To What Extent is the Monochrome the Logical Conclusion to Modernist Painting?

The Monochrome in the tradition of modernist easel painting is defined as being a colour field painting consisting of a single colour or tone (Corris, 2009). Monochromes have had an influential effect on analytical and formalist paintings, with their appearance occurring mainly in the late 1910’s with suprematism, and the early 1950’s with formalism. It was the opinion of the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko that upon creating his triptych: “Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour” that he had reached the logical conclusion of all painting. Yet the tradition of painting has continued; it is the objective of this essay to determine to what extent it may be considered that within a modernist context, that the monochrome is the logical conclusion to painting.

In 1940, the art theorist and critic Clement Greenberg wrote: ‘It is by virtue that each art is unique and strict to itself.’ (Greenberg in Frascina, 1985. p.6) In this sentence he outlined the principles that had guided modernist painting since its advent with Impressionism in the mid-19th Century, and that he hoped would outline painting to come. The implication is that art, be it painting, sculpture, literature or any other should ‘eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might be conceivably borrowed from or by another art.’ (Greenberg in Frascina, 1984. P.1) As such, Greenberg limits subject matter to being that of (in the case of painting) “what makes a painting a painting?”

Greenberg observed that the trend in painting to express themselves as paintings had been one of ‘flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas’ (Greenberg in Frascina, 1985. P.7).

Arguably the first artist to present a truly flat painting was Kazimir Malevich with his “Black Square.” Malevich, who had competently painted his way through a variety of styles including Cubism and Futurism during his formative years as an artist, ‘compressed the whole of painting into the black square’ (Rickey, 1995. P.9) and announced the end of futurism and the rise of his own “suprematism” with the exhibition “The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10” in 1915.

It can be said that “Black Square” was the first monochrome painting. The white border is not a specifically painted one but rather is the impression that the black square has left in the ground (the undercoat applied to the canvas before painting). The removal of colour and the use of black act as the most basic methods of expressing Malevich’s intentions: the death of futurism. The inclusion of the border, a reflection of the shape of the canvas, meant the later creation of complete monochromes was possible. Malevich was displaying a black painting in its white frame, an image that was at the time radical but not too radical as to be dismissed by his peers.

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1915
Kazimir Malevich
Black Square

This exhibition was to be echoed 6 years later by Aleksandr Rodchenko with the “5×5=25” exhibition in 1921, created with the express intention of unveiling 3 monochrome paintings with which Rodchenko wished to in turn conclude the suprematist movement.

“Pure Red Colour”, “Pure Yellow Colour” and “Pure Blue Colour” was a continued reduction into the flat plane as prescribed by “Black Square”, yet this time ‘announced three basic colours in art’ (Lavrentjev, 1998. P.58) as opposed to the tonal offerings of “Black Square” and “White on White”. This triptych completed the “six fundamental colour sensations” outlined by Wilhelm Ostwald, a colour theorist whose works were widely read among the Russian constructivists (Jacobson, 1948). With all colour sensations having been met in the most basic of manners, a starting point is outlined for all future painting, but for this to be the case it must stand therefore that a conclusion, in this progression towards flatness and self-reflexivity of painting, had been made within at least the climate of constructivism, if not for the totality of modernist painting.

Aleksandr Rodchenko Pure Red Color (Chistyi krasnyi tsvet) Pure Yellow Color (Chistyi zheltyi tsvet)  Pure Blue Color (Chistyi sinii tsvet) 1921
Aleksandr Rodchenko
Pure Red Color (Chistyi krasnyi tsvet)
Pure Yellow Color (Chistyi zheltyi tsvet)
Pure Blue Color (Chistyi sinii tsvet)

This reduction towards flatness as an expression of the essence of painting can also be seen as the journey towards the purist moment in painting.

When creating his “black on black” works, Rodchenko noted that ‘the foundations of painting are line and colour, the form of one and the texture of the other’ (Lavrentjev, 1998. P.52). The monochrome therefore (in being the most pure form of easel painting) enlists the canvas itself (the most basic element of easel painting) as its form, thereby removing the need for any added impurities.

Another prominent monochrome artist, Yves Klein, believed that ‘line invaded and enslaved colour’ (Klein, 1982. P.218). Like Rodchenko, he shared the opinion that a single form should carry a single colour, for ‘colour is the abstract spacematter’; how could it therefore be logical to divide up that form and invade that matter? Line is dominant over colour, Rodchenko defined it as the very element of construction (Lavrentjev, 1998) but colours themselves vie for dominancy over each other when sharing a form. The monochrome seeks to create a harmony by removing these factors from the painting. As a movement, suprematism sought to overthrow the line and achieved this in the monochrome (Rickey, 1995), yet it wasn’t until Klein’s work in the ‘50s that it was recognized that ‘as soon as there are two colours in a painting, combat begins’ (Klein, 1982. P.220). This is a key point in the ideology of the monochrome as it adds a second justification beyond the “surface is form, one form one colour” argument that Rodchenko employed.

Yves Klein IKB Godet  1958
Yves Klein
IKB Godet

Purity however was never more expressed than in Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”. These pure white canvases displayed together in varying group sizes on various canvas sizes had as much a religious motivation as an artistic one, meaning these canvases stood for purity in painting, purity of moment, purity of form, purity of intention and purity of faith. No colour, no tone, the truly zero degree of painting:

Rauschenberg discovered a logic underlying modernist painting and immediately jumped to its conclusion: The white paintings were purged of all illusionistic depth

-Joseph, 2003. P.30

These paintings weren’t simply “empty” canvases however, they echoed the environment they stood in, copying the walls, and great theatrical displays live on their surfaces as shadows and particles dance around. We as the viewer are compelled to exist on the canvas but then realize the canvas is the environment we find ourselves in.

