What Makes a Monochrome Painting Good
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
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
Rodchenko found inspiration in the work of Russian artist 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
These notions of paring down art and making it more about ideas than aesthetic presentations had a major impact on the
Shortly after Reinhardt embarked on his black paintings, artist
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:
At the same time that Rauschenberg, Ryman, and Reinhardt were experimenting with monochromes, interest in the form was blossoming in Korea. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the Korean movement Dansaekhwa (which translates to “monochrome painting”) created art centered on its basic, material elements.
“Monochromes are often test cases, pushing the limits of painting as it has been understood in different moments and places,” says Dickerman. Reinhardt sought the ultimate negation in painting, rejecting color, gesture, and composition. Ryman, alternately, pushed viewers to consider the infinite mutations of a single color (perhaps more accurately, the hue that’s supposedly the absence of color) for as long as possible.
“So to be good,” Dickerman continues, a monochrome “should make us see something about painting that we hadn’t seen before, defining its essence in a new way. It also means in some fundamental way that monochromes don’t stand in isolation, but in relation to the field of painting at large.”
This may account, as well, for why many artists don’t like to consider themselves “monochromatic painters”—they see themselves engaging with a larger conversation that extends far beyond a single color.
Increasingly, young artists and curators are using monochromes to explore “color” in a more figurative sense, addressing issues of identity. In 2016, curator Adrienne Edwards mounted an exhibition called “Blackness in Abstraction” at Pace Gallery, which used black monochromes to underscore the hue’s conceptual and formal possibilities.
Elsewhere in New York City, artist
Gumby’s work suggests that monochromatic painting will continue to evolve as artists grapple with ever-changing aesthetic, social, and autobiographical issues. “I think what makes a monochrome painting good is what makes any painting good,” he says. “Does it change the way I see the world around me?”
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
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