Monochrome – The Study of Black or White in Art

Monochrome – The Study of Black or White in Art
Monochromatic paintings consist of one color or hue. Although its artistic style is so 20th & 21st century, its origin began much earlier. I will discuss its beginnings and those artists we have learned to love.

The color white was first used in different hues in the 18th century by French artist Jean Baptiste Oudry - painting in tones of white for a series of still life paintings – one of which is "The White Duck."

Unfortunately for the sake of the art world’s quest for study, this painting was stolen in 1990.

Under the umbrella of Contemporary art, Kazimir Malevich painted a series of paintings - one with a title as simple as the subject matter - "White on White" (1918). This painting can be seen at MOMA, NY.

In 1915 Malevich painted "Black Square" which is displayed at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Malevich stated that his work was "a meditation on art’s essence."

Let’s fast forward to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 "White Paintings" series, consisting of blank spaces on canvas. They were shown alone or in groupings.
Rauschenberg’s "Black Paintings" (1951-1953) were collaged newspapers under paint.

His "Red Paintings" (1953-1954) consisted of wood and fabric under heavily painted surfaces.

Jasper Johns’ take on Malevich’s "White Square on a White Field" was his first monochrome of the US flag – "White Flag" (1955). This was a gradation of white tones with the intention of producing a slight resemblance to the "Stars and Stripes."

Johns' "White Flag" can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The terms 'black or white', 'black and white' take on many connotations including 'what may be the obvious in thinking' or racial references.

What is evident is that what is verbalized in the English language as being 'visible or invisible', 'empty or full', 'light or dark' fills our lives in many areas: religion, the arts and sciences, and politics.

Although I can appreciate the stillness and silence that a monochromatic painting may portray, I again question the artist’s real intent:
Are we being duped by the artist when the audience just might think the work of art really has a meaning besides 'emptiness'?

You can own a poster print of Malevich's "White on White," available here from

You Should Also Read:
Has the Public Been Duped by Artists?

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