Conceptual Monochromes (Blank Canvas)
Single-colour monochrome paintings have a long history, and they keep cropping up, in different colours and with different motivations, from Malevich’s mystical, religious gesture of Black Square, to Rodchenko’s Red, Yellow and Blue “Death of Painting” statements to Yves Klein’s pure, blue, Zen objects for contemplation to Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, mirrors to the society which brought them into being. These blank canvases are most closely related to this last example. The Photoshop blank canvas is the natural progression for this phenomenon in the digital era. Although they are not monochromes in the sense of being rendered in a single colour, they represent the same depiction of emptiness, or blankness, and so for this reason they are best seen as conceptual monochromes.
Rauschenberg himself said that a canvas is never empty. Is a blank photoshop canvas more distracting than a physical blank canvas? Can it not equally be a meditative space? If not, or if so, it only says more about our relationship with media.
John Cage famously described the Rauschenberg White Paintings as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles”. They reflected the conditions under which they were being viewed in an immediate sense, but also mirrored the structures and conventions of the surrounding society. If a blank canvas is never blank, how much less blank is one made from a more advanced technology? Does this mean we are getting further away from the void, from the object of contemplation, even from the self? If the paintings depict an absence, is the act of painting them an “additive subtraction”, as Jasper Johns said of Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing? Picasso also said that “Every painting is a sum of destructions: the artist builds and demolishes in the same instant”. There is huge addition in the application of paint, in order to reach the point of the blank, so my painting of this blank is simultaneously an act of erasure, as though I am deleting an image which existed digitally. If I start with a physical blank canvas, and I add digital absence, what must have been there was a digital presence. We will never see it, but it was there. And it looked like a physical blank canvas, because that is what has been deleted. If the purpose of painting these canvases is in order to represent nothingness, I can not create nothingness by adding to it. So I must be erasing something. What is it that I am erasing? It must be a digital image. What must that digital image depict? It must depict the thing which is being destroyed in order to create that representation of nothingness, i.e. a physical canvas.