White Light: Anxiety and Intangibility in the Wake of World War II

Caroline Barnett
Oct 16, 2014 11:24PM

We are all now familiar with the monochromatic canvas; for some, it is the paradigm of purity and beauty, for others, it hardly warrants the title “art.”  The most polarizing of these is the all-white work, most enthusiastically pursued in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  In the face of the “end of painting,” and immersed in a freshly melancholic, anxious, and skeptical postwar moment, a host of artists turned to the hue that signified both nothing and everything (“The white painting is a ‘blank’ canvas, where all is potential,” Lucy Lippard wrote in 1967).  But the question remains: why?

Beginning with Rauschenberg’s seminal White Painting [three panel] and [seven panel] (1951), the show would investigate the treatment of voids and silences as material events.  Jasper Johns’s White Flag and Two Maps (1955 and 1965, respectively) and John Cage’s 4’33” are obvious examples (Cage famously credited Rauschenberg’s White Painting as the impetus for his silent piece).  But works by Piero Manzoni, Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lucio Fontana, Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, Josef Albers, James Turrell, Enrico Castellani, and Roman Opalka widen the reach and enrich the notion.  The ability to assess the artists’ individual surface effects (and conservation challenges), so important for such minimalist pieces, could open new insight into the intended meaning of their work.

Admittedly, this subject has been dealt with before.  Shows at the Jewish Museum and Wadsworth Atheneum in 1964, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1972, at the City Gallery of Contemporary Art in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1989, at the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Sweden in 2000, and in galleries in Basel and Berlin in 2003 have all, in one way or another, addressed the pressing question of why these artists turned to white as the ideal vehicle for their intentions.  But a show of this nature has not been mounted in the U.S. for twenty-five years, and the passage of time often affords new perspective.  What this exhibition would seek to do is properly contextualize these examples in the spirit of their cultural atmosphere; the ever-imminent “white light” surely has a place in this discussion.  Perhaps, then, these works could be seen as evidence of an over-arching need – a need to render invisible threats (the atomic bomb) in tangible media.  By supplementing the works with important writings (from newspaper clippings, artists notes, and scientific journals), the show could offer an updated interpretation of the use of white in art of the second half of the twentieth century. 

Caroline Barnett