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‘Seeing here implies Schauen, (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination’

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, 1963

The road to Ditty Ketting’s studio passes a tangle of motorways and viaducts, with views that are hardly the most beautiful in Holland yet are still the most intriguing and dynamic ‘landscape’: the industrial area of Pernis. You drive past a complex of factories, chimneys spuming high, bright flames, cranes and colourful containers. Lorries come and go, and in the evening it is a brightly lit ghost town. A greater contrast between this outside world and her pure white, luminous studio would be impossible. Once inside, the visitor is blanketed in a profound peace and tranquility, the calm of a different world.

That is exactly how visitors to Piet Mondrian’s studio in Paris in the 1920s must have experienced the stark contrast between exterior and interior. Mondrian’s studio was on the Rue du Départ, a sidestreet of the bustling Boulevard Montparnasse and adjacent to Gare Montparnasse, a station where the steam trains came and went, where it was dirty and noisy. The only way to reach Mondrian’s studio was via a dark, dusty staircase and hallway – a rite de passage until one ascended the small staircase and opened the door of his studio.

Mondrian had painted it a bright white and arranged it in line with the ideas of the Nieuwe Beelding movement, literally ‘New Imaging’ but usually known as Neo-Plasticism. Items of furniture were arranged so that they strictly subdivided the space. Alongside and between his abstract paintings on the walls, he set cardboard rectangles in the colours red, blue and yellow, similar to his geometric, abstract paintings with rectangles in primary colours. The man, his paintings and his studio had to express one and the same thing: a new, harmonic balance for a new world.

Ditty Ketting can certainly be counted among the artistic heirs to Mondrian and ‘De Stijl’, even if the inheritance has passed via various generations and a diversity of paths. Mondrian still had to become one of the first artists to start working in an abstract manner, with great effort reclaim this abstraction from visible reality. He had to substantiate this in many theoretical debates, associating his painting with a metaphysical worldview. But once he had found an expressive form for his ‘New Imaging’ he never again deviated from it. Infinite variations were possible within the rules and there was always the fresh challenge of searching for an harmonic balance with elementary visual means.

When Ditty Ketting started at the Academy for the Visual Arts in Rotterdam in 1975, the work of the early avant-garde was of great interest once again. A wave of artists were working in the constructive style, with geometric forms and in accordance with systematic methods. Symbolism and metaphysical thinking no longer interested these artists; it was more about the relationship between art and its viewers, about the sensory experience. People had discovered that a work could have an unexpected effect, even if it was constructed from controllable elements and in line with fixed rules, or that it could be perceived completely differently from different standpoints. There was a great deal of interest in the phenomenology of colour and investigation of the intensity of colour in relation to the surface, or the interrelationships between colours. Personal signature was eschewed.
During that first year at art college, Ditty Ketting became acquainted with the colour theory of Josef Albers (1888-1976) via a practical and affordable 1975 reprint of his large and valuable Interaction of Color from 1963.
The book made a huge impression on her and still lies within easy reach in her atelier. Alongside Mondrian and ‘De Stijl’, Albers became her big source of inspiration.

Albers had been a student at the renowned Bauhaus in Germany, the institute where theory of colour was a required component of the Vorkurs or ‘Basic Course’ taught by Johannes Itten (1888-1967). Albers himself went on to teach at the Bauhaus until he emigrated to the United States in 1933, where he initially taught at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, and then at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In the 1950s and ’60s, Albers developed his Homage to the Square series there, in which he investigated the interaction of colours and the psychological effect of the autonomous colour within the square in an endless series of works.

His book Interaction of Colorwas intended as a didactic textbook for his students. In this book, Albers recommends the development of a system for colour research through experimentation, two central ideas with which he had become familiar during his Bauhaus period. Albers emphasized the relativity of perception in this: no single colour is perceived in the same way by different people.

He advocated the development by trial and error of an ‘eye for colour’, in which he also believed that practice prevailed over theory. It is probably because of this that the book has had so much influence on artists all over the world. What counts is not the knowledge of facts, but exclusively the perception, the seeing. ‘Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination,’ Albers wrote.

