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Your Definitive Guide To Reading Monochrome Paintings

From the Huffington Post Arts & Culture, July 24, 2014

This summer the Tate Modern is showing the UK’s first ever retrospective of radical Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. If you know the name, you’re most likely familiar with the influential, arguably even revolutionary work that is the “Black Square.” And even though, in the back of your mind you realize the radical undercurrents of the deceptively simple work, you still may feel the almost uncontrollable urge to blurt out: “Really, though?

1. We don’t blame you.

2. We’re here to help.


Black Square 1929 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Malevich, born in 1879 and raised in Imperial Russia, witnessed both World War I and the October Revolution in his lifetime. But before you read too much into the artist’s socio-political background, remember he’s also the man behind Suprematism, the art movement that views art purely in terms of form and aesthetics, rejecting social and political ramifications. So, when we see what looks to the human eye like the simplest of shapes in the simplest of colors, what are we supposed to think?

If you’re now scratching your head, you are not alone. New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz made a likeminded comment pertaining to Malevich’s white square, which poses a similar dilemma, in a review of MoMA’s “Inventing Abstraction.” He explained: “It can take a lifetime to understand not only why Kazimir Malevich’s white square on a white ground — still fissuring, still emitting aesthetic ideas today — is great art but why it’s a painting at all.”

Now that you know you’re in good company in your confusion, we return to the question at hand. What is this pesky black square, the simple shape that consumed Malevich from 1915 until 1929, that he painted over and over again? And why is it so important?

What came before the “Black Square,” artistically speaking?

The “Black Square” is most often categorized as a monochrome painting, because — you guessed it — it predominantly features a single color, in this case, black. Although Malevich’s “Square” is often cited as the major catalyst of the genre that later came to be known as monochrome art, he wasn’t the first to take the logic of “all black everything” to the canvas. The earliest documented instance of a monochrome artwork was, in fact, a joke.

As Amelia Groom points out in her essay “There’s Nothing to See Here: Erasing the Monochrome,” the first monochrome canvases were exhibited at an 1882 show titled “Les Arts Incohérents,” featuring a short-lived and highly irreverent anti-art movement that would later inspire Dada and surrealism. One of the works on view, created by poet Paul Bilhaud, was titled “Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night.” For a novice eye, or most any eye for that matter, the painting looks a lot like Malevich’s. In 1887, author Alphonse Allais followed suit, titling an all-white monograph “First Communion of Anemic Young Girls in the Snow.”

Although both Bilhaud and Allais are creating art with a wink that Malevich would later reject, the three artists aren’t speaking altogether different languages. It was, after all, Malevich who wrote in his 1915 manifesto, “Only dull and impotent artists screen their work with sincerity. In art there is a need for truth, not sincerity.” And while Bilhaud and Allais certainly weren’t being sincere, they may have been, even subconsciously, telling the truth.

In their monochrome works, Bilhaud and Allais begin to explore the relationship between art and nature, while toying with the space between. While using humor and absurdity as vessels, the artists navigate the murky territory between art as representation and art as something pure in itself — whether this purity is material (paint, shape) or transcendental (idea, feeling).


Black Circle, 1915, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
What came before the “Black Square,” historically speaking?

Malevich, the oldest of 14 children, was raised by Polish parents who’d both fled to Kiev after the failed Polish January Uprising of 1863. Many critics have debated over whether Malevich’s artwork, which is so clearly revolutionary aesthetically speaking, can be thought of in terms of political rebellion. Could Malevich’s work be read, for instance, in relation to the October Revolution of 1917, which occurred only two years after Malevich’s first square?

In his piece “Becoming Revolutionary: On Kazimir Malevich,” Boris Groys reminds us that a key facet of revolutionary artwork, or revolutionary anything, is criticizing the current order and then calling for change. But Malevich’s work was anything but mimetic, never referencing the current order of things whatsoever. However, as Groys explains, “If Malevich’s Black Square was not an active revolutionary gesture in the sense that it criticized the political status quo or advertised a coming revolution, it was revolutionary in a much deeper sense.”

And here’s where things start to get deep.

With “Black Square,” Malevich doesn’t want to start a political revolution: the piece is the revolution. In a world defined by constant change and progression, he aims to destroy all of it at once with a single pictorial “last word” for which there is no rebuttal.

Malevich shows us what it means to be a revolutionary artist. It means joining the universal material flow that destroys all temporary political and aesthetic orders. Here, the goal is not change — understood as change from an existing, ‘bad’ order to a new, ‘good’ order. Rather, revolutionary art abandons all goals — and enters the non-teleological, potentially infinite process which the artist cannot and does not want to bring to an end.”

Malevich achieves something in art that history or politics could never achieve. A radically new creation through total destruction.

Well, sort of.

Maybe when we said “total destruction” we were being a little dramatic. That makes the “Black Square” sound like it’s made of some otherworldly material of total blackness, rather than, well, paint. Although the uniform application of pigment creates the strange simultaneous feeling of depth and flatness, time has transformed the appearance of the “Black Square,” and its meaning along with it.

Time has not been kind to Kasimir Malevich’s painting, ‘Black Square,‘” writes Philip Shaw. “In 1915 when the work was first displayed the surface of the square was pristine and pure; now the black paint has cracked revealing the white ground like mortar in crazy paving.”

What this unfortunate effect of time reveals is the impossibility of an artwork’s idea transcending its material reality. And though there is something sublime about Malevich’s pure material object (the square) floating in a void of creation (the empty canvas), it’s also still just paint. For Malevich, however, this paint had tremendous power, power not just to represent reality but to create a new reality.

As Michael Brenson wrote in a review of Malevich’s 1990 retrospective: “He may have been the first abstract painter to demonstrate the inexhaustible potential for meaning in the dialogues between edge and shape, color and texture, restless and silent form.” This faith in paint as the stuff of creation and destruction is the very driving force behind Suprematism, or “an attempt through abstract painting to define a new, supreme universal reality.

To again quote Malevich himself: “Color and texture in painting are ends in themselves. They are the essence of painting,
but this essence has always been destroyed by the subject.” For Malevich, there is no transcending the paint, not because paint isn’t powerful enough, but because paint is so powerful such a thing would be impossible.


Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions, 1915.
What relevant artworks followed “Black Square”?

The list of monochrome artworks, clearly somewhat indebted to Malevich’s square, goes on and on. There’s Yves Klein, who engineered his own tone, International Klein Blue, to adorn his monochromatic canvases. He referred to the work as an “open window to freedom,” a means to access an immaterial and utopian realm.

Then there’s Robert Rauschenberg, whose “White Paintings” will go down in history as inspiring John Cage’s silent musical score “4’33″.” Rauschenberg also famously created the piece “Erased de Kooning” by, you guessed it, erasing the entirety of a drawing made by New York art star Willem de Kooning. Again, ideas of creation and destruction are brought to the fore.

Mark Rothko continued Malevich’s quest to channel transcendent feelings through non-representational forms with his emotive Color Field paintings. And Ellsworth Kelly proceeded to give tone and form the utmost respect, not as properties of an image, but as things in themselves. In the artist’s words: “Color and shape are constantly in dialogue. As you modulate one, the other reacts.

Strangely, however, one of the works most often associated with Malevich’s “Black Square” isn’t a monochrome artwork at all, or even a painting. Nope, it’s “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal exhibited proudly and signed R.Mutt in 1917, by art history’s favorite prankster, Marcel Duchamp. What do a black square and a rogue toilet have in common? As cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek illuminated, one of Malevich’s greatest accomplishments in regards to “Black Square” was asserting that it was art.

“The underlying notion of Duchamp’s elevation of an everyday common object into a work of art is that being a work of art is not an inherent property of the object. It is the artist himself who, by pre-empting the… object and locating it in a certain place, makes it a work of art — being a work of art is not a question of ‘why’ but ‘where’.”

Malevich’s square was one of the first artworks to ever make people gasp, guffaw, laugh uncomfortably and assert their five-year-old children could do better. He transformed Bilhaud and Allais’ 19th century jokes into something far more dangerous, something serious and true. Malevich was among the first to elevate something seemingly un-art-like to the mystical and elusive realm of Art. That elevation is in itself an artistic act, if not the artistic act, as Žižek calls it: “artistic endeavour at its most elementary.”

The notion of raising something to the status of art continues to inspire contemporary art-makers to this day. It’s the reason a giant balloon dog sold for a cool $58.4 million at auction, or that one of the world’s most beloved performance artists is “doing nothing” at her highly anticipated summer exhibition. It may very well be the reason your grandparents hate going to museums anymore.

It’s the power to take something physical and transform it into something else — whether it’s emotional, immortal or simply way more expensive. That indescribable yet undeniably perceptible alchemy, that is the power of art. Now, give that little square another glance.


“Malevich” runs until October 26, 2014 at the Tate Modern in London. For another guide to art that’s hard to tackle, check out our Definitive Guide to Reading Abstract Art.


The Southern Oregon World of Wine is the premier wine event for Southern Oregon and now it is also the premier fundraising event in support of local medical care at Asante. New this year the funds raised during the Southern Oregon World of Wine will go to Children’s Miracle Network and other programs supported by Asante Foundation to help ensure when your family needs them Asante will be there with the finest medical care in a compassionate manner. The goal is to build the Southern Oregon World of Wine into a destination event celebrating the wine industry and highlighting the culinary, hospitality, natural beauty, cultural and outdoor activities of Southern Oregon.This year’s Southern Oregon World of Wine is set for August 19 – 23 at the historic Bigham Knoll Campus at 525 Bigham Knoll Drive in Jacksonville. The event boasts wines from 50 southern Oregon wineries and offers attendees a rare opportunity to meet the faces of the area’s wine makers.The Wine Competition will feature some of the best wines from participating wineries that will be tasted and judged by a panel of renowned judges, who traveled from all over the country to participate. Blind tastings are done on Thursday and Friday of the event. The winning wines will be showcased at the Medal Dinner and Auction on Friday.

The Southern Oregon Wine Region is one of the most diverse wine regions in the world. The AVA, which was made official in 2004, offers one of the largest collections of handcrafted wineries in the country. Its eclectic and cutting edge winemakers offer old and new world styles of winemaking. Vintners and winemakers will showcase more than 200 of their wines with a variety of classic and traditional varietals including: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. More exotic varietals will include Tempranillo, Viognier and Albarino. The Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival has been one of the Southern Oregon’s premier events for the past 11 years.

Visit for more info.


Check out a video from last year’s event

Sensory Classes

Thirsty for more than just a sip? Delve into the ‘World of Wine’ the week of the event with wine sensory, evaluation and education classes scheduled for Wednesday, August 20 through Friday, August 22.

Here’s a list of planned classes, each hosted by a wine expert in the field: Sensory Classes

Medal Dinner

Friday August 22, 6pm

Please join us for an enchanted evening under the stars where the Gold Medal/Best of Show Wines from the World of Wine will be paired with culinary delights. This evening is sure to be the Rogue Valley’s most magical dining experience of the year! Featuring:

Seated five-course Winemaker’s Dinner:

  • Live Auction
  • Silent Auction
  • Wine Barrel Art
  • Raffles

Awards Dinner

Grand Tasting

Saturday August 23, 6pm

Enjoy a fine culinary and wine experience as you sample wines and indulge in a succulent array of tasty treats prepared by local master chefs designed to stimulate and satisfy your palate. The popular Grand Tasting offers a rare opportunity to meet the faces of the Southern Oregon wine industry all in one place! Winemakers and owners from 60-plus wineries will showcase more than 100 of the best wines unique to the region. Enjoy musical entertainment and a silent auction.

