Steadily dwindling since the sixties and seventies, the production of monochrome paintings has been resumed in the past few years with that insistent enthusiasm that characterizes the outré. For instance, Eli Langer has taken to only making near-black paintings, Maike Schoorel continues to refine her near-white ones, and in his last show at China Art Objects, Mark Hagen presented a selection of both. And then there are those objects that involve other mediums and materials masquerading as near-black or white paintings: Justin Beal’s plastic wrapped mirrors, Kaari Upson’s cast charcoal tablets, Bobbi Woods’s spray painted film posters, Phil Chang’s unfixed photographs. The list goes on, and it begs the question of why this and why now?
To many of us, the actual work of coating canvases a uniform color is perplexing to the point of absurdity. To the cognoscenti as much as the lay public, it comes shrouded in the thick fog of occult mysteries, while at the same time radiating the light of reason. Since this work comprises so few decisions—proportion, scale, preparation of surface, texture—they must all be absolutely “right.” The monochrome exudes a sense of inevitability, as if it could not have been made any other way, and one can be wholly convinced of this without quite knowing how to take the measure of its “rightness.” Are the criteria universally set or idiosyncratically chosen? Depending on where one stands, that is, the monochrome is either the selfless fulfillment of a reductive process that answers only to the command of history, or else it is the last gasp of the solipsistic ego that has been chasing its tail for too long. Of course, there are many more ways to get at it—literally, no end of ways. In this regard, the monochrome is the epitome of the open work, but it does not follow that it is therefore generous, agreeable, or even remotely user-friendly. The opposite is true, and this is where the difficult figure of the dandy comes in.
In his Artforum essay of 1988, “Dandyism and Abstraction in a Universe Defined by Newton,” Carter Ratcliff attempts the near impossible task of explaining one highly ambiguous concept by recourse to another no less ambiguous one.1 No doubt, the problematic, even self-sabotaging character of this operation is undertaken as explanatory in its own right, as it highlights a recessive trait shared by his proposed topics: dandyism, abstraction and, at the extreme, the monochrome painting. More to the point, he wants to rethink what a monochrome painting is by relating it to the dandy, who likewise tends to elude consensual definition. To some, the dandy is a sharp dresser, to others, archly out of fashion; to some, the dandy is narcissistic, to others, devoid of self; to some, the dandy is challenging the status quo, to others, capitulating. In casual talk, the designation promises a pinpointing particularity that is never quite delivered upon, and in this respect, dandyism is very much like monochrome painting—both want to keep us guessing.
The dandy shares with the monochrome painting a condition, or sensibility, that we tend to associate more with our past than our present-day circumstances. Both are theoretically linked to the experience of modernity, and are rarely discussed outside a context that would, by now, have to be recognized as academic. In practice, however, monochrome painting and dandyism remain entirely viable options, perhaps more so than ever before. Observed in isolation, it is the determined and declarative aspect of each that predominates; in tandem, however, they exude a highly charged reticence. Ratcliff defines their common affect in terms of “inertia,” “vacuity,” and “blankness.” Both seek to disengage from the causal laws of the workaday world, while remaining nevertheless productive. At the end of the day, that is, something does get made—a work, a look, the self as object—and with single-minded devotion. The evacuated expression that they share gives form to an ambivalence that is very much of the moment.
Ambivalence is there from the outset, of course. The conflicting theorizations of painting’s zero-degree proposed by Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko, as well as their practical demonstration of their respective positions in both their art and their lives, enfold the monochrome in an argument at its inception. For Malevich, it is all about the hard work of the “Spirit” tunneling through to the “Absolute,” whereas for Rodchenko, this work is relatively easy and marks the limit of painting’s use-value for the future. On the one hand, then, monochrome painting is a portal, and on the other, an impasse. How do we reconcile these two definitions? Pure pigment promises communicative immediacy while also hinting at cover up, a refusal to speak, and this is made all the more evident when the color (or non-color) is black.
- Carter Ratcliff, “Dandyism and Abstraction in a Universe Defined by Newton,” Artforum 27.4 (December 1988) 82–89.↵