The Fullness and The Void: Rauschenberg and the Monochrome

Megan Govin
Oct 15, 2014 2:22PM

The Fullness and the Void brings together a selection of Robert Rauschenberg’s monochromatic works and places them in dialogue with works by six seminal artists - Josef Albers, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Yves Klein, Brice Marden - who, along with Rauschenberg, significantly shaped both the practice of and discourse surrounding abstract and monochromatic painting. The exhibition’s title acknowledges formal polarity between Rauschenberg’s collages and monochromes and comes directly from an observation made by curator and critic Barbara Rose, in which she said,

Monochrome is fullness and void simultaneously, a moment of silence in a world of noise. It is specific and universal, tangible and immaterial. It is the ultimate paradox.”

Ever since abstraction liberated artists from the bounds of representational painting, artists have investigated the pictorial results of monochromatic work, albeit with differing philosophies. Upon exhibition of his Suprematist Composition: White on White in 1919, Malevich said, "I have overcome the lining of the colored sky...Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you." When Rodchenko exhibited his three monochrome canvases in 1921, he said he had “reduced painting to its logical conclusion” and affirmed, “it's all over.”

Rauschenberg created only a small number of monochromatic works compared to his prolific output, wherein he combined sculptural elements, found objects, printed images, newsprint and splashes of color into three-dimensional collages. His monochromatic work is significant both in terms of its contrast to much of his oeuvre and due to its impact on the dialogue about monochromatic painting. About the White Paintings of 1951, created while at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg said he wanted “to see how much you could pull away from an image and still have an image.” He stated they are “either too full or too empty to be thought - thereby they remain visual experiences.”

The artists in this exhibition are connected in many ways: Albers was Rauschenberg’s instructor at Black Mountain; Marden was his assistant (and even re-produced the White Paintings according to instructions); Martin lived in the same neighborhood in the late 1950s; Reinhardt, Klein and Rauschenberg all exhibited at Galerie Iris Klert early in their careers. They are more firmly connected by their determined, but varied investigations of the monochrome. Albers rejected any meaning or associations behind his work, declaring the square to be solely a means of addressing his obsession with color. Ryman considered the monochrome a tribute to the practice of painting. Reinhardt described his black paintings “a catalogue of negations.” Martin wanted the viewer to come to an “absolute stop” when viewing her paintings to “allow tranquility to take over.”

The philosopher Florensky observed that the monochrome has the ability to take the viewer beyond the limits of sensory perception and to elevate awareness to the sphere of the spirit. It both absorbs and reflects energy. But the monochrome also takes time to perceive and requires a different kind of looking. After viewing this online exhibition, it is recommended to spend uninterrupted time viewing a monochrome in person.

Megan Govin