Since completing her studies at the Academy in 1980, Ditty Ketting has been building on her oeuvre using elementary, Concrete visual means. From the start, just like Mondrian and Albers, she has specified rules within which she re-discovers her challenge: arrangements of colours, applied in vertical strips. She uses the vertical stripe, because it is a form that distracts least from the colour, a nondescript form that is reminiscent of nothing in visible reality. Albers called the vertical stripe a ‘non-form’, in the same way as Mondrian called white, grey and black ‘non-colours’. The eye for colour, the act of seeing, has been developed further by Ditty Ketting over many years of concentration, and the colours and their interrelationships in her work attains an ever greater refinement. In her paintings, colours appeal exclusively to the eye of the viewer and simultaneously surpass perception. ‘Colour is all-embracing in my paintings, as essential as light and space,’ she writes. ‘It is the visual opulence of colour that I love, pure and simple, the infinite gradations, the mutability of colours: they are never the same.’ In their colours her works transcend every reality.

In her paintings the interplay of colours is so rich, so lavish and overwhelmingly present, that one never gets around to searching for a system. All the same, Ditty Ketting has followed Albers’ advice and over the years has developed a system of colours. She chooses her colours based on a chromatic circle of 14 colours which she selected instinctively, but which still have the spectrum as a basis. The names of the colours in this chromatic circle are the names she found on the tubes of acrylic paint that she buys in the shop: Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Orange, Orange Red, Crimson, Magenta, Magenta Purple, Outreemer Purple, Outreemer Blue, Permanent Blue, Turkish Blue, Cobalt Teal, Emerald and Green Yellow, and then the circle begins anew. Furthermore, she works with hundreds of colour cards measuring 10 centimetres square. She experiments with these cards, testing out the mutual effects of the colours. Before realizing a work, Ketting first makes studies on paper. In the process of experimentation it becomes clear what happens with the colour and what she wants to achieve: harmony or contrast, surface or depth. This is how she decides the starting points in detail on paper for a new work or a new series. The width of the vertical stripes or the distribution of the progression in width and colour is all tried out on paper. When a preliminary study is eventually completed to satisfaction, it is transferred to canvas. Nothing else is changed. The execution of each painting demands meticulous precision and the utmost concentration. Her work often evolves in series, in which particular rules or a particular colour scheme is applied exhaustively before she begins another series. She recapitulates the colours of her chromatic circle in constantly changing configurations. Occasionally she also replaces a colour. For example, Ketting recently replaced phtalo green with cobalt teal, a colour that is much harsher for the eye – she calls it ‘vicious’ and also ‘viperous’. If cobalt teal is used in a saturated form, applied in multiple layers, then it explodes from the paper or canvas, but mixed with white or grey it seems almost to disappear, to completely efface itself. Moreover, in combination with other colours, ‘cobalt teal’ sometimes looks blue and at other times green.
The recent selection of a ‘more vicious’ colour coincides completely with developments in her work, in which the optical phenomenon seems to be increasingly important.

Talking about colours with Ditty Ketting is an adventure. For her, colours are like living beings with their own specific character traits that she has to learn to penetrate and tame, and control and appropriate in order to make them usable in her system. The fact that the colours consistently elude as soon as the work is finished is a fact that fascinates her, but also gives her pleasure. The colours then forget the system and begin to speak for themselves. Colour combinations conjure up tensions or create friction. Colours dissolve into each other or suppress each other, amplify each other and vibrate. The methodology and system fade into the play of colours in search of freedom.
The system in Ditty Ketting’s series is becoming increasingly refined. In the 1980s, she painted the colours immediately next to each other in stripes of similar width on a white ground, without articulation. The colours were of equal intensity and the optical effect achieved the rest: certain colours recede, others come to the fore, and they mutually influence each other, whereby variation in the colour combination alters the perception of one and the same colour. Unexpected interconnections were also perceptible, which she herself had not foreseen. The works with similar stripes of colour are sometimes reminiscent of the Swiss artist Richard Paul Lohse (1902-1988), also a proponent of Concrete art who composed his work systematically. His work also revealed unexpected connections between the colours. His method, however, was completely different to Ditty Ketting’s. Once in a while, Ketting has been inspired by the palette of another artist, as in the two Hommage aan Sonia Delaunay (‘Homage to Sonia Delaunay’) canvases from 1985. In the large work with the somewhat emotionally charged title Drieëenheid (‘Trinity’) from 1986/87, something presents itself that would increasingly preoccupy her over the ensuring years: the same colour combinations are mixed with white on the right-hand side, mixed with black in the middle, and with grey to the left, while the vertical notches in the white ground look like white stripes, which remain unchanged across the whole canvas. In the years that follow, Ketting produced works with extremely subtle series of colours, usually separated by stripes in the colour grey or in a blended shade of grey.

