Visits with Gray Alice

by Timothy Heyer

When I was a student at Penn State in the early-to-mid-nineties (ouch, that hurts to write) and found myself with a few free minutes, I would periodically stop by the Palmer Museum of Art on campus. It wasn’t that I was familiar with the museum from my course load; in fact, I studied engineering, then English. I had a loose, uninformed appreciation of art, but mostly, I was fascinated by a single painting in their collection, Gray Alice by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival).

Dark Gray Alice

At first glance, the painting appeared to be a very large, gray, supremely boring rectangle. Closer inspection showed that the rectangle was painted over tiled pages from Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. And if you continued looking at it – really looking at it – you would slowly begin to see a painting-within-a-painting. First a hand, perhaps, then an eye, until you realized this boring gray rectangle was actually a portrait of Alice herself! Over the gray rectangle, the artists used an almost imperceptibly darker shade of gray to paint a portrait of the book’s protagonist. The experience was alternately frustrating and delightful, as I picked out pieces of the subject, then fought to try to reveal even more. Even once I knew what was there, each viewing was like starting anew, requiring my eye to adjust to the subtleties of the differences between the grays before I could pick out the details again. For as long as I stared at it – and they placed a bench in front of it just for this purpose – I’m not sure I ever managed to ascertain the entire thing.

(I recently discovered that Tim Rollins was a public school art teacher in the South Bronx who worked on these paintings with kids classified as emotionally or academically “at risk” – the Kids of Survival. Very cool. I also found out from the helpful folks at the Palmer Museum that while Gray Alice is still part of their permanent collection, it is no longer on display in the museum. Frowny face.)

At the time, I certainly could not have known that my career path would lead me down a road that was deeply based in the often-subtle differences between colors. But I think of this painting often when selecting and evaluating color, reminding myself how nearly imperceptible differences in color have the ability to make a truly profound impact on the viewer.

Image: Dark Gray Alice, another painting in the series by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) in the permanent collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

  • Esther

    Is it just me? I can’t see it.

  • Talula

    Current PSU student here: Alice is back up for viewing :)