Courtesy of Judy Sirota Rosenthal

The exhibit “Matters of Color/Color Matters,” located in the Sterling Library’s exhibition corridor, is the culmination of the research of three student curators — Jennifer Le ’25, Liam Hannigan ’25, and Whitney Toutenhoofd ’25 — in a class that shares its title. 

“Matters of Color/Colors Matter” was a first-year art history seminar with only nine students that offered a survey of color across various Yale libraries and special collections. Liam says that it showed “what was available, giving you the skills to then implement it if you would like.” 

“I think this one is particularly beautiful, because of the theme,” Cynthia Roman, who co-taught the class with Jae Rossman, notes. “It’s colorful, the objects are beautiful.” 

At the end of the course, the professors suggested that students in the class apply for the student-curated exhibit program. All three students applied in the winter of 2021 and were accepted in the spring of 2022. Le shared that they initially thought they were only planning half of the hallway, but were surprised to learn that the entire exhibit was theirs. This is the first time a student-curated exhibition at Sterling has had a three-person collaboration. 

Mirroring the structure of the class itself, the exhibit embodies “a spectrum from technical to conceptual,” according to Le. It begins with a scientific explanation of color theory and ending with more symbolic examinations of color. 

“We tend to think of science and art as two very different stories,” Toutenhoofd said. “But I think that the color is one lens into how much overlap there is between the disciplines.” 

The first section, “Matters of Color,” sums up 200 years of research on color, including information on how our eyes work, Albert Munsell’s color system, and selections from former Yale professor Joseph Albers’ quintessential book “Interactions of Color.” Central to Albers’ work is the idea that color is relative — his color studies reveal that the meaning of a color changes depending on what colors it is next to, and that sometimes the effect of a color cannot be conveyed by that color alone. 

Other items in the exhibit reflect students’ particular interests in and personal relationships with color. Hannigan was most excited about the political cartoons they included, which show how color can be “an identifier of reality, but also personhood.” 

Le chose to include “Shades of White,” an artist book by Jessica Walker that, in Le’s words, “talks about how whiteness can be considered invisible in our daily conversation, and kind of unpacks how we talk about race and color through words.” The work depicts a box filled entirely with white crayons with various humoristic labels — it alludes to Crayola’s “flesh” colored crayon, which was actually just pale and has since been changed to “peach.” The piece, as Le puts it, shows that “it’s important how we refer to colors by term.” 

All three students emphasized that they benefited from all having different “niches,” a fact that, as Toutenhoofd puts it, “made for a much more interesting exhibition than if there had been just a single curator.” Le, the most science-oriented out of the group, is most interested in conservation and textiles. Hannigan favors art history and curation. And Toutenhoofd is a practicing photographer. She took their headshots for the exhibit, and Jen noted that “We all matched, which was really cute.”

Working on the project made them more conscientious of color in unexpected ways. 

Le, who works at the Davenport pottery studio, has noticed that her work has become more colorful, and has been experimenting with how different color glazes react with each other. 

Hannigan remarked that “what it’s done is forced me to actually look at the object in front of me. I know that sounds funny for art, but you can often get stuck into an artist’s biography or the history of something without actually looking at the thing right in front of you. But when you’re focusing on the color, you really do have to look.”

Ultimately, “Matters of Color/Color Matters” invites its viewers to think more deeply about color in their own lives. “Color maybe has a bigger effect on us than we are conscious of,” Jennifer says. “It isn’t just something that’s contained within art and art history, but something that leads into other fields and aspects of our life”

Both Roman and Rossman encourage students to check out the special collections — where much of the art for the exhibit came from — and see art like this in person. 

“They’re for you,” Roman emphasized. “Don’t be afraid to use them.”

 She added that exploring library collections early can set the foundations for more serious research.

But it’s not just about academics. “We believe in the magic of the objects,” Roman said. “And I hope we converted some students.”

“At least three!” Rossman responded.

The exhibit will be on display through Spring 2023.

Correction, Nov. 11: A previous version of the article referred to Whitney Toutenhoofd ’25 as both an art historian and a practicing photographer. However, Toutenhoofd is just a practicing photographer. The article has been updated to reflect this.