Color comes with music for Ellen Hackl Fagan

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The color field painting created space for exploration of color as a subject matter. How did this field of abstraction influence your work in the first place?

Ellen Hackl Fagan is an American artist working with painting, which is richly influenced by music of her generation. Starting to figure out her artistic practice in the early 80s, she found color as a strong compositional element. When looking at her paintings, one could say the ideas derive from traditions of Color Field. But it’s more than that. The artistic experience and the bodily encounter with the materiality of work create another layer. Music and color go together also in a more profound and ethereal way in some of Hackl Fagan’s work, appearing as if systems and science were components of the network of sound and its emerging visual pattern.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Now, the cobalt is a color, which is a great conversation starter. How many times have you experienced people just being absorbed into the inviting presence of the color?

EHF: That happens all of the time. In my studio space, which was in the back of ODETTA in Bushwick, one was surrounded by blue from my walls to the floor. I found visitors would linger there, and mentioned often that the blue made them feel really good. So, it emanated a healing resonance with visitors to my space. I think this is one reason why I’ve remained focused on the color and the surface from this particular paint, KT Color, is that it resonates, down to the individual particles, because of the matte surface and the saturated hue. 


Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Can you tell, how did you find cobalt, and how long has this investigation been your premise?


EHF: I have attempted to make paintings emanate sound through saturated color since 1981. At that time I was pursuing my undergrad degree, BFA in painting and photography, and was seeing a lot of live music. Punk culture was in full force, so sound and design were interchangeable. A painting I created, The Floozies vs the Force, in 1981, was a painting that was predominantly red and blue, and is oversized. I began to see that the cobalt blue used in this painting, a latex/household paint, would turn to a white hot in low-light times of day: dawn and dusk. The red of the painting would recede, and the blue would advance, which was the opposite of what we were trained to understand about color in school. This intrigued me, and I began to consider cobalt blue as a color that had a broader communicative range, and could possibly hold the key to my color/sound investigation.


Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You say that cobalt has some mystical components, does this mean transcendental in some ways?


EHF: Yes, I feel that this color actually connects with our spirit, and that it communicates directly to this intangible part of our being, which is why the response to blue is universally tied to the spirit. I think we all feel it.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The process of painting for you is very physical, it’s almost performative how you pour the paint on canvas, and work toward the outcome. Can you explain your process with paint, water, and objects, how they all are involved in your practice and contribute to it?



I think it’s about immersion. I want to put my full body into painting, connect physically with each aspect of the process, and finish, like a yoga deep breathing exercise, with the eyes as the final part that communicates to the color. I have a long history in dance, and feel that this visceral connection comes from this history, or muscle memory. 


Firstindigo&Lifestyle: There seems to be an element of covering and revealing in the process?

EHF: Yes, I call this part “blind painting.” In order to gain a full field of pattern, I have to cover the surface. I can’t know for sure what the outcome will be, which is an aspect of trust I’ve established with the materials themselves. I feel they have more to teach me than I them. I want to explore the full range of their characteristics, which means I cannot be the author of the final image, the paint is the author. I set the stage, facilitate its dynamic potential, and then I leave the room and let gravity and evaporation do their part to finish the work. If I’m not happy with the result, I tend to live with it for a while before going back into it for a second pass. I learned a lot about listening to my materials through ceramics. Often the ceramic work would come out of the group kiln at school with an unexpected result in the glazing and painting that I had put together with the underglazes and oxides. 

When I pulled the pieces out of the kiln, at first they disappointed me due to my expectations. But, over time, they made me look at the unfamiliar with an open mind, and would convince me that they had a strength to them that I could have never controlled or forseen. This made me want to explore accident and the unexpected more in my painting.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Can you tell about your background, and how did you find your calling as an artist?


EHF: I have always called myself an artist. From a very young age, 5 or 6, I can remember identifying myself in this way. I am the sixth of eight children, and married into a family of twelve children. My husband was a twin, he passed away in 1996 from an undiagnosed cancer, leaving me to raise three very young sons by myself. The boys are all young men now, with lives of their own, but we are close. I always made drawings, played school, painted, argued, and have had a life where I maintain a space for play. 

