PRINT February 1964

The Many Colorations of Black and White

TO SAY OF a man that he sees things in black and white, that is, that he has a categorical, blunt mind, insensitive to nuance, is not a compliment. But a vice in life may be a virtue in art, a region where the terms of reference are inevitably changed. Here the Manichean contrasts, the value jumps, the boldness and immediacy of drawing, the very extremity of the achromatic colors, all contribute to give a picture of the primordial vocabulary of art itself. Further, the combination of black and white is an irreducible quotient less than which the idea of visual relationships can scarcely exist.

In this respect, the condition of monochrome painting, say grisaille, has never been as interesting as of drawing or prints, because if often simpler, the latter has a built-in finality, whereas grey pictures, lacking the element of color, are perpetually incomplete—if not necessarily unfinished. This holds true of vastly different grisailles, say by Hugo van der Goes and Eugène Carrière, in which the missing agent of color is made deliberately conspicuous by its absence. One senses a picture with its blood drained out.

But a painting which confines itself to the polarities of black and white is another conception entirely. Because it implies an abstraction of that abstraction which drawing is already, it can be only a twentieth century phenomenon. Then too, it begs the question of its own identity, which fundamentally remains open: is a black and white painting a drawing putting on airs, or a picture in straitened circumstances? Such a work, in fact, embodies a very obvious contradiction. On one hand, one cannot say that it is a “reduced” normal painting—because it possesses the apparent self-sufficiency of draftsmanship; and on the other, it is never merely graphic, because it takes unembarrassed advantage of the potency and richness of oil. In short, one is dealing with an original invention—neither precisely a genre, style, or a medium, but rather a mode, whose very directness of means holds ambiguity in escrow.

As a result, there is a basic illusion in a Mondrian “plus and minus” picture, perhaps the first of the black-white species to appear in modern art. By establishing a quasi-pictographic format, it alludes to a manner of vision which is materially rather thin, the white maintaining an amplified identity very full bodied in its own right. Quite aside from Mondrian’s specific formal concerns, much of the expressive durability of the work comes from the spectator’s awareness of transposed terms. It is very important that illusionism be as undeceiving as it is deceiving. Enormously different, but also illusionist in its own way, is Picasso’s Guernica, the key work in the whole mode. Its systematic metaphor of tabloid photography is optically contradicted by pigments of a brilliance considerably more powerful than is within the range of industrial inks. Moreover, the change of contexts from original source to the created image is explicit, although distinctly piecemeal. No one, that is, thinks that Picasso has photographed the depicted event; but he does refer to one of the basic limitations under which photography would present it.

Here, then, is his great discovery: against the hitherto unquestioned truth that we see everything “in color” the Guernica is a monumental defiance. Yet if we customarily perceive events through an imperfect means of reproduction, then, by accenting that fact, and its actuality, Picasso achieves something more immediate than by the ordinarily more vicarious medium of the “work of art.” It is a matter of conventions which he switches to attain a shock quite as great as that produced by the outright formal distortions of the scene. But paradoxically, since the real world limits color, and the Guernica is an object within that world, no black and white photograph (even in the same scale) will compare in chromatic force, with one’s physical encounter with the painting. (Such a fact is amply borne out by a comparison of the black and white photographs accompanying this article with their originals.) The artist can safely descend into the achromatic area, while taking advantage of normal color-sensitive human vision to reinvest his work with the taste and sensation of color.

There is a further puzzle represented in the Guernica. One has the possibility, after all, of considering it as a restricted palette picture (in this, perhaps starker, but essentially no different than all painting which has to be chromatically limited in one fashion or another). But, more convincingly, by its choice of black and white, and a mixture of the two, grey, it is interpretable as singling out colors with a specific symbolic status. Unquestionably, the distinction of these hues, as realized by Picasso, is that, being at opposite ends of the optical spectrum, the one destitute of light, the other reflecting all differing rays of it, they appear as absolutes. Beyond them, no color is imaginable. Guernica opposes all grisaille painting, not even by being so much against modeling, but by its extraordinarily confident adhesion to the awesomeness of black and white as unique and limiting poles of visual experience. You may tint a grisaille into life, but to wedge a color into the new mode is to defuse the most explosive of contrasts, and to disqualify it as an insight.

