The Simple Truth - how monochrome has shaped modern art

In this blog about his new book, author Simon Morley looks at the history of the monochrome.

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The hit play Art by Yasmina Reza (1994) revolves around the perplexed and often hilarious responses of two friends to their mutual friend’s expensive purchase of a completely white canvas. The work is made to stand for all that is baffling and infuriating about modern art.  What are the grounds for their friend’s decision and opinions regarding its value? Are his judgments ‘aesthetic’, or do they depend on other criteria, such as the philosophical? Or are more mundane aspects of social life involved, like status, fashion, and economic investment? The two friends incline towards the negative prognosis, but the play draws our attention to more constructive possibilities, and to the ways in which the monochrome painting encourages questioning.

The monochrome began life in the second decade of the twentieth century as the minimal or the most extreme possibility in painting. For all their apparent simplicity, monochromes turn out to be very complicated. They may look visually simple, but they are usually conceptually complex. For some artists, the monochrome will mean painting as an object, but for others, it is a spiritual icon. It may be flat, but it is also potentially infinitely deep. It may be empty of imagery, but it is full of paint. It may be composed of the most ubiquitous of elements – colour – but a monochrome often addresses the most esoteric of meanings. It may look like it could be made by anyone, and yet it is usually the province of the most intellectually questioning and challenging of artists.

In its heyday between 1915 and the mid-1960s artists who made monochrome art claimed to be concerned with the seemingly vastly different, but actually closely linked, experiences of emptiness, nothingness, absence, silence, spiritual and intellectual transcendence, immateriality, infinity, purity, origins, essence, autonomy, absoluteness, specificity, materiality, repetition, seriality, rigour, recklessness, and boredom. Artists explored the dialectics of the limit and limitlessness, the bounded and boundless, form and formlessness, being and nothingness. Artists who make monochromes are involved in what one of its most important exponents, Yves Klein, called the ‘monochrome adventure’, and once the monochrome was recognized as ‘art,’ its existence resonated well beyond the limited sphere of the committed monochromist. It set the benchmark for purity, specificity, rigour and recklessness.

The monochrome was born in the heyday of belief in painting as an autonomous aesthetic object, but from the vantage point of today we can more clearly recognize how and why it could end up exposing the limits of the beliefs that brought it into existence. The monochrome forces us to think about the intertwining of fact and value, how we construct frameworks within which to make objective judgments, establish categories, and set standards in relation to goals. In this sense, the monochrome functions as an opening onto a range of different and sometimes confusing and threatening existential, aesthetic, and cultural values.

There is a category of art dubbed ‘sofa painting’, which refers to artworks that focus our attention because they help start conversations. While, on the face of it, a monochrome might seem an unlikely kind of ‘sofa painting’, as Yasmina Reza’s play attests, its very status as a seeming tabula rasa, and the way it affronts conventional taste and expectations even after a century of existence, permits it to serve this role.

The monochrome produces transitional effects rather than steady states. It facilitates the perception of what surrounds it – it draws our attention to all that usually remains latent and unnoticed. A monochrome makes us aware of our location amid the shifting realities of time and space, literally as well as metaphorically. It states nothing definitively. In this sense, a monochrome exists as a borderline state. It is conditional, hypothetical, and contingent, and always exists in the realm of unfolding possibilities.

– Simon Morley

To read more about the nature of monochrome, order The Simple Truth: The Monochrome in Modern Art from our online shop now.

Simon Morley is an artist and writer. He is currently Assistant Professor at Dankook University, Republic of Korea, and is the author of Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art (2003) and Seven Keys to Modern Art (2019), and editor of The Sublime (Documents of Contemporary Art) (2010).