across the Inferno drawings but in the later silk screens and his work in Indian silks and Chinese paper as well. Like Rauschenberg, Franco concentrates on the atmospherics of Dante's poem, pushing the tradition of Dante interpretation to a new level, in which the envelope of Hell's murky air is more important than the figure, and its abstract, invisible circular geometry assumes its own ghostly forms. As the artist observes:


"I feel close to Dante in his way of observing nature. He's able to recognize life's tragedy, bur he keeps a certain calm posture and never becomes apessimist. AII the pathos is there, but never really evident. The great questions in life are nor obvious. but remain sort of hidden under many surfaces. Hell and Purgatory are both spirals. One goes down. the other is a mountain, and I note that in any natural system's movement and growth the spiral appears. From molecules to galaxies, going through plants, animals and humans. The curved elements in my paintings are surely related to the forms that Dante describes in his voyage, and my concern with color is close to the color impression I get from reading the whole work."


There is a pattern to Franco's choice of scenes in The Divine Comedy. Nearly every passage selected offers a description of the heavy mist or smoke in which Dante wraps his most enigmatic scenes. Franco's Danteis laced with the mysterious, mist-covered rivers that course through the confusing landscape of the vision- Acheron, StyxPhlegethon, Lethe and Cocytus, the deep lake they feed into at the bottom of Hell. The tradition suggests that these subtle rivers all come from the same source-the tears of a bodlike figure in Crete-and as Dante and Virgil suddenly encounter and leave them behind during the voyage through Hell and Purgatory, they often have a disorienting effect, crisscrossing the landscape of the vision, changing color and temperature, slowing to a trickle or swelling into massive and seemingly uncrossable barriers. The three paintings in this series, titled after rivers, have a similar impact, particularly in the effacement and erasure of their linear guidelines. The sense of movement in Styx arises from the irregular intersections of curved and straight forms and from the blurring of edges that makes them seem all the more disjointed. The warm umber tone is dense and submerged, threatening to swallow up the medial axis that you will find in the river works. The intersecting curves of Flegetonte are more pronounced, perhaps drawing on Franco's training in physics and the study of the patterns of wave action. The ellipses create more of a three-dimensional spiraling effect, leading downward through a redder, hotter medium. By contrast, Leteo, the river in Purgatory at which souls drink and forget their previous incarnations, is cooler and more delicate, pulsing with a more balanced relationship to the underlying grid.


Even when Franco shifts to Dante's Purgatorio, his choice of episode reflects this fascination with an almost impenetrable atmosphere. Franco's Marco Lombardo is perhaps the most engaging linear work in the series. Dante introduced the character in Purgatorio, canto 16, after billowing smoke takes away the daylight in which the souls are allowed to climb. The complex shifts and interruptions overlaid across the basic verticals and horizontals of the grid have a fuguelike effect that recalls the work of Klee and the early, strong monochromes of Stella. Like Caina, the subtle textural effect of the grid plays on one of Dante's great themes, the pelo (pile) or velo of woven fabric that the poet uses to describe the interpenetration of cloud and mist. The two paintings titled after Purgatorio are supreme examples of Franco's all-important technique of erasure, particularly in the upper-right corner of Purgatorio I, where the effacement of the linear pattern is achieved without using the opaque gray cover that appears at the bottom of Tolomea as well as in much of Franco's earlier work.


The textural complexity of Franco's work is engaging. A recurring motif in Franco's paintings almost from the start, the grid has its intellectual roots in Descartes. But Franco deliberately interrupts and challenges the "rule" of regularity, both with color effects and with lines that have their own forthright personalities. As the artist philosophically observes:


"I accept that until the past couple of years my approach to painting was very intellectual -Cartesian, really- but I found that I was going too far in that direction. I was getting dangerously far away. I believe that art should present the real possibility of articulating opposites. Reason and intellect make up part of the human being, but man is also partly animal and many things in him cannot be explained through reason. A real artist should be able to confront this antagonism between nature and intellect.


I believe the curves in my work have appeared as a manifestation of these concerns, and they are also surely related to the forms that Dante describes in his voyage. The grid is still present and in some cases the two elements are almost fighting over the same surface. A great deal of work done in many fields during this century has just arisen from reason and intellect, and I believe that this kind of work cannot last or prove itself in an evolutionary way because it is constantly approaching a dead end: the grid as the representation of nothing and the pattern of every Utopia."


Among the works in which this agon -between straight and curved, linear and chromatic, intellectual and natural, spiritual and material, regular and irregular-is played out in a dynamic fashion are Malebolge and Cocito. In Dante's poem, the Malebolge region is compared to the black pitch used by Venetian boat builders to caulk their seams. Franco lays a ghostly white geometry against that pitch, and the grid is recessed except for the rhythmic points of light gold that emerge, more subtly than the embossed pattern in Wall (Cilla De Dite), which retains the strong metallic feeling of the rows of knobs one finds on the sides of an ancient Chinese fang ding. In Cocito, which refers to the frozen lake at the very bottom of Dante's Hell, the crystalline immobility of the icy circles traps imperfections and the vestiges of a grid behind subtle moments of effacement.






bottom of page