What Makes a Monochrome Painting Good

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It’s easy for museumgoers to make fun of monochrome paintings, since they offer the quintessential response to modern and contemporary art: “Couldn’t anyone do that?” To some viewers, the works simply require one paint can and lots of brushstrokes. Artist

Richard Prince

turned the genre into an actual joke when, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, he silkscreened humorous text against single-hued backdrops. The artist’s “Monochromatic Jokes” made monochromatic paintings truly readable to any literate viewer.

In this vein, the value of monochrome paintings often lies more in the ideas they suggest than in their manifestation of an artist’s technical skill. According to Leah Dickerman, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, a monochrome painting is “only as good as the question it asks.” She helped curate a 1998 exhibition of work by

Aleksandr Rodchenko

, who made the first non-figurative monochromes in 1921: Pure Red ColorPure Blue Color; and Pure Yellow Color. By painting solid blocks of primary colors, he reduced painting to its most essential element: a single, pure paint hue. Rodchenko, says Dickerman, was asking, “‘In what ways can we understand a painting as just making a thing like any other?’ And the monochrome makes that question, and the material of making a painting, very visible.” If these concepts may seem academic or erudite, Rodchenko intended just the opposite. He sought to demystify painting, suggesting it was as basic and mundane as any other act of creation.

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