These actual reflections and mirrorings bring the surroundings into the picture, attaining through this a pliability of surface which has been striven for ever since the first days of impressionism

-Moholy-Nagy in Joseph, 2003. P.36

These paintings are the alpha and the omega for modernism, as well as the starting point for post-modernism. Rauschenberg created works that live only on the canvas, with no illusionistic depth, but in doing so we see the surface of a painting like never before. Rauschenberg truly has captured what it is for a painting to be a painting.

Robert Rauschenberg White Painting [seven panel] 1951
Robert Rauschenberg
White Painting [seven panel]

The monochrome suffers however from the view of arbitrariness, in that it is seen by many to be too close to an arbitrary object. Modernism takes the components of the medium’s specificity: physical constituents, technical knowhow, cultural habits, working procedures and disciplines as the subject matter and tests it for any aesthetic validity; in this sense the monochrome is too reductionist. With no form limitation other than the canvas itself, there is no governance in which by relation the monochrome can compare any of these attributes with other works of art. The placidity of the monochrome can be easily effected by anyone, a sentiment shared by Rauschenberg in his later monochromes, the “Elemental Paintings”, where canvases were covered in dirt, gold and other such materials (one was even made to grow), telling us that if the monochrome is a form of Painting, and not just an arbitrary object, then mother nature is our greatest artist.

Clement Greenberg also believed the monochrome fell under the brand of arbitrary object. His expression in “Necessity of Formalism” in 1971 that, ‘aesthetic value originates in inspiration, vision, and “content”, not in form,’ (Greenberg in De Duve, 1996. P. 210) dictated a stricter method of defining value in reaction to the monochrome and minimalist work that was being created. The monochrome takes its form as its content and as its subject matter, thereby being object rather than painting.

There is also a great relation to the blank canvas associated with the monochrome as, if it is accepted as part of the narrative of the infinite delimitation of flatness in modernist painting, one must ask the question of “what next?” For, if the monochrome is not considered a painting and merely an object, the quest for flatness remains infinite in its expression on the surface of the canvas. However, if it is seen as a painting ‘thus a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily a successful one’ (Greenberg in De Duve, 1996. P.220). This is because the only way to further reduce “painting”, to bring easel painting to its most basic of components, would be to reduce it to its only remaining constant: that of the blank canvas, and this brings up other problems.

The blank canvas is such that it exists as two mutually exclusive artworks at the same time: either it performs as a ready-made, when seen for its representation of flatness, or performs perceptually based on the history of modernist painting. The former is perfunctory after Duchamp’s ready-mades in the 1910’s, which already made the jump from the specific (painting) to the generic (art) (De Duve, 1996), whereas the latter betrays Greenberg’s criteria for a successful painting, that one should view it on a purely optical level and bring no allusions from external experience to the piece (Greenberg in Frascina, 1984).

Rauschenberg also applied this logical leap from the specific to the generic but in his own white paintings. In a letter to Parsons School of Design in 1951 he stated that the paintings are not art (Joseph, 2003). Later to the critic Hubert Crehan he remarked that the pictures are not art (Joseph, 2003), showing his move from the specific to the generic in reference to his own monochromes. The importance of this switch follows Rauschenberg’s thinking of the logic of his paintings. He had originally jumped to the conclusion of what he saw as modernism to create the paintings, yet this line of thought, coupled with the influence from the composer John Cage, (with whom he was good friends) led Rauschenberg to the alternate conclusion that ‘there is no zero,’ within zero ‘ there must be room for an any way there’ (Joseph, 2003. P.14). It was Rauschenberg and Cage’s belief that there was no longer a zero point in art; Silence and whiteness were not the manifestations of purity. Silence is filled with the sound of existence: ambience, whereas the white paintings, seen by the same eye that saw purity of moment in the total reflection of the surroundings, now sees the impurity of existence in its ever changing manifolds.

The monochrome sits in the middle of a struggle to determine its legitimacy, between the infinity of modernist painting and the impossibility of the blank canvas. In terms of the linearity towards the “next step” that Greenberg illustrates in “Towards a Newer Laocoon”, there is no doubt that the monochrome is the logical successor to the Suprematist and Formalist paintings that preceded their creations in the 1920’s and 1950’s as the journey towards flatness that occurs (inadvertently for Rodchenko and very logically for Rauschenberg and Klein) reaches it’s peak in the monochrome as the purest moment in painting. However its arbitrariness and relation to the blank canvas ask of it a different question: “Is the monochrome a painting at all?”

In regards to the blank canvas: if monochrome painting’s proximity to the blank canvas is too close, why stop at the monochrome? A painting can only be judged in relation to its immediate predecessors. Surely the proximity of a Barnet Newman “zip” painting to the blank canvas as compared to a work of cubism is such that, relatively the next step would be to actualize the blank canvas? This line of questioning renders the whole of post-Duchampian modernism null so as to avoid the actualization of the blank canvas.

Klein believed the first form of artistic expression was the recognition of colour. The monochrome gives us the vantage of being able to re-experience this feeling again and again. Colour being the ‘abstract spacematter’ allows us to see depths and shallows more spectacular, momentary and eternal than is possible in any other form. If the ultimate expression of modernism is pure optical experience, how can such an experience be arbitrary?



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