“Black Paintings”

In today’s museum world, where competition for exhibition space is escalating, emptying two large rooms, painting them black, and then posting a text instructing the viewer on how to perceive a black painting is an ambitious conceptual gesture—one that becomes even more commanding in view of the fact that the exhibition’s curator, Stephanie Rosenthal, limited her checklist for the show to just four American male heavyweights who made black paintings between 1945 and 1965. By making Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt the sole artists represented, the narrative of a purely New York phenomenon is promulgated, drawing a line of demarcation between these painters and the European modernists who tested the dark palette in the early twentieth century.

Yet, regardless of the decision not to construct a visual genealogy for black paintings made in New York, Rosenthal’s agenda is to align her four artists with a particular faction in the modernist discourse on black. This tradition, fostered by Kandinsky and Malevich, looked upon black as a signifier of psychic or spiritual transformations. This view was contested by those who used it in purely formal pursuits, as in the tests Rodchenko performed on the optical gradations of black hues and in Karl Peter Röhl’s assertion that black is a means to pictorial flatness.

The choice of a psychological rather than a formal approach explains the empty rooms with texts instructing viewers to close their eyes and experience the sensation of emptiness or night, thus preparing them to feel rather than see black. This metaphorical blindfolding deprives the beholder of the moment of joy that the sculptor Anne Truitt experienced when—by looking closely—she detected that Reinhardt’s apparent monochromes were not entirely black. Truitt’s own black minimalist sculptures, which fit the chronology of this exhibition perfectly, also dispute the idea that working with black paint signified, in David Sylvester’s words, “something splendidly macho.”

The overall look of this exhibition is indirectly informed by the experience of black in fashion, above all in the work of Japanese designers in the ’80s, who knew that the austerity of black creates a powerful image. Unfortunately, the distance from the works that viewers are encouraged by this exhibition to maintain ends up theatricalizing them. It would be all too easy to miss, for example, Rauschenberg’s use of industrial materials in his black works and the resulting radicalization of textures. Similarly, Stella’s use of straight white lines of reserved canvas against the flatness of black paint in opposition to Jackson Pollock’s free black curves dripped over a white background might equally pass unremarked. Also threatened here is the perception of Reinhardt’s and Rothko’s demonstration of black’s paradoxical predilection for subtle nuances. These formal achievements only testify to the fact that these New York artists followed up the historical avant-garde’s relationship with this “thankless color,” as Varvara Stepanova called it, and likewise discovered that black, even when used for painterly and illusionist ends, calls attention to materiality and therefore signifies danger to easel painting. For as it silences what the critic Vladimir Markov (pseudonym of Valdemars Matvejs) called “the noise of colors” and obliterates form it acts as a catalyst, forcing its practitioners to perform a leap into the third dimension. Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings, Stella’s shaped canvases, the Rothko Chapel—things that these artists authored after producing works exhibited here—all demonstrate the fascination with actual space (and that includes Reinhardt’s political anarchism) shared by many painters of black in the twentieth century.

Margarita Tupitsyn