White as the New Black

John Haber
in New York City

Richard Pousette-Dart, Robert Ryman, and Yves Klein

Things were looking dark for painting in the 1960s. Set aside Pop Art and Minimalism, although each took its toll. Abstraction itself was deepening into black. Even for Mark Rothko, a deepening meditation on light and color came almost to exclude both, along with traces of the artist. He was an elder statesman, in his final years, but he was not alone.

At the same time, Robert Ryman was making a career of a single motif, a white square. As the decade wore on, it excluded everything else, including color. Or did it? As it happens, both Rothko and Ryman from those years are on view the same summer in Washington, along with Richard Pousette-Dart, an Abstract Expressionist who often worked in black and white. Robert Ryman's To Gertrud Mellon (courtesy of the artist/Phillips Collection, 1958)

Shows there also include a curious parallel, again from around 1960, in Yves Klein and his trademark royal blue. The French artist never could figure out whether his single shade belonged to abstraction, pop culture, or celebrity. Yet he, too, brings monochrome out of the shadows.

Color field without the color

Pop Art and Minimalism did take their toll. They took laboring over a single stroke of oil as an ego trip and a thing of the past. For Andy Warhol, monochrome amounted to shades screened onto an electric chair. For Roy Lichtenstein, abstraction was one motif among others, ripe for comic-strip lines and dots. For Sol LeWitt, the chaotic energy and scale of postwar art could emerge from impersonal instructions, for execution by others. When Warhol mimed Jackson Pollock with piss, much as Pollock had pissed in a fireplace, he was just rubbing it in.

Andy Warhol and others did not eradicate painting, but they did oblige a fresh look back. Pollock's drips could now seem impersonal rather than impulsive, and his late tracery in black, with obvious hints of human figuration, made more sense. Willem de Kooning and his women could become ancestors of Pop Art. No wonder Robert Rauschenberg chose Willem de Kooning for an erased de Kooning drawing—and no wonder de Kooning played right along. Clement Greenberg seemed to have won out over another critic, Harold Rosenberg, with an insistence on formalism over expression. When, many years later, Rosalind E. Krauss called the "originality of the avant-garde" a myth all along, she was simply completing the story.

The 1960s kicked off with black—and a bombshell. Right out of Princeton, Frank Stella became the next and maybe last savior of painting. While Stella's "Black Paintings" like The Marriage of Reason and Squalor eliminated depth, the layering of paint also grew darker in the 1970s and 1980s with Brice Marden and Sean Scully. Abstract Expressionists evolved, too. When Barnett Newman evoked the sublime, he was asking for something both purely human and larger than life. By the mid-1960s, Ad Reinhardt made black painting both a site of contemplation and refusal. Young painters had to cope with that dogma for years to come.

Color and light survived in Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and late de Kooning, not to mention realists like Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher—but touched more and more by landscape. The poles of late Monet and Picasso's Cubist portraiture had temporarily displaced Henri Matisse. Rothko was struggling with all these paradoxes, quite as much as with depression. The National Gallery shows his black paintings planned in conjunction with the Rothko Chapel and the Seagram Building, all but one from the NGA's permanent collection. In each, a dark square centers around eye level in a rectangle, almost as dark and just larger than life.

The paradoxes also undermine my cheap pocket history. As one crosses the tower gallery, Rothko's blacks slowly move from a dark red square on dark blue to the reverse, all shot through with green. The idea of pure color survives in black, but as the product of time and thought, while white equates now with blank canvas. Conversely, white can look pretty old-fashioned. In two dozen paintings at the Phillips Collection, Richard Pousette-Dart worked in black graphite and oil on white oil paint, with bare hints of color. He seems to have let painting and drawing develop simultaneously, and each defines and shapes the other.

Pousette-Dart was among the youngest Abstract Expressionists, but still nearing forty. Like Pollock, he had to work through Surrealism before he could combine gesture and all-over composition, much as Rothko in 1949 worked through urban realism before he could combine geometry with inner space. The younger man is by far the fussiest, especially in four welded-steel sculptures. The white shapes remain static totems, and they never quite live up to titles like Brilliant or Radiant. The spray of black lines provides a real kick, though, and demands whatever happened to white. Yet an alternative was already taking shape.

The blank slate

Pousette-Dart displayed several of his white paintings at Betty Parsons in 1955. Three years earlier, at age twenty-two, Robert Ryman arrived in New York to play jazz. By the late 1960s, Ryman had given up improvising. He was making truly the perfect square, in white thinly but palpably applied to canvas. It shows on the edges and along the sides, and the edges and sides matter. He had made the ultimate in art as object, like the bright, shaped canvas of Ellsworth Kelly or Charles Hinman without need of shaping or color.

Ryman needs little of anyone's version of history. Like Rothko, he asks to take it slow and to care about color, but the color comes naturally from the fall of light on white. Like Reinhardt, he eliminates distractions, but he never eliminates care. One can take an entire room of white paintings one by one, watching a brushstroke work its way across and stop where it will. Unlike them both or even Stella, he worries enough about painting to return to easel scale. Especially in the 1980s, he makes the choice of ground, from enamel to steel, part of the painting along with the bolts holding it to the wall—and these, too, often enough are white.