Grand Tasting & Silent Auction

66th Annual Southern Oregon Art Show Call to Artists and Workshop Series

Call to Artists for the 66th Annual Southern Oregon Art Show

August 1-28, 2014


Announcing a concurrent series of workshops on topics from creating Fairy Doors in clay to 3D Printing!

Find all the details below:
Call to Artists for the 66th Annual Southern Oregon Art ShowCall to Artists for the 66th Annual Southern Oregon Art Show - Details

Call to Artists for the 66th Annual Southern Oregon Art Show - information and agreement

Call to Artists for the 66th Annual Southern Oregon Art Show - Workshop Series

Rogue Valley International – Medford Airport Unveils New Art Display in Terminal

The Rogue Valley International – Medford Airport is pleased to announce a new art display in the terminal. On July 21, 2014 at 1:00 pm, the Airport will hold an Open House to unveil new photographic art work created by Brian Pechtel, a respected local professional photographer who lives in the Rogue Valley.

Hunter Communications, a local fiber optic internet and voice provider, assisted in purchasing the art and seeing the project through to completion. Hunter CEO Rich Ryan commented, “We have been investing in the Southern Oregon community since 1994 and always jump at the opportunity to share our love of this area with others. The Airport often provides our first impression to travelers and visitors of all kinds, and we believe it is important to ensure this is a memorable impression by faithfully representing the beautiful, amazing region in which we reside.”

Hunter Communications has built over 1,000 miles of fiber optic network in Southern Oregon; provides networking and voice services for businesses, schools, municipalities, and emergency services; and continues to invest in our local economy.

“We’re very excited to see this display installed.” stated Bern Case, Airport Director. “To showcase scenic photography of the beautiful area we live in has been a goal since the terminal was completed. We’re appreciative of Hunter Communication and the commitment they’ve made to make this project such a success.”

There will be a total of nine 60 x 90 inch panels spanning the area over the ticketing counters in the lobby. The photographic images represent a variety of scenic locations in the Rogue Valley as well as beautiful Crater Lake. Throughout the year, the images will be rotated with nine additional panels.

For further information on the Open House, please contact Bern Case, Airport Director, at (541) 776-7222. Parking tickets will be validated for the event.

Charitable Tax Update

The House of Representatives passed a bill 277-130 to make permanent a series of charitable tax provisions.

Rep. Calvert Restores Cut to NEA and NEH

Once again, your advocacy voices made a difference. Last week, thousands of Arts Action Fund members sent letters to their Members of Congress in response to action taken by the House Subcommittee on the Interior.

California Governor Signs $5 Million Increase for the Arts

Last week, more than 1,000 California arts advocates signed the Arts Action Fund petition in less than 24 hours to encourage the Governor to sign a bill that included a $5 million increase in funding for the California Arts Council

North Coast Printmakers Collective “Odyssey” Exhibit at CCC Art Center Gallery

Ink II In the studio of Marie Powell. Photo by Marie Powell

“Ink II” In the studio of Marie Powell. Photo by Marie Powell

Clatsop Community College will host a new exhibit by the North Coast Printmakers Collective in its Art Center Gallery, beginning with an opening reception, Thursday, July 24th at 6pm and continuing through September 19th. The opening reception will include light refreshments and live music, and the public is cordially invited. This special summer exhibit is sponsored in part by the Clatsop Community College Foundation.


“Odyssey” asks each of the participating artists to represent a personal journey of discovery and growth as an artist. Momentum points in the journey might be new techniques, new content or new relationships to the work. Each artist’s odyssey is unique and is the foundation of her or his mission as an independent artist.


The North Coast Printmakers Collective is a diverse and talented group of established and emerging artists working to express personal insights and shared aesthetics.  Participating artists from the Collective for this show include: Vicki Baker, Elizabeth Bonn-Zimmerman, Sarah Baumert, Reed Clarke, Roger Hallin, Normandie Hand, Kirsten Horning, Pat Howerton, Gin Laughery, Marie Powell, Ben Rosenberg, Penny Treat, Roxanne Turner and Janet Wade.

