What Makes a Monochrome Painting Good

Posted on

Shortly after Reinhardt embarked on his black paintings, artist

Robert Ryman

narrowed his own palette to white. In 1955, he exhibited what he considered his first professional work, asserting his interest in employing a single hue with the aptly-titled Orange Painting. Ryman eventually shifted to using white toward the end of the decade, drawn to the color’s complex interactions with frames, walls, surfaces, and light itself. His “whites,” which seem infused with other tones the more you look, invite long and meditative gazes. Both Ryman and Reinhardt opted to paint on square canvases. They were neutral shapes, unlike a rectangle, which could more easily conjure other associations: a portrait, landscape, door, or window.

Ryman’s diverse materials—Chemex filters, glassine—made his works as much about the paint as what lies underneath it (and how the two interact). “Ryman would never consider himself a monochromatic painter,” says Pace Gallery president Susan Dunne, who organized its current “Robert Ryman: Drawings” show. “He paints light. Even things that appear white have different colors of white. He’s using colors of canvas, the stretcher, everything.”

If Ryman and Reinhardt became associated with white and black monochromatic paintings, respectively, they shared an unlikely predecessor:

Robert Rauschenberg

. Perhaps best known for busy silkscreens and an assemblage that featured a stuffed goat inside a tire (Monogram, 1955–59), the artist experimented with simpler forms earlier in his career. Rejecting the

Abstract Expressionists

’ bold, individualist gestures, Rauschenberg filled black paintings with crumpled newspaper—cheap, everyday material. In his white paintings, he defied rules of authorship by allowing his friends and lovers (including

Cy Twombly

) to generate, remake, and repaint some of them. Notably, these works helped spur musician

John Cage

to create his own, auditory version of the monochrome: 4’33” (1952), which consists only of silence. Here, according to Dickerman, the lack of composition refocuses attention on music’s primary element: time itself.

Prev3 of 5Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *