White monochrome

Richard Long, ‘Small White Pebble Circles’ 1987
Richard Long
Small White Pebble Circles 1987
Tate
© Richard Long

Monochrome means one colour. The monochrome is often seen as the ultimate manifestation of abstraction in the history of modern art. For some, it signals the end of painting, as it would appear to reject representation of any kind. Without image, and inherently pure, the monochrome seems to resist all meaning, coming to symbolise for many all that is elitist and difficult about modern and contemporary art.

The monochrome appears in sculpture, relief and painting throughout the twentieth century, and has been explored by artists as diverse as Kasimir Malevich, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, and Anish Kapoor. There are two strands to be found in the exploration of the monochrome; one is the spiritual experience of emptying the canvas, and the neutrality and serenity that can be found in the purely abstract. The other is the reduction of painting or sculpture to their most basic elements, form and colour, to emphasise the concrete and material nature of the work as an object.

In the mid 1930s in Britain, Ben Nicholson began a series of white reliefs and sculptures. Nicholson’s work of this time was intractably modernist, the stark whiteness and simple shapes of works often echoing the forms of modernist architecture. For Barbara Hepworth, working alongside Nicholson, the monochrome allowed her to focus on exploring the relationship of space to form.

Working in Italy in the late 1950s, Piero Manzoni completely rejected the use of colour in his series of ‘Achrome’ works. Soaking his canvases in kaolin, a soft china clay used in making porcelain, the kaolin eliminated colour to the point of his desired ‘nothingness’, in which ‘all interpretative possibilities are excluded’. Robert Ryman, meanwhile, sought to heighten the viewer’s sensitivity to subtle variations in the brushwork, surfaces and materials employed, so that the painting is totally self-sufficent, representing nothing but itself.