Margaret Ellen Hackl, City Sounds, 1981, latex house paint on canvas, 60″x57″ in.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are your influences in different arts of technology, and the systems, which have an impact on your creation?

EHF: For me, Color Field suggests an immersive experience of deep looking. Color Field has been a part of my development as a painter since 1981these paintings from 1981 are both full body size, which put me in full contact with responding to these contrasting colors when painting them, they literally would throw me off the easel as my eyes were having ocular severe reactions. I nicknamed them “retinal eye bouncers” for the punk era, these were a sympathetic relative to the music I was seeing live so colors spoke of sound, from the moment I began working in a flat, graphic style. Pop Art and Punk graphics were also a major influence at this time.

EHF: My influences from technology all source from music since 1981. I have referenced punk music, early pioneers of abstract, electronic music like Morton Subotnik, the fluxus influences dating back as early as Dada and Schwitters to John Cage, to Frank Zappa, to Brian Eno and David Byrne. The systems tend to be based in the arts, but many have application in the sciences as well. 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How about the collaborations you have created with musicians and composers?

EHF: These collaborations have come to me since 1981 as well. Most composers/creators of music, see a relationship in my work to sound and are always eager to join me in my projects, musicians are natural collaborators, so it has been a path rich with artists to work with. 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I remember you having an installation at the New York Public Library, how did this project succeed in terms of audience response?

EHF: I was invited to share a panel with two guest artists, of my choosing. As we all focused on the relationship of sound to color, and vice-versa, I asked the audience to play the Reverse Color Organ all together. We focused on blue and their responses when asked to pair a sound to the color looked like this, then I asked for red. You can see their results pretty much feels like common sense. I would like to collaborate with an institution or a person to gain a lot more viewer input  for the Reverse Color Organ

Ellen Hackl Fagan, Riverse Color Organ.


Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your interest is very much also in the musical and sound aspect of the work. The blue color can have almost symphonic qualities. Do you feel this way?


EHF: Yes, I am a product of a long history of rock and roll, punk, and some dabbling in jazz and world music especially growing up seeing punk bands and following certain bands over the past three decades. Music is a direct influence in my work.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Could you tell a little more about your recent exhibition, and a project called Helpless?

EHF: I was thrilled to be invited to create a solo exhibition for Five Points Center for the Visual Arts. I was asked a year ago. As COVID-19 took over our lives and the galleries and museums all closed, it wasn’t certain when this exhibition would open. I give them a ton of credit for staying on time with their programming during all this chaos. It has been a great experience working with them. 


For Helpless, I began working in the studio in early May in the early night sky there was a congruence of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. This was visible to me when we took a Mother’s Day hike in a local park where we were finishing up as it grew dark. We all talked about which planets these might be, etc. These burned in my visual memory as I was painting, and then the song Helpless flooded my mind as well. It became a meditation of sorts, and the title felt right for the exhibition. I’m a real fan of Neil Young’s music, since my teens, it was comforting having his voice in my head. 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: COVID-19 has changed a lot of the daily practices. How have you experienced this time in your life?

EHF: I run a gallery, which has now morphed into three distinct new projects, in addition to my solo work. If given a full time assistant, I’d really get on top of my work load. Mainly, I miss having the freedom to get together with family without a litany of interview-like questions but we’re working it out. I’m finally going to see my mother, who lives in the Midwest, and I continue my work commitment in and out of our recent quarantine periods. Otherwise, I’m staying healthy and patient that we will get through this pandemic. I paint in my garage, and am happy to have carved out this work space last summer. It is my source for happiness, the studio, and I’m thankful for this.

Ellen Hackl Fagan Studio view. Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue, Big Blue, 2020, pigment, acrylic, museum board, FV, 108 x 60 in.

Featured image: Margaret Ellen Hackl, The Floozies vs the Force, 1981.