Summer 2015

Colors / Cadmium Red

Bursting in air

Erica Baum

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Adolph Gottlieb, Cadmium Red Above Black, 1959. Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art.

In Adolph Gottlieb’s Cadmium Red Above Black (1959), a red disc hovers over a black field like a red balloon presiding over an urban wasteland, its smooth round luminous form in stark contrast to the black jagged malaise underneath. Gottlieb’s buoyant cadmium red balloon seems to float over the tumultuous landscape of the modern era.

Developed soon after the discovery in 1817 of the element cadmium, credited to the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer, the first cadmium pigment was a yellow—cadmium sulfide. Long before cadmium red became widely available, artists were using cadmium yellow, the commercial production of which was established by the 1840s; Winsor & Newton, the British manufacturer of artists’ materials, exhibited the pigment at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London.

Cadmium red had been available in the nineteenth century, but it was not until the early twentieth century, when a new process for the production of cadmium orange and cadmium red was patented, that it became affordable for a range of uses. A product of the industrial revolution, it became a signal red of the modern era. Able to withstand high temperatures—its melting point is over a thousand degrees Celsius—cadmium red was soon the red of choice in industrial production, especially in the manufacture of plastic items.

Cadmium red had always been prized for its permanence, brilliance, and opacity, and it was not long before the increasingly available pigment was taken up by modern artists, with Henri Matisse among the first to embrace it.

The red in his The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908) is a cadmium red.

The red in his The Red Studio (1911) is a cadmium red.

The red in Vasily Kandinsky’s Sketch 1 for Painting with White Border (1913) is a cadmium red.

Mark Rothko, No. 5/No. 22 (detail), 1950.
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: On an Early Sky (detail), 1964.

The red in Kazimir Malevich’s Red Square (1915) is a cadmium red.

The red in Ivan Kliun’s Cadmium Red (1917) is a cadmium red.

The red in Theo van Doesburg’s Composition XXI (1923) is a cadmium red.

The red in Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1930) is a cadmium red.

The red in Mark Rothko’s No.5/No.22 (1950) is a cadmium red.

The red in Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces (1955) is a cadmium red.

The red in Joan Mitchell’s La Chatière (1960) is a cadmium red.

The red in Andy Warhol’s Red Marilyn (1962) is a cadmium red.

The red in Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square: On an Early Sky (1964) is a cadmium red.

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