Such are some of the possible issues in discussing the remarkable efflorescence of black and white painting in New York shortly after the Second World War. But, as documented by the Jewish Museum in an exhibition more puzzling than enlightening, the phenomenon resists historical explanation. Initially it is even questionable if such an incident has a history, for it appears as a sporadic, and, with few exceptions, unsustained endeavor in the oeuvre of scattered painters. All one really knows is that no painter at present would think twice of doing a black and white picture, but that before 1948, the idea simply was not in currency. After its genesis is more or less exposed in Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, and Motherwell, the black and white picture flickers discontinuously in American painting. If the Jewish Museum permits some telling omissions (important pictures by Still, Gottlieb, Reinhardt and Rothko are absent), it nevertheless allows our first views of the overlapping stages of the mode. Thus, among younger artists, Kelly (1953), Stout and Youngerman are practitioners of black and white as abstract, while Johns, Rauschenberg and Dine are anti-abstract, and employ the two colors in a completely associated way. Finally, there is a prominent lone-wolf, Frank Stella.

The emphasis has been away from inclusion of predominantly black paintings, and perhaps this is fair, in an unexpected way. For it would appear obvious that the—if only minute—presence of its opposite is necessary to confirm the ultimate identity of each color in this special format. The introduction of any alien element instantly denatures and weakens a black and white in the direction of conventional chromatics. Thus the Stellas, with their white pin stripes are much blacker, paradoxically, than would be a Reinhardt, of whose variations black is merely the theme, but which in turn, is completely lightless when compared with one of the new, positively effulgent “black” Rothkos. In such works, enormous pressure has been put upon the notion of the monochrome, so that a single hue is broken down (actually reconstructed), and a whole fresh gamut of colors is pressed out. Nothing of the sort, by the way, has happened to white, and here, how singular has been the reluctance to follow the early example of Malevitch.

One has more than a hint, then, of the importance given to the realm of shade and darkness, and its equation with a curious strength, in the motley pictures gathered for display. In them, for all that it remains necessary, white is a mere foil. Even Kline, the great exception, had to protest that he was also making shapes that weren’t black, and thus to underline a reading of his work which he apparently felt was not a natural one. As to the properties of black itself, as a pictorial vehicle, it is by no means clear that there is any the greater flattening of the plane or affirmation of the surface occasioned by its use. Contrary to those who have presumed it to be a means of eliminating spatial inconsistency, one gets the impression that black (and white, for that matter, too) dissolves tangibility, and tends to leave the exact position of the picture facade in some doubt. (In sculpture, Louise Nevelson is the most apparent beneficiary of this phenomenon.) An unprimed canvas appears as a much more material thing than a primed one, and a dark brown surface is, if not much denser, than more palpable than a black one. Blackness gives the painter a mandate for esthetic double dealing.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to interpret the black and white picture altogether as an “attempt to essentialize art, rescuing it from a burden of skills and techniques” (Lawrence Alloway), or as “the preservation of a main pictorial research . . . (value contrast) . . . that is suspected of being near exhaustion.” (Clement Greenberg). Rather, the incidence of black and white has remained high, and has even become the characteristic idiom in those artists who have been especially weak in chromatic sensitivity. One thinks of Kline and Motherwell. But that in Pollock, it occurs so frequently (and magnificently) is also an exposure of a chromatic deficiency which ought to be better understood. Even de Kooning’s sense of color has been shaky, i.e. tintlike, from time to time, and, as a matter of fact, debilities along this whole line can be observed in every important American painter, with the single towering exception of Rothko. The creation of the black and white mode, therefore, is perhaps less accidental than it seems, for it has functioned as an ingenious evasion of the problems of chromatic vision. Less underground, and more tough-minded, have been the railings during the late fifties, against “nice” color, or color itself, as well as composition and academic competence: outpourings from the “Club.” An ethos of deprivation (Gottlieb saying “I try to be poor”) looks favorably upon black and white. But there have been specific profits in the intensified decorativeness and especially the fantasy, of the pictures shown. Forgetting even the relieved conviction of so many of them, one responds very much to their spatial equivocation and their metaphorical richness.