From July 24th through August 16th, the Gallery will be open Mon.-Thurs. 9-5 p.m., and Fri.-Sat. 1-4 p.m., with artists in attendance Friday and Saturday.  The Gallery will not be open July 4th & 5th. Hours after August 16th will be by appointment.

Please direct inquiries to:  Kirsten Horning, 503-338-2341; khorningatclatsopccdotedu  (khorningatclatsopccdotedu)  .


Ai Weiwei on Self-Censorship and Freedom of Expression

An Exclusive Essay By Ai Weiwei: ‘On Self-Censorship’

Posted: Updated:

It’s been a bad month for critics of the Chinese government, starting with the flood of arrests ahead of the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Now officials are battling a single man: their longtime opponent, the world-famous artist Ai Weiwei.

This month, Ai withdrew his work from a show at Beijing’s influential Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a tribute to the late scholar Hans Van Dijk, with whom he worked closely. It was a move made in protest: In a series of correspondences that surfaced online, UCCA chief Xue Mei admitted to removing Ai’s name from a press release, bowing to pressure from the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The incident follows a similar one this spring, when Ai’s name and work were “wiped” from a retrospective in Shanghai to placate the government.

In an email to the Huffington Post, Ai analyzed the culture of “self-censorship” at play in China’s art world, drawing a line between the government’s actions and an old Chinese saying, which translates to “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” The essay is reprinted in full below.

The sculpture 'Surveillance Camera' made of marble in 2010 by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is displayed as part of the exhibition 'Evidence' at the Martin-Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, during a press preview on April 2, 2014. On 3,000 square metres in 18 rooms and the Lichthof court, the museum will be displaying works and installations from the artist which were either designed for the Martin-Gropius-Bau or have not yet been shown in Germany, from April 3 to July 7, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE +++ RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION, TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

The sculpture ‘Surveillance Camera’ made of marble in 2010 by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

On Self-Censorship
By Ai Weiwei

Censorship in China is enforced 24 hours a day, and operates in every channel of communication. Its impact resounds in all forms of individual expression related to the public, be it a publication, an art show, or a website. For over 60 years, policies of censorship have been a pervasive part of society throughout the nation.

Within a month, my name has been omitted from two exhibitions in China. Most recently, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing was showing three of my pieces in an exhibition commemorating an old friend and colleague, but were afraid to mention my name and my relationship with the institution that my friend and I built together — the first Chinese contemporary art institution ever created.

When these incidents are observed as part of a bigger picture, the severity of the issue can be clearly understood. This strict censorship of information and expression affects not only myself, but the artist community and the whole of society. For mixed reasons, institutions are self-censoring in order to survive, some even to reap benefits.

In a conversation with Philip Tinari, director of the UCCA, he mentioned “threats” from above that led to the omission of my name in the exhibition. In China, party policies may not affect you as an individual, but work through your organization, your landlord, your relatives and your associates. Even if you act independently, the power influences those around you.

Intimidation is the most efficient tool for those in power to scare away people’s sense of independence. Not only can they successfully expunge ideas from the public sphere and purge those who dare to express these ideas and attitudes, they can also brainwash anyone who simply wants to function as a part of society. In order to gain financial and personal security, people need to conform to behavioral standards without asking any questions or attempting to tell right from wrong. Censorship is a system that creates absolute power and paralyses society, removing the people’s courage to make judgments or bear social responsibility.

Censorship and self-censorship act together in this society to ensure that independent thinking and creativity cannot exist without bowing to authority. More often than not, self-censoring and the so-called threats related to it, are based on a memory or a vague sense of danger, and not necessarily a direct instruction from high officials. The Chinese saying sha ji jing hou puts it succinctly: killing the chicken to scare the monkey. Punishing an individual as an example to others again incites this policy of intimidation that can resound for lifetimes and even generations.

