What Makes a Monochrome Painting Good

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Rodchenko found inspiration in the work of Russian artist

Kazimir Malevich

, who introduced his Black Square painting in 1915. (100 years later, researchers discovered that underneath the composition, Malevich scrawled a reference to a 1882 work by Paul Bilhaud, the first-ever documented monochrome: “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.” This incited controversy over Malevich’s similarly racist starting point.) Black Square isn’t technically a monochrome, as it depicts a specific figure—a black shape—on a white background. Yet it still suggests the potency present in a simple block of color, relying on the black/white contrast to raise questions about presence, absence, signs, and symbols.

In the mid-20th century, artist

Ad Reinhardt

eliminated all traces of representation in the all-black monochrome paintings he made beginning around 1953 until his death in 1967. Obsessed with precision and paint viscosity, the artist laid down even, black surfaces and attempted to remove hints of his own creative gestures. The final products, five-by-five-foot canvases, leave the viewer gazing into a dark void while (Reinhardt hoped) questioning their own existence. He once summed up the power of abstractions in a cartoon. A gallery viewer mocks a painting on the wall: “Ha ha what does that represent?” The canvas, coming to life, angrily answers, “What do you represent?”

These notions of paring down art and making it more about ideas than aesthetic presentations had a major impact on the

Minimalist

and

Conceptual Art

of future generations. Not one to underplay his achievements, Reinhardt called the series the last paintings that anyone could make. He felt he’d pushed the medium to its logical conclusion. Notably, Rodchenko before him had assumed a similar sentiment. The history of monochromes, in general, is full of (predominantly male) characters who liked to undermine other artists’ achievements and believed they got painting’s last laugh.

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