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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.

monochrome

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

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

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.

monochrome

“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.

Happy BIrthday, Jackson Pollock!

 

Today is the birthday of American artist and drip paint extraordinaire, Jackson Pollock. The abstract expressionist, known for his figureless murals created on the floor of his studio, would turn 101 years old if he were still magically alive today.

 

 

Artists Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock are shown in their garden at their East Hampton, N.Y., home. 1949 photo provided by the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.

Artists Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock are shown in their garden at their East Hampton, N.Y., home. 1949 photo provided by the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. © Associated Press

 

In this 1949 photo provided by the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, artists Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock are shown in their garden at their East Hampton, N.Y., home. Pollock, who would have turned 100 in 2012, will have the anniversary of his birth observed with exhibitions, fundraisers and other events throughout the year. (AP Photo/Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center)

Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, began his career as an art student, first at Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School and later at the Art Students League of New York. After working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Pollock was signed by famed gallerist, Peggy Guggenheim, in 1943, launching his career with the commissioned work, “Mural,” an eight-foot by twenty canvas covered in the artist’s signature drip style. The piece caused art critic Clement Greenberg to pronounce Pollock “the greatest painter this country had produced.

 

Throughout his career, Pollock challenged the Western conception of brush-and-easel art making, choosing instead to use his whole body in a unique form of action painting. His most famous paintings, such as “One: Number 31“, were made in the late ’40s and ’50s. Constantly seeking to transcend the viewer’s need for figures in art, he began numbering his works during this time, avoiding concrete titles and any allusions to subject matter.

 

Sadly, the great artist painted his last work in 1955, nearly one year before he passed away in a tragic car accident at the age of 44. He was survived by his wife, fellow painter Lee Krasner, as well as his mistress, Ruth Kligman, who was in the car with Pollock at the time of his death.

To celebrate the great painter’s birthday, we’ve put together a slideshow of 10 things you might not have known about Mr. Pollock. Scroll through the slides below and let us know how you are celebrating the Jack the Dripper’s life in the comments section.

See the photo galleries that accompany the original post at Huffington Post Arts:

Jackson Pollock Birthday: Celebrating The American Artist And Drip Painting King (PHOTOS).

Read an interesting discussion of the scientific significance of Pollock’s work in this Huffington Post Arts article.

Owl Painting Found in Attic Sells For Nearly $1 Million At Christie’s Victorian Art Sale

The Huffington Post  |  By Posted: 12/17/2012 12:31 pm EST  |  Updated: 12/18/2012 5:00 pm EST

Everyone dreams of finding that one priceless item hiding in the corners of a dust-ridden attic. One UK teacher recently experienced the joy of rescuing such a forgotten antique, all thanks to an old owl painting that turned out to be worth nearly a million dollars.

The White Owl, by William James Webb, 1856
William James Webbe (fl.1853-1878), The White Owl, ‘Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits,’ signed with monogram and dated ‘1856’ (lower left), oil on board, 17¾ x 10 3/8 in. (45 x 26.3 cm.) © Christie’s Images Limited 2012

Jane Cordery, an art teacher in Hampshire, discovered the detailed bird portrait in her attic after attempting to clean the space for a plumber. She’d never seen the ornate owl, but the painting’s intricate brushwork caught her eye and she decided to e-mail a photograph of the find to Christie’s auction house. According to the Daily Mail, One look at the owl and art expert Brandon Lindberg knew that that the work was worth much more than anyone suspected.

The auction house determined that the painting, titled “The White Owl,” was created by pre-Raphaelite artist William James Webbe, and experts valued the work at £70,000 ($113,449). Beyond the British masterpiece’s hefty price tag, it was also revealed that the UK’s Royal Society had exhibited the owl in the mid 19th century, exposing the piece to leading art critic, John Ruskin, who described it as “a careful study” with excellent brown wings.

The attic artwork hit Christie’s auction block last week, far outselling its estimated price — the winning bid was £589,250 ($951,050). Cordery maintains that she had never even seen the painting before her impromptu winter cleaning, while her partner, James Ravenscroft, remembers receiving the work as a present from his mother. “It’s a complete shock,” Cordery told the Daily Pioneer after the sale. “We were not imagining that in our wildest dreams.”

We don’t know about you, but this unexpected art find is prompting us to take another look at what we have in storage. Check out the slideshow below for more discoveries and let us know about your own wild finds in the comments section.

Glass Artwork Made From Cremated Human Remains Unknowingly Purchased By Utah Thrift Store Customer

The Huffington Post  |  By Posted: 12/03/2012 5:56 pm EST Updated: 12/04/2012 10:22 am EST

Editor’s Note: This was found in the HuffPost Arts section. Check out the original post for photo galleries of amazing and bizarre thrift store fine art finds.

Some people might be disturbed by the fact that thrift stores are filled with objects once owned by people now deceased. But how would those people feel if they knew the actual remains of the dead were available for purchase as well?

