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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