Imagine the blue of a desert sky, the rich greens and browns of an old-growth forest, the rainbow hues in a bowl of tropical fruit — and you can appreciate how diminished our world would be without color. But as you contemplate the wonder of color, the characteristics of differing wavelengths of light and the different absorbent and reflective qualities of pigments are not likely to cross your mind. Generally, people experience color, but they do not understand it.

There are, however, exceptions. Take the people at Colorium, a new gallery located in Tokyo’s smart Omotesando district. Opened last month, the 40-sq.-meter art space is the brainchild of Heart and Color, an organization involved in teaching and researching into color therapy. Among its activities, Heart and Color runs adults’ and children’s color workshops; consults on the effects of different color schemes for public buildings, such as hospitals and welfare centers; and operates a doodle-friendly cafe, adjacent to Colorium, where the menu includes not only tea and cakes, but also color pencils and sketch pads.

Colorium is an airy and pleasant enough space by Tokyo standards. The current exhibition, “Hommage a Niki de Saint Phalle,” features photographs by Michiko Matsumoto.

Matsumoto, 52, is well-known in Japan for her exhibitions and photobooks featuring women, particularly artists and dancers. Here she is showing eight large color photographs of outdoor works by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who died in May last year.

Saint Phalle’s sculptural works are both bold and playful, their softly rounded shapes and use of expansive, flat fields of color recalling a time when art was meant to be an explosion of fun. She was a major influence on Japanese artist Taro Okamoto, as is evident from the pictures here, taken mainly during the 1980s on site in Europe. There are pictures of some of Saint Phalle’s temporary exhibitions; a children’s playhouse in Belgium; and her piece de resistance, the sprawling “Tarot Garden,” based on the figures on tarot cards, which opened in 1998 in Capalbio in Tuscany, Italy.

The second part of Matsumoto’s show comprises 21 portraits of Saint Phalle. Ironically, these are monochrome prints.

“Japanese believe that color includes black and white,” Colorium curator Hiromi Kato told me. Immediately, I wanted to argue this, and actually I did, just a little.

The thing is, though both the kanji character iro and the (Latin-rooted) word “color” are older than the modern scientific understanding of what color is, their usages differ. These days, Japanese refer to black-and-white photographs using the corresponding words, kuro and shiro, both based on the word for color (iro), but have adopted the word kara (color) to apply to color photographs. Then there’s hue — iroai . . .

Readers wanting to explore this further are invited to visit Colorium. For now, back to the show.

Matsumoto was close to Saint Phalle, so she was able to photograph the unusually shy artist on several occasions and published a book of Saint Phalle portraits in 1996. The woman pictured in this exhibition looks different from the Saint Phalle I had imagined — instead of reflecting the carefree insouciance that comes through in her performance art and sculptures, she seems almost nervous, out of place, even when posed outside her own home. The more natural images find Saint Phalle in museums, wrapped around her sculptures, suggesting that the artist only truly lived in her art.

Although it is not intended to be a proper retrospective of Saint Phalle’s work, Matsumoto’s exhibition — which also includes a couple of objets and the photographer’s book on Saint Phalle — is a tasteful personal tribute to this extraordinary woman.

And Colorium is likewise a tasteful addition to the Tokyo artscape. These sort of humanitarian-oriented art programs and spaces are quite popular in the West, but there are relatively few operating in Japan. Colorium plans a full exhibition schedule this year as a commercial gallery. If public interest is found to be lacking, next year they will sink into the “rental” mode. I hope that doesn’t happen. Best wishes to them.

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