Don’t worry, this isn’t a new trend hitting thrift stores everywhere. It’s just the beginnings of a truly bizarre scenario, starring Utah resident Jennifer Peterson. The unsuspecting shopper recently bought a $3 blown glass piece at a Utah thrift outlet only to find out later that the work of art was manufactured from cremated human remains, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

from the Huffington Post
Shaun and Jennifer Peterson pose for a portrait with a memorial glass at their home Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Chris Detrick)

Petersen, an avid bargain hunter, discovered the unlikely medium of her purchase after searching the name found on a stamp at the bottom of her thrift store find, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. She stumbled upon an Oregon-based art gallery called The Edge, which featured a section of “memorial glass” artworks on their website. The description of the glass explained that pieces like Petersen’s globe run for about $150 and are made from one to three ounces of cremated remains.

Petersen called the gallery to confirm that the blue and white streaks on her sand-filled glass piece are indeed the product of human remains, according to the Standard-Examiner. With that part of the mystery solved, she’s now determined to find the original owner of the item and perhaps uncover how the genuine treasure ended up at Utah’s West Jordan Deseret Industries.

“I’ve got somebody’s grandma in my house,” Peterson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Somebody, somewhere is missing. I’d like to return it to the owners and the family.”

Petersen’s odd thrift store find might not be worth as much as the Salvador Dali etching found at a Goodwill in Seattle or the Ilya Bolotwosky painting found at a North Carolina thrift store, but it surely belongs among the ranks of the more bizarre thrift store finds we’ve ever seen. Let us know what you think of the strange story in the comments section.

Wall Street Occupennial – Report from HuffPost Arts

For the past 3 weeks Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has shaken up our nation in what one protester called a “protest movement not seen in America since the 1960s.” Having gained support from veterans and students alike, OWS is now reaching out to artists to contribute to the massive momentum. The movement, which originated with thousands of Americans frustrated with high levels of unemployment and low government support, has now spread to the art world with ‘The Wall Street Occupennial.’

The Occupennial is conceived of as a horizontal power structure in which there are no leaders, just co-organizers. Currently the movement is picking up steam through meetings at Zuccotti Park, posts on a Tumblr account and hopes to fundraise using OWS’s Kickstarter model–A model which has raised OWS tens of thousands in just 3 weeks. You can keep up with events and goals on their website.

The Occupennial mission statement reads:

“The Occupennial is founded on the belief that artists have a crucial role to play in helping to elaborate and sustain the democratic public space that is currently being created by the occupation of Liberty Plaza and other sites across the globe.”

Their Tumblr contains a call to artists asking for contributions to the protest in any way shape or form, from Zombie-painted faces to a puppet show.

An additional facet of the OWS art movement was born yesterday with Occupy Art World, tweeting from an unknown source and applying the OWS demonstration against economic inequality and mass underrepresentation to the art world. They repeatedly refer to the controlling power as the “1%,” and fight its totalizing power over art sales, galleries and museums. Some recent tweets read: “The 1% hijacks art” and “Do art museums serve the public or 1% art collectors and their investments?”

Occupy Art World and the Occupennial illustrate the constant proximity between artist and activist. Whether with new pieces that capture the spirit of the ever-changing movement or with new guidelines to prevent the dilution of future works, the artists of OWS see the high-profile protest as an opportunity to start conversations elsewhere.

Editor’s Note: The Occupennial’s Tumblr site announces the first event organized by the Occupy Wall Street ARts & Culture working group: MONDAY OCT 3RD Corporate Zombie March

MONDAY OCT 3RD Corporate Zombie MarchPlease forward and circulate on Facebook events/Twitter/Google+/etc.Please do not edit or addWe, of the arts and culture working group, of OWS, encourage all protesters on monday October 3rd, to dress as corporate zombies.Intention: *As we in part are reacting against the unquenchable greed of the corporate system in place now, the zombie seems an appropriate metaphor to embody, as a reflection for those that work in the area, to perceive their actions with a new understanding. *We encourage participants to dress, if possible, in corporate- esque attire (suits and ties for men, corporate wear for women). As it is Halloween time, white face paint and fake blood can be readily found. Get creative. Maybe the Zombies are eating monopoly money, or drinking from what looks like oil, etc. Maybe you are more of a Thriller Zombie that just wants to boogie.

Please forward and circulate on Facebook events/Twitter/Google+/etc.
Please do not edit or add

We, of the arts and culture working group, of OWS, encourage all protesters on monday October 3rd, to dress as corporate zombies.

Intention:
*As we in part are reacting against the unquenchable greed of the corporate system in place now, the zombie seems an appropriate metaphor to embody, as a reflection for those that work in the area, to perceive their actions with a new understanding.

*We encourage participants to dress, if possible, in corporate- esque attire (suits and ties for men, corporate wear for women). As it is Halloween time, white face paint and fake blood can be readily found. Get creative. Maybe the Zombies are eating monopoly money, or drinking from what looks like oil, etc. Maybe you are more of a Thriller Zombie that just wants to boogie.

See a related article at artinfo.com: http://blogs.artinfo.com/artintheair/2011/10/06/occupy-wall-street-gets-its-own-biennial/