Why Olafur Eliasson’s yellow room is coming to London's National Gallery

Visitors will experience monochrome world like the one Medieval monks wanted in “minimalist monasteries”


The National Gallery’s engagement with contemporary art will take an immersive turn when Olafur Eliasson’s Room for one colour (1997) is installed in its Sainsbury’s Wing as an “epilogue” to Monochrome, a show about artists' choice to paint and draw in black, shades of grey or other single colours since the Middle Ages (30 October-18 February 2018). The room, which is illuminated by yellow mono-frequency lamps like those that bathed Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during Eliasson’s The Weather Project in 2003-04, will transport visitors into a monochrome world. In the white room bathed with yellow light viewers' spectral range is limited to yellow and black.

The exhibition’s co-curator Jennifer Sliwka, who first experienced Room for one colour at the Danish-Icelandic artist’s solo show at New York’s MoMA PS1 in 2008, says that she has long wanted to bring the work to the National Gallery in London, where she was a curator before becoming a senior research fellow at King’s College in London.

“In the first room we will have Medieval grisaille stained glass created by Cistercian monks because of their prohibition of colour in their churches,” Sliwka says. “I hoped Olafur didn’t think it was too much of a stretch but there is a parallel. People go very quiet in his installations,” she says. “That is what the monks were trying to do in their minimalist monasteries. Eliasson quite liked the idea.” The artist and Sliwka are due to talk about the exhibition at the National Gallery on 10 November and Eliasson has contributed an essay to the accompanying publication.

Other contemporary monochrome works by Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, Ellsworth Kelly and Bridget Riley will go on show along with works by Old Masters including Dürer and Rembrandt as well as Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille (around 1824-34). 

Sliwka and her co-curator Lelia Packer of the National Gallery have secured an impressive range of international loans for the exhibition they conceived as a counterpoint to the National Gallery’s 2014 show Making Colour. Among them is Black Square (1929) by Malevich from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and a work by the German-born, Dutch-based artist Hendrik Goltzius will come from St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. Madrid’s Museo Thyssen Bornemisza is lending Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych (1433-35) and two more Van Eyck’s are coming from Antwerp.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White, has been organised in collaboration with Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf where it will travel next year.