There is, at first, a bracing Puritanical air about the whole display. The white skeins, for instance, over the heavy black paint in de Kooning’s Night Square, 1950–51, as they pirouette brittlely out of their loose-knit entanglements, elicit a continual optical shock. It is like a photographic negative of a cubist composition gone a little drunk, the linear energy abruptly transferred into light. The only other echo of the white on black scheme is by Frank Stella, in 1961. He keeps the irritating clarity of the format, but makes white the thinnest of sunken-in periodic divisions between bars of black arranged in concentric diamonds. Yet unprimed canvas has been substituted for white paint, with the result that the “objectness” of the painting channels through just sufficiently to remove it from “artness” and illusion. The Stellas are useless gratuitous things, looking like geometric art, but denying its sense of form, just as they contradict its allusiveness by soft edge canals of actuality. But this refusal to engage in relationships, is a relationship itself, of an enigmatic physical presence to a new idea. The major differences between de Kooning and Stella are not so much of talent, or compositional preference, but of worlds. The same, finally, applies to Barnett Newman’s Shining Forth (probably a little spoiled by its signature), for though it reverses the proportions of black and white, it focuses an exclusive attention, however, static, upon the element of spatial judgment. (The negative white “line” on the right, in context, is a playful caprice.) Yet, in the way it too, ultimately rejects relationships, the Newman reflects Mondrian about as much as Stella extends de Kooning. All this would be less clear in color, where the irrationality of sensuous effects tends to blur the anti-rational concept.

Such, however, is the range of what American artists have done with black and white, that a whole aspect of the mode—that which owes most to Guernica—could only be summarized by the Jewish Museum. If Motherwell recalls Picasso’s influence generally—as the proponent of a Spanishness which functioned in his career strangely like the “espagnolisme” of the early Manet (who, incidentally is the grandfather of the whole present development), Rauschenberg and Johns derive a great deal from another side of Picasso entirely. Here the analogy of black, white and grey is not so much to a contrast of values, or to some kind of substitute for color, but to a form of mass communication, tabloid photography. By its very restrictedness, therefore, the achromatic palette becomes enriched in eschewing “art” and appearing mechanical, even circumstantial. How fascinating it is to recall this circumstantiality clothed, in Guernica by the cardboard-like flatness of Picasso’s handling, and to see it in Rauschenberg and Johns, in the flesh of Abstract Expressionism. In contexts, none of which are Surrealist, their effects are hypnotic in a manner André Breton could only approve. In fact, at the Rauschenberg show at the Galerie Sonnabend in Paris, 1962, he approved very much. With Picasso’s mural, a “work of art” is screened as if by black and white film; in Rauschenberg’s Crocus, paint apes the photographic process, and richly “pictorializes” it, while Johns somehow suggests the mortification of pastose paint by eliminating chromatics. Although the Johns works exhibited were among his least successful (fault of incoherent tonalities), they characteristically illustrated his ambivalence towards the whole problem of meaning in art, object, and circumstance. Finally, Jim Dine, with an alarming cynicism that is part of his intentional content, runs riot with all the implications of his slightly older confreres (e.g., the multiplied palette holes in Three Palettes). He can even paradoxically go back to drawing within the created framework, assured that his work will not be read as such. His is a caricatural compression of their outlooks, indiscriminately mingled, which makes fictions of their truths, and means of their ends. Inevitably, this play of artifice and of unreality is exquisitely heightened by black and white.

For the viewer, stepping away from this spectacle into the outer world, the change is a bit prosaic. For the artist, timorously re-engaging with the problem of color, real complexity begins. They tell, at the Jewish Museum, of how a woman called up to praise their show of black and white painting, and now looked forward to an exhibition of “color painting.” It’s an interesting idea.

Max Kozloff