Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Painting in Black and White

BLACK and WHITE. It sounds so very direct and clear. 

To frame an issue in black and white is to suggest that there is no middle ground and that the issue should only be considered from either of two extremes. It suggests that black and white are opposites--that one negates the other. It is a simplistic approach and demands that we see only absolutes. Black or white. Pick one.

But painting in black and white is not the same as thinking in black and white. By painting in black and white, the artist has pared down one part of image-making -- color choice, but rather than certainty we are offered a range of possibilities. Is the blackness something concrete or is it atmospheric? Does whiteness always connote a void?  Can blackness and whiteness possess many of the same qualities?  And of course, labeling colors simply as 'black' or 'white' is simplistic, as there are many variations of blackness and whiteness.  Although the palette is limited to black and white, the experience of seeing is complex.

AL HELD   The "I", 1965, 
acrylic on canvas, 108 x 76"

This monumental painting by Al Held is currently on view at Cheim & Reid. Although not apparent when viewing it on a computer screen, the entire surface is covered with brush marks, gouges and globs of paint. The physicality and sheer size of the painting give it great presence. The white tabs appear to forcefully push out against the vertical edges. Or perhaps, the tabs are folded around and in front of the blackness, creating the illusion that the back of the painting is a field of brilliant whiteness. The painting offers us spatial ambiguity, not certainty.


RICHARD SERRA   Black Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum, 2011

RICHARD SERRA  Zadakians, 1974  Paintstick on linen (at the Metropolitan Museum)

In a 2011 installation of monumental drawings (melted oil paint sticks pressed onto paper and linen) at the Metropolitan Museum, Richard Serra brought the extraordinary density of blackness to a new level.  The white walls frequently served as a counterpoint to the all enveloping blackness, but these drawings were about the blackness itself--the kind of blackness that can consume you if you lean in too closely.

While these paintings are pared down in composition and color, they are not in any way simplistic and offer us no absolutes. In geometric abstraction, the interplay of figure and ground is often present no matter what the size of the painting. What we read as whiteness or blackness may be warm, cool, flat or luminous. For me, the absence of other colors increases the mystery and power of these images.

KAZIMIR MALEVICH  Black and White, Suprematist composition, 1915 
 oil on canvas   80 x 80cm

MYRON STOUT  Untitled, 1953
 charcoal and pastel on paper      25 x 19"
(I am not certain if the specifications are correct for this piece.)

PIET MONDRIAN     Composition in Black and White, with Double Lines, 1934    oil on canvas

Linear and gestural work bring out another element of the expressive power of black and white abstraction, whether the mark making is monumental and vigorous or more pictorial. The paintings may be stark and energetic or lyrical, but the absence of other colors allows us to focus more acutely on the forms.

FRANZ KLINE    Mahoning, 1956     oil and paper collage on canvas    80 x 100"

WILLEM DE KOONING     Painting, 1948    enamel and oil on canvas    42.5 x 56"

It takes patience to take in all the possibilities that are offered in these paintings. Unlike black and white thinking, the longer you look, the more you see. 

The images in this post first appeared on gallery and museum websites.


  1. Looks like a must see show.

    Sanford Wurmfeld: Light and Dark opened at Minus space last night in Brooklyn.

    1. Thank you for the information on Sanford Wurmfeld's exhibit at Minus Space and the concurrent exhibit at the Hunter College Gallery. He certainly explores some of the possibilities about chroma that I raised in my post.