Unlike most parts of the world, China’s internet is based on local area networks (LAN), but even this limited information flow is already making the authorities extremely nervous. Not only does online censorship go against the essential character of the Internet, it has already led to many arrests and sentences in persecution of freedom of expression. As a result, self-censorship is on the rise, while the demand for freedom grows at an equally rapid pace. These are parallel challenges facing us in the materialistic world in which we live.

See a slideshow of Ai Weiei’s protest art in the original post at the Huffington Post

“Red, White and Blue” July Show at Art Presence Art Center

Americans for the Arts distilled the many reasons the arts have real value into Ten Reasons to Support the Arts.  I’ll be sharing them to give you artful food for thought and conversation. Reason #10: “Arts mean business. The Creative Industries are arts businesses that range from nonprofit museums, symphonies, and theaters to for-profit film, architecture, and design companies. A 2014 analysis of Dun & Bradstreet data counts 750,453 U.S. businesses which create or distribute the arts and employ 3.1 million people—representing 4.2 percent of all businesses and 2.2 percent of all employees.” (Download a free Creative Industry report for your local community.)

Graffiti Vortex II, Image by Alice LaMoree

Art Presence believes in providing opportunities for children to experience the benefits of the arts.  During April’s “Environmentality” exhibit we had the pleasure of taking Bear Scout Den of Jacksonville’s Pack 17, sponsored by the Jacksonville Kiwanis, and Bear Den Leader Tawny Westphalen on a guided tour of the gallery.  Most of the boys—who have been together since first grade Tiger Scouts—knew how to conduct themselves in an art gallery, but all became truly interested in the art when we discussed the reasons why the artists had created these paintings and how the artwork communicated their message.  Afterward, one mother told me she had never seen them so well-behaved.  The boys and their parents enjoyed their visit and want to return for classes and new exhibits.  Some were even interested in being an artist featured at the gallery!  This was an exceptionally rewarding afternoon, and we invite parents, teachers and group leaders to bring their kids to the gallery, too.

Art Presence had a fantastic Taste of Summer!  We’re proud of the Jacksonville Rotary Club’s excellent renovation of our classroom, and’s wine/herb pairing presentation drew a full house, with participants’ enthusiastic reception to the information and the pairings filling the room with excitement. A steady stream of visitors came in for wine tastings, signing up for wine clubs and enjoying art all afternoon. We thank the Britt Festival and all our partners, who made it a successful day for everyone.

Pooped Patriots, Image by Thomas Glassman

Art Presence Art Center’s July exhibit is a “Red, White and Blue” affair, with summer scenes and everything we love about our country on display. You’re invited to meet the artists over wine and hors d’oeuvres at a reception on Friday, July 11 from 5–7pm. The show will be on display from July 4 – 27, 2014.

Chasing Waves, pen and ink Zentangle® by Betty Barss

Our curated shows continue through the month, with the Zen DeZigns show at Medford Library showcasing Zentangles® in pen and ink by Charlotte Petersen, Betty Barss and Linda Boutacoff, Tom Glassman’s photography show in the Naverson Room at Jacksonville Library, and Alice LaMoree’s show at Pioneer Village—view her spectacular photography in the dining room. Take a moment to enjoy the display of hand carved waterfowl decoys from the collection of member Katharine Gracey, created by American artists over the last 40 years, in the front entrance display case at the Jacksonville Public Library.

Hand carved decoys from the collection of Katharine Gracey

Art Presence would be delighted to host your class, workshop or meeting! Now that our classroom’s renovation is complete, we would like to share the space with local artists, individuals and groups who need a place to present classes or workshops, or hold meetings. Rental fees are modest and affordable even for struggling subsistence artists. Art Presence members receive a 50% discount. For more information, contact Anne Brooke at 541-941-7057 or email her via our Contact page.


Here’s a sampling of the work you will see at the gallery during our July 2014 exhibits at the gallery, Medford and Jacksonville Libraries! As this is a syndicated post, only thumbnails have come through the feed, so please visit to see larger versions and to learn more about the gallery.