While writing this, I can see a wonderful work by Ditty Ketting above my desk. A few years ago, I became the lucky owner of the 2001 painting Untitled (no. 162) – Ditty Ketting numbers all her works. The grey stripes in this work are painted across the entire canvas in the same shade of grey. This is visible, but only if one stands just in front of the work. Grey has always been a curious ‘non-colour’. Johannus Itten described the colour grey wonderfully in Kunst der Farbe (1961), quoted here from the English translation, The Art of Color (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1974): 'Neutral gray is a characterless, indifferent, achromatic color, very readily influenced by contrasting shade and hue. It is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances. Any color will instantly transform gray from its neutral, achromatic state to a complementary color effect corresponding mathematically to the activating color.
This transformation occurs subjectively, in the eye, not objectively in the colors themselves. Gray is a sterile neuter, dependant on its neighbouring colors for life and character. It attenuates their force and mellows them. It will reconcile violent oppositions by absorbing their strength and thereby, vampire-like, assuming a life of its own.' This vampire-like behaviour is abundantly evident in Untitled (no. 162). The dark colours dominate on the right, ranging from a wonderful deep red to red-green. The grey allows a red glow, and here the grey stripes are much more clearly noticeable than on the left, where the grey stripes are almost dissolved amidst the light colours, from light yellow to light blue. The work is amazingly subtle and delicate in colour, and one can look at it endlessly without it ever becoming tedious.
Since 2001, Ketting has been working on a completely new series, in which broad bands of white, grey and black are applied horizontally behind the vertical stripes of colour. For the eye, this creates a space behind the vertical stripes. These vertical stripes are composed of pairs of colours that are highly consonant, and constitute a progression in colour and form. The intensity of the reflection of the colour depends on the ground. The stripes of colour seem to float at various distances from the canvas like shafts of light.

Ditty Ketting later started to apply horizontal bands in colour as a ground, within which there is a progression from light via saturated to dark. It results in a similar effect as with the paintings for which the ground is white, grey or black. Sometimes Ditty Ketting realizes her paintings in pairs, one light and one dark, since in her view nothing can have meaning without its complementary phenomenon: there is no white without black, no light without dark.

In her most recent works, the series that continues with the number 200 or thereabouts, Ditty Ketting achieves a veritable monumentalism. In large, horizontal formats of circa 140 x 250 centimetres, the stripes of colour scintillate at the viewer. The systematically applied ground of shades of grey creates unexpected effects because of the absorption or the repulsion of colours.
Here and there it is possible even to detect chequered patterns. This creates a tremendous optical tension, as the eye can no longer find a point of repose.
Ditty Ketting had previously dared to tackle a large format, but her most recent works have a truly museum-like quality. They constitute a promesse de bonheur for the future. How things will progress further is unbeknown even to her. Despite rules and discipline, she is primarily led by intuition and feeling.

Her work bespeaks a massive concentration that she can achieve in her beautiful, light atelier, far away from the hubbub and chaos of the world. It is a lonely quest that requires great self-discipline. Even in this she can find support in Mondrian, her predecessor. He serves as a model not only his painting, but also in his consistency and his view of the role of artist. A distant echo of this resonates in the words that Ditty Ketting noted down about her work in 2004: ‘It is of essential importance to remain true to yourself as painter with a lucid clarity, inner conviction and tenacity; striving after depth in one’s work and thus displaying the relevance of painting despite the violence and the transcience of many new media. I create Concrete paintings from a yearning for something that is universal, something that connects people.’

Ankie de Jongh-Vermeulen is an art historian who studied at Utrecht University. From 2001 to 2006, she has been Director of the Mondrian House, Museum for Constructive and Concrete Art, in Amersfoort, the Netherlands.

© 2007 ditty ketting