Sacks and 'Jonathon I'

QUESTIONS ABOUT OLIVER SACKS'S AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS

© Donald Richardson, 1999



I have a number of problems with the chapter in Sachs's book which deals with the case of a colour-blind painter who is referred to as 'Jonathan I'.

'Jonathan I' is described as a painter of the contemporary New York abstract school who completely lost his colour vision at the age of 65 due to an accident. One of the illustrations of the artist's work is a competent abstract picture in tones and shades of black and yellow, which Sacks says is from the 'later phase' of his work.

However, this picture could only have been painted by a completely colour-blind person under extremely specific circumstances because, once 'Jonathan I' had the yellow paint on his palette, he would not have been able to distinguish it from the black and black-and-white mixtures (greys) of the same tonal value on it (prior to this he would, of course, have been able to read the name of the colour on the tube). Similarly, once these paints had been applied to the canvas - so 'Jonathan I' would not have been able to control the juxtaposition of the black and yellow tones as it is evident the person who painted this picture did.

Every experienced painter is aware that every chromatic colour and its tints/tones has a tonal equivalent in black-and-white terms (this is demonstrated in every black-and-white photograph). So 'Jonathan I' could have deceived Sacks by reporting that he sees all colours as patches of grey even if he didn't, and Sacks would have had no way of detecting such a deception.

But the addition of yellow to that picture in the competent way it has been used proves that deception.

What would have been the artist's motivation to deceive Sacks in this way? We can only guess; but a 65-year-old painter who had been part of the New York school of the 1950s-1960s and who had not achieved the fame and wealth of a Newman or Rothko could well be motivated to act in this way. Also, it is likely that a successful insurance claim could be made by a painter whose career had been affected so adversely in this way. (But an insurance investigation would surely have detected the fraud on the evidence I have given above - unless it depended upon Sacks's judgment and opinion.)

So - did 'Jonathan I' paint the picture? Or did someone else do it? Or is 'Jonathan I' not colour-blind at all? Sacks never considers any of these possibilities in his chapter.

Finally - Sacks refers to the painter as 'Jonathan I' allegedly to protect his anonymity. But the illustrations in the book are signed 'Isaacson' and any curious collector would have been easily able to trace the artist through the New York gallery network. And Sacks admits that 'Jonathan I's' sales increased following his revelation of the artist's condition.

So - what's going on here?

(This article was sent to newspapers in Britain and Australia but never printed.)


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