Making Sense of White Paintings: A Short Art History Lesson on Minimalism and the All-White Painting

“I could do that” goes the refrain of philistines at mod­ern art gal­leries, some­times fol­lowed by a “Hell, my dog/cat/baby/elephant could do that!” Sophis­ti­cates smirk know­ing smirks. Oh no, sir or madam, they most cer­tain­ly could not. But maybe every­one, at some lev­el, comes across Agnes Martin’s White Stone or Jo Baer’s Unti­tled (White Square Laven­der) and thinks it looks like some­one “just took a tube of white paint and spread it on a can­vas.”

It’s tempt­ing to imag­ine, notes Vox in the explain­er video above, but “it’s not actu­al­ly that easy.”

Oh, real­ly? Enlight­en us…. Why exact­ly did Robert Ryman’s all-white paint­ing Bridge sell for $20.6 mil­lion dol­lars? This ques­tion may be answered in anoth­er video. Here, we get a lit­tle bit of art history—on the ori­gins of the all-white paint­ing in the min­i­mal­ism of Kaz­imir Male­vich (he pre­ferred to call it “Supre­ma­tism”) and the devel­op­ment of Min­i­mal­ism, cap­i­tal “M.”

Elis­a­beth Sher­man, assis­tant cura­tor at the Whit­ney Muse­um in New York says that “white isn’t ever a pure thing, white is always tint­ed in some way.” Of course we know this, she acknowl­edges, because we’ve mar­veled at the dozens of shades of white in the paint sec­tion of the hard­ware store. Attend to the sub­tle gra­da­tions of white, from warm to cool, and the range of tex­tures, lines, pat­terns, shapes, and “sub­tle intri­ca­cies,” and the all-white paint­ing begins to reveal itself as an almost liv­ing, breath­ing thing rather than a piece of dec­o­ra­tive dry­wall.

Art his­tor­i­cal­ly, the vari­ety of white paint­ings came about prin­ci­pal­ly in the 50s as a response to Abstract Expressionism’s emo­tion­al excess­es and the out­sized ges­tur­al per­son­al­i­ties of De Koon­ing and Pol­lock. Artists like Bauhaus alum Josef Albers and Min­i­mal­ist purist Frank Stel­la pro­posed that “the art object” should “be as far removed from the author as pos­si­ble.” No greater an attack could be launched on the idea of art as per­son­al expres­sion than the all-white paint­ing.

This ten­den­cy toward total abstraction—reducing art to fields of col­or, non-col­or, and sim­ple shapes—has made a lot of peo­ple very upset. Vox includes sev­er­al clips of “men get­ting angry” at Min­i­mal­ist art. The word “pre­ten­tious” pops up a lot. The all-white paint­ing has even inspired a play, Yas­mi­na Reza’s Art, about “a group of life­long friends who are torn apart when one of them buys an all-white paint­ing for $200,000.”

As for “I could do that”… in near­ly every show she’s worked on in her career as a cura­tor, Sher­man remarks, “some­one has said that.” Well, she says, yes, maybe you could. “But you didn’t.” So there. If look­ing at an all-white paint­ing (or an all-black paint­ing) makes you feel angry, annoyed, or dis­mis­sive, maybe, she says, try and get beyond that first impres­sion and engage with the sub­tleties of the work. And maybe don’t ask how much the muse­um paid for it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­vard Puts Online a Huge Col­lec­tion of Bauhaus Art Objects

Watch At the Muse­um, MoMA’s 8‑Part Doc­u­men­tary on What it Takes to Run a World-Class Muse­um

The Tree of Mod­ern Art: Ele­gant Draw­ing Visu­al­izes the Devel­op­ment of Mod­ern Art from Delacroix to Dalí (1940)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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