Stella pursued the logic of two dimension to the illogic of three, like a Hegelian exercise gone mad. Ryman never needed Hegel, the Phillips argues, because he never left his roots behind. It sees his passage from music to monochrome as "Variations & Improvisations." This small show of small paintings begins in 1957, two years before Stella made black the new black, and all but ends in 1967, two years before Pierre Soulages declared his black paintings beyond black. Back then Ryman could daub a canvas, leave it or a pencil grid half exposed, switch to plastic or paper, mix in color, and incise his name and date into the paint. The few later works, like a row of black-and-white ceramics from the 1970s, continue to break the mold.

Ryman never does approach the hush of Rothko and Pousette-Dart or the silence of Reinhardt and Kelly. When he leaves the bolts visible, like stone or steel for his wife, Merrill Wagner, painting is having fun. Here, in a context of so much early work, white is both Rosenberg's "arena for action" and a blank slate. A signature and date can stand for formal elements or the artist. The more freely a painting deals in texture and color, the more likely the daubs are to fill the work with a diagonal grid. It is that much more a part of the paradoxes of the 1960s, when painting could never quite black out.

Like all histories, the one in Washington has an eye on the present. On the one hand, painting today is getting along just fine with tradition, thank you, now that no one is declaring it dead. On the other hand, strict divisions between media and genres are out the door. Why not claim credit? Besides, Ryman in 2005 allowed color again, and he hung this show himself. Cordy Ryman, his son, pursues a ragtag spareness of his own—with painted wood that can form nested doors or nestle into a corner.

Ryman hardly lacks for exposure, but he deserves more credit. People tend to underrate him—much like Dorothea Rockburne, who worked in white herself and introduced him to Rauschenberg. As a painter in white, he can seem a creature of past dogma while falling short of it. I do not buy this show's solution, not when Ryman's mature work at Dia:Beacon can take one's breath away. Perhaps its eccentricity, though, will serve as a teaser. Besides, if one worries about hard-edge painting, the cutting edge, and the future of painting, one can do worse than to start with a past crisis, when things looked suspiciously black and white.

Void, if detached

In 1969, Georges Perec published a novel without the letter E. A smooth, often dazzling read, La Disparition nonetheless presents a problem. How can English replicate his sorcery without masculine and feminine nouns—and so a single E-laden word for the? Even the title, meaning "The Disappearance," seems to vanish before one's eyes without that letter. Gilbert Adair's translation hardly breaks a sweat. He calls it A Void.

Also in France, Yves Klein made art of his own one-trick pony. Well, make that two tricks. He is best known for claiming trademark on a shade of blue and for a single photo taken by Shunk-Kender, leaping off a stone wall and into the void. He obviously relishes the pose, spread-eagled in suit and tie, while life and an old-world street get along quite well without him. A passing commuter on bicycle, almost out of a classic shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson but stodgier, never notices a thing. As for Klein's retrospective, the Hirshhorn Museum definitely invokes the void.

"With the Void, Full Powers" sounds like it could use a better translator, but I get the point. Does Klein belong with the romantic impulse of Albert Camus or Abstract Expressionism, or is he already onto Perec's postmodern pranks? Yves Klein's Untitled Anthropometry (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1960)Do all those blue canvases amount to vision devoid of form or the ultimate plain art object? The museum weighs in for the former, not unlike some interpreters of LA-based Minimalism. In a couple more one-liners, Klein claimed to have signed the sky and called himself the painter of space. "He sought," the show argues, "to achieve immaterial spirituality through pure color."

Of course, all that cool ego-tripping belongs to something else as well. It coincided with Pop Art, and one joke after another comes perilously close to Warhol. Klein used his trademark color to dress women who could easily have entered Warhol's motion pictures and the Factory. His scarring cardboard with a blowtorch approaches Warhol's piss paintings, and the marks of a naked body on canvas, Untitled Anthropometry, have the symmetry of Warhol's Rorschach Tests. Like Warhol, too, they also emphasize something and someone material. But then the curators, Philippe Vergne of the Dia Art Foundation and Kerry Brougher, do mention judo as an obsession, along with mysticism, philosophy, and Rosicrucianism.

All that is quite a handful. In fact, it is more than Klein's talents can bear. He stretches to fill an exhibition even with sketches and documentary videos, and the gold and pink variants on the blue paintings look emptier than ever. It says something that the artist, who died of a heart attack in 1962, at age thirty-four, parallels only late Warhol. Yes, he was ahead of his time. But he was ahead of a very glib time—and without Warhol's eye for a changing culture at that.

At his best, he played well the role of a cultural icon, in that gap between existentialism and Postmodernism. Charles Baudelaire anticipated that gap, as "Anywhere Out of This World." Klein's sponge paintings are as silly as ever, but their materiality could fit quite well with biomorphic imagery now, like that of Terry Winters. Poured out on an immense pool of fabric on the floor, the ultramarine of International Klein Blue looks surprisingly rich after all. And Void is also a verb, you know, as a sick but entirely physical joke. Unlike black and white in America, however, the joke wears thin in a moment all the same.

BACK to John's arts home page


"Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings" and "Robert Ryman: Variations & Improvisations" ran at the Phillips Collection through September 12, 2010, Yves Klein at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Black paintings by Mark Rothko ran at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through January 2, 2011.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME