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Meditative art is also known as monochrome painting.
A late 1990s article in Art in America magazine asserts that 'monochrome painting' began as a joke. The article states that it was merely a whimsical pastime of salon life in late 19th century France. A typical example, which may be familiar from popular puzzle books, might be a blank page or canvas bearing the title "A White Cow in a Snowstorm". However, this kind of activity bears more similarity to 20th century Dadaist or Conceptual art, particularly the works of the Fluxus group of the 1960s, than at least ostensibly to 20th century monochrome painting 'proper'.
Suprematism and Constructivism
Monochrome painting as it is usually understood today began in Moscow, with Kazimir Malevich's "White Square on a White Field" of 1918. This was a variation on or sequel to his 1913 work "Black Square on a White Field", a very important work in its own right to 20th century geometrical abstraction .
While Rodchenko intended his monochrome to be a dismantling of the typical assumptions of painting, Malevich saw his work as a concentration on them, a kind of meditation on art's essence ('pure feeling').
These two approaches articulated very early on in its history this kind of work's almost paradoxical dynamic: that one can read a monochrome either as a flat surface (material entity or 'painting as object') which represent nothing but itself, and therefore representing an ending in the evolution of illusionism in painting (i.e. Rodchenko); or as a depiction of multidimensional (infinite) space, a fulfillment of illusionistic painting , representing a new evolution - a new beginning - in Western painting's history (Malevich). Additionally, many have pointed out that it may be difficult to deduce the artist's intentions from the painting itself, without referring to the artist's commment.
This very broad range of possibility (or impossibility) in interpretation of the monochrome is arguably why monochrome painting is so engaging to many artists, critics, and writers -including Samuel Beckett, who seriously considered devoting his life to art criticism rather than literature after viewing the works of a British monochrome painter; and to the general public, which seems to consider the monochrome a nearly archetypal symbol of 'modern art' at its most shocking and controversial - by way of example, one of Barnett Newman's very severe (though technically not monochrome) abstractions was slashed with a knife by an enraged viewer in the '80's; this same artist's work generated unprecedented anger (and discussion of art!) in Canada when the National Gallery purchased a Newman painting for a large sum of money, also in the '80's; and the Broadway play 'Art', which employed a white monochrome as a prop to generate an argument about aesthetics which made up the bulk of the play. These examples demonstrate that the monochrome is a potent image, capable of provoking serious contemplation, argumentative debate, and even violent outbursts.
Although monochrome has never become dominant and few artists have committed themselves exclusively to it, it has never gone away. It reappears as though a spectre haunting high modernism , or as a symbol of it, appearing during times of aesthetic and sociopolitical upheavals.
Reinhardt was the abstract expressionist artist who came closest to painting 'pure' monochromes. Like the Johns works mentioned below, Reinhardt's black paintings contained faint indications of (geometrical) shape, but the actual difference in hue is not readily visible until the viewer spends time with the work. This tends to encourage a state of meditation in the viewer, and raise a state of uncertainty about what one is actually seeing.
Two other artists, Newman and Rothko, are noted for the reductiveness of their 'colour field' pictures, although they did not explore monochrome.
Neo-Dada (nascent Pop)
Early in his career, in the 1950s, Rauschenberg became known for black, red, and white monochromes. These works explore texture and material. Additionally, materials collaged onto the canvas indicate a structure which is based on a grid.
The white canvases became associated with the work 4'33" by the composer John Cage, which consisted of a length of silence. In another work, Rauschenberg erased a drawing by abstract expressionist artist Willem DeKooning.
Jasper Johns was a friend of Rauschenberg, and was often categorized as a neo-Dadaist, distinct from the abstract expressionist aesthetic which was dominant in the 1950s. He painted a number of works which are at least close to being monochromes, such as: 'White Flag', 'Green Target', and 'Tango'. In 'White Flag', for example, there is a very slight indication of Johns' signature 'American Flag' image, a slight presence which resembles the Malevich 'White Square'.
These works often show more evidence of brushwork than what is typically associated with monochrome painting. Many other works also approach monochrome, like the melancholic 'grey' works of the early 60s, but with real objects ('assemblage') or text added.
Martin's works of the 1950s and 1960s are serene meditations on 'perfection', and hence 'beauty'. Typical works are white, off-white or pale grey canvases with faint evidence of pencil dragged in lines or grids across the painted surface.
Ryman's works bring the word 'constructed' to mind with the attention paid to supports and framing in his works which are usually white, or off-white, and in square format. Abstract Expressionist brushwork is used as formal material in these minimalist constructions. Ryman exhibits a tour de force of variation on a deliberately limited theme.
Using one's own expressive, or even therapeutic, painting as 'material' in a formal or conceptual way became common in the 1970s post-minimal work of painters like Susan Rothenberg and Johnathan Borofsky , a 'permission' which led to the explosion of neo-expressionist painting of the 1980s.
Marden's earliest mature works explored a radically reductive strategy which seemed similar to that of Jasper Johns's contemporaneous works, yet more formalist: grey subtle fields painted in encaustic (wax-medium) with a narrow strip along the bottom of the canvas where Marden left bare evidence of process (i.e., drips and spatters of paint).
Frank Stella echoed composer Igor Stravinsky's famous assertion that 'music is powerless to express anything but itself' when he said 'what you see is what you see', a remark he later qualified by saying his early paintings were influenced to a degree by the writing of Samuel Beckett (see above). In his work he was attempting to minimize any inference of 'spiritual' or even 'emotional' meaning on the part of the viewer, and this is perhaps most striking in his black stripe works of the early 60s. Later, Stella (and Brice Marden, who held a much more spiritual/emotional view of abstraction) abandoned not only monochrome, but also eventually geometric painting.
Richter is an artist who is probably best known for his technically stunning photo-realist paintings, which overshadow his abstract and monochrome works. Both his abstract and representational works seem to cover similar emotional terrain, a kind of ironic pessimism which made his work very fashionable in the late 1980s. His grey paintings are made by drawing 'expressive' gestures in wet paint.
Kelly spent a lot of time in both Paris and New York. He has made a number of monochrome paintings which utilised shaped canvases. His work is perhaps distinct from every other artist listed here in that his abstractions were 'abstracted' from nature. His interest in nature extends so far that he has made a series of botanical watercolors in an impressive and sincerely realistic style.
Mosset also has spent considerable time in New York and Paris. In Paris in the 60s he was a member of the BMPT group, along with Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni. The group brought forth questions about the notions of authorship and originality, implying that they often did each others' works, and that the art object was more important than its authorship. Later, in New York in the late 70s, Mosset undertook a long series of monochrome paintings, during the heyday of Neo-Expressionism. He became a founding member of the New York Radical Painting group, radical referring both to an implied radical social stance, as well as a returning to the radical 'root' of painting. This re-assertion of social relevance for abstraction, and even the monochrome, hadn't been emphasized to such a degree since Malevich and Rodchenko. 1980s neo-geo artists such as Peter Halley who assert a socially relevant, critical role for geometric abstraction, cite Mosset as an influence.
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