Why these all-white paintings are in museums and mine aren’t
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Why these all-white paintings are in museums and mine aren’t

August 11, 2019

It’s almost kind of like a blank canvas
with some, like some texture. I do see a white dot there but I don’t know
if that’s supposed to be there. It looks like something I would cook on,
like a baking sheet. Could be a lot of flies stuck to
a bit of paper. Yeah, ’cause I would put this down on my
floor, my floor tiles. These people are describing Robert Ryman’s
painting “Bridge.” It sold for $20.6 million at a Christie’s
auction in 2015. How is an all-white painting considered art, and why would anyone shell out millions for
something like this? There are a lot of these “white paintings.” Many people trace them back to Kazimir Malevich’s
1918 work “White on White.” But there are many artists who created these
kinds of paintings: Most of these artists were associated with
an art movement called minimalism, which emerged in the late
1950s. When I say the minimalists I mean minimalism
with a capital M, not a lowercase. This is Elisabeth Sherman, she’s an assistant
curator at the Whitney Museum in New York. It’s tempting to look at one of these paintings
and think that some jerk just took a tube of white paint and spread it on a canvas — but it’s not actually that easy. I mean mine rules, obviously, because I’m
a f****** genius, but there’s usually a lot more than meets the
eye. White isn’t really a pure thing. White is
always tinted in some way. Paint is made up of a variety of pigments. If you’ve ever painted the walls of your house,
you know how many different whites there are to choose from. And maybe if you only look at one it looks
like pure white, but when you hold them up in an array you
can see the subtle differences. It’s blue, it’s green, it’s purple, it’s warm,
it’s cold. And when you get close— HEY! Not too close, there’s a lot going on here. Lines, texture, patterns, even color. There are a lot of subtle intricacies that
make it more than “just a white canvas.” Minimalist artists wanted their work to embody
order, simplicity, and harmony. These artists began with these ideas as a
rejection of abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism was a movement of artists
in the 1940s and 50s who thought that art should be gestural, expressive,
and emotional, evoking the unconscious mind through movement
and color. So if we think about Jackson Pollock as being
kind of the abstract expressionist that many people
think of, you can take that picture of him with the
canvas on the floor of his studio spilling paints everywhere, and it’s his gesture, it’s his physical body,
it’s his arm, it’s who he is as a person that’s creating that canvas, that painting. Minimalists weren’t about that. All that paint splashing everywhere? No thanks. There was a lot of desire to get away from
that sensibility where the individual’s expression was put
into the canvas. The idea was that the art object — be it
sculpture or painting or installation — should kind of be as far removed from the author as possible. You can see what she means when you compare
the two schools of art. Okay, you get it. Minimalist artists stripped art of the burden
of being about “something else.” They presented art not as an imitation of
reality but as an object unto itself. Artist Frank Stella summed it up nicely when
he said, One of my favorite things about modern art
is the rage that it seems to provoke in some people. Cue videos of men freaking out: I’m not gonna sit there and try to find
a meaning in a red circle on a blank white canvas, ’cause I’m not gonna find any meaning. I may not understand art
but I do understand the English language, and that’s pretentious nonsense. Did you see the painting that was just a white
painting that had nothing on it? It’s like super pretentious meets uber pretentious. Modern art sets. people. off. And believe me when I say that I am here for
it. But with modern art, by definition every interpretation
is genuine and legitimate and okay. Or not, how about not? I love it. There’s even an entire play about a group
of lifelong friends who are torn apart when one of them buys an all-white painting for $200,000. With a very kind of absent blank painting
you have to do a lot more work in some ways than maybe you have to do with, let’s say,
pop art that has tons of obvious references and you see the Coca-Cola or the American
flag and you can say, I have all of these relationships with these objects with these brands with
these things. When you’re looking at simply a square of
white paint, you have to do a lot more work, but sometimes there maybe is something more
rewarding in the end. Another common reaction to modern art, specifically minimalist pieces like white
paintings is, c’mon, say it with me now, Almost no matter what show I’ve worked on
in my career somebody has said that. While there is a lot of skill in a lot of
modern and contemporary art there’s also a lot of art that is more about
the idea than it is about skill. And so yes you could do it but you didn’t. Damn Elisabeth. And that may sound obnoxious or flip but the reality is is that once art begins
to live just as much in the mind as it does in the eye you have to bring your ideas
as well as your physical construction of the work. White paintings are a fascinating kind of
Rorschach test. They offer viewers an ambiguous, I’m so
sorry, but, canvas to project their own interpretations, emotions,
beliefs, and stories onto. So if looking at a white painting makes you
feel angry or excited or soothed, those are all
valid responses. But take a moment to think about why that
was your response. It’s very easy to be dismissive of things
that we’re not immediately attracted to. So if you have a kind of negative gut reaction,
one of defensiveness or fear or anxiety or rejection maybe try to move past that and see what’s
available afterwards. And it doesn’t have to change your mind, but it’s sometimes the process of working
through that reaction that you learn the most about
the work but also about yourself.

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