WCMA’s ‘Pink Art’ takes on all-new rosy approach

Algorithms are the rules that a computer follows in order to produce an outcome. In the exhibition Pink Art, algorithms are the device of choice employed to produce the answer to the question, “What is pink?” Enclosed in peachy colored walls, Pink Art presents the product of two processes coming together: art curation and algorithmic calculation. The carefully mediated intersection results in an exhibition filled with work composed of corals, rubies and more.

Tina Olsen, former director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) asked, “What is pink?” In other words, what makes up pink? Or better yet, what doesn’t? Nowadays, pink is most commonly associated with breast cancer awareness and “millennial pink,” which is further associated with Wes Anderson’s movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then, of course, there is the argument that pink is the Pluto of colors: People have fought over the fact that it is not a color – rather, it only exists as a pigment of our imagination. Pink draws from reds and violets, from both sides of the rainbow spectrum. Therefore, the color is created in the mind’s perception by mixing together reds and violets.

Perfectly displayed in Philip Guston’s Game, the hybridity of pink is evident in bold strokes of crimson and navy. Through a single lens, through a single color we can see the different ways that Game creates this tension between shades and ideas, leaving the viewer simultaneously puzzled and relaxed. 

In pilot project Accession Number, which ran from Feb. 16 to Aug. 20, the museum played with showcasing its collection through a unique perspective. It was a straightforward way of revealing the data and collection of artwork. Pink Art, however, dives deeper into the theme of exposing relationships between data, which is what makes this exhibition so fascinating. Last spring, students and faculty in a computer science class wrote five algorithms – PIXEL, CRAYOLA, RECOLOR, TOON and ISLANDIZE – to comb through all 15,000 artworks to find the pigment pink and rank the works by a mean score of “pinkness.” For example, Eduardo Paolozzi’s Fifty-Nine Varieties of Paradise has the highest composite score of what it means to be pink. Each algorithm takes a different approach to the color pink; one algorithm, CRAYOLA, sees the image through “Crayola-colored” glasses and matches the percentage of pixels with the eleven types of Crayola pink. The other four algorithms repeat the similar process of matching pixels.

Pink presents exactly what it means to combine forces and use resources from a college. It portrays exactly how science and art can work together; however, what is more notable is the exhibition’s specific process of curation. In Pink Art, curation starts and finishes with humans: Humans teach the computers the algorithms, machines find the data and then humans, the curators, intervene to pick and choose works to create a more pleasurable experience. This exhibition also shows us that algorithms can contradict not only each other, but also our perception of pink.

Richard Hawkin’s Special Appearance uses hot pink and fuchsia, yet all five algorithms fail “to recognize the painting as a top 100 pink object.” According to most algorithms, Monica Baer’s L hardly has any pigments, yet the faint smudged pink circle leaves impressions of bubble gum and cotton candy. Even more curiously, in Wesley Lea’s Flowering Shrubs we can clearly point out splashes of baby pink and magenta, yet, again, none of the five algorithms registered pink as a notable color. The science behind this exhibition is supposed to help achieve a more objective outlook, but does it do so successfully? It is hard to tell, especially since everyone’s notion of pink will be different.

“We want people to come in and ask why an artwork is considered pink or not … or think, wow, the museum owns a lot of works that are pink,” Jessica Sentivan, curatorial assistant, said. All these artworks present subjective interpretations, whether colored by “machine, artist or viewer.” The point is, whether or not the algorithm finds high percentages of pink, all of the artworks fit and complement each other. With WCMA’s innovative use of algorithms as a tool in the curatorial process, perhaps we will see other exhibitions come together through a similar process.

Pink Art brings together art curation and computer science in a beautiful exhibition which looks at the multiple ways of defining the color pink. Photo courtesy of Nicole Chia-Tien.