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Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [Three Panel] (1951)
Okay so most of us have the technical ability and basic motor skills to create a white painting, but the thing is, we didn’t. Though a lot of contemporary art requires a great deal of skill and technical ability, today, art is more about the idea. Of course it is not simply the newness of an idea that makes it meaningful, but rather what the idea was trying to achieve. When Rauschenberg first exhibited his series of white paintings, there was, of course, some outrage. How could this be art? Can you really expect someone to pay top dollar for a piece like this?
These pieces by Rauschenberg represent an experiment in Minimalism, one which has shaped the narrative of art history. You may notice that there are no brushstrokes, no evidence that the artist has even touched the painting, as though it simply arrived as a fully formed, pure white canvas. Therein lies its power and the reason why you will see it and other works like it throughout major museums and galleries - it makes us stop, take a pause, and it forces us to think.
The more minimal the internal content of an artwork is, the more contingent it is on the viewer. In fact, the subject of the work is our own perception and the context it is embedded in, and this fact becomes glaringly evident due to the lack of stylistic content. When viewing Rauschenberg’s White Painting in person, one is able to see reflections of light and color, so much so that its surroundings in that moment become part of the piece - and suddenly the canvas no longer feels so empty.
Agnes Martin, White Stone, 1964
There is some work to be done when you view a piece of minimalist art from an artist like Ellsworth Kelly or Agnes Martin. If you look at a work of minimalist art and your initial feelings are anger, anxiety, or just an overwhelming feeling of “I could do that”, those feelings aren’t invalid, but in being immediately dismissive of a piece, you are only doing a disservice to yourself. You don’t have to like every work of art you come across, but we owe it to artists and to ourselves to try work through our judgements.
Ellsworth Kelly, Black Panel with White Curve I, 1989
Minimalism continues to be an important part of contemporary art, with many artists working today using it as a foundation from which to expand their own practice and further the art historical narrative.
One such artist is Susan English. You might see shades of Agnes Martin in one of Susan’s pieces, both artists have a careful consideration of color and bring a sense of calm to their work. Another thing that Susan and Agnes have in common is that we don’t really see the artist’s hand in a piece like Gray No.1, which is part of what makes it so mysterious and for some, even a bit scary. It is as though color just magically appeared on canvas with minimal effort, but the opposite is true. Susan’s process is painstakingly beautiful and to imply that anyone could do it categorically untrue. The artist pours paint onto panels, resulting in pieces that one really needs to see in person in order to get the full effect.
So while it is true that we can not immediately identify what this painting is or what is about, that is the point. What is so special and groundbreaking about Minimalism is that it can be so many different things. Staring at the gleaming surface of one of Susan’s paintings, you’ll see much more than just the color gray.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915
Another Curina artist who practices minimalism is Shyun Song, but she does it a bit differently from Susan, maximizing the impact of shapes and colors. Your reaction to Shyun’s pieces may be similar to the reaction Kazimir Malevich received after debuting his piece, Black Square. These squares are not just squares, but they are an experiment in form and composition, breaking down representation to its most elemental form in a way that is bold, intense, and geometric. In this way they are not simply squares, but rather a geometric representation of the metaphysical.
Jean Dubuffet, View of Paris, The Life of Pleasure, 1944
Walking through a modern or contemporary art gallery, you might spot a work of art that looks like a drawing your 3rd grader could have made. Well, you might not actually be too far off. Many artists have been interested in the style of “untrained” artists, looking at the work of children in particular. French artist Jean Dubuffet is the primary figure of the style he referred to as “Art Brut”, or “raw art.” He was interested in breaking out of the tradition mold of academically defined “fine art”, in favor of a more emotional, raw, and honest experience.
Interestingly, a lot of criticisms of contemporary art revolve around simplicity, in which people believe that an artist is trying to scam them into thinking something which looks “easy”, is art. These critics sometimes perceive this style of art as being pretentious when really the intent of the artist is the exact opposite. Artists like Jean Dubuffet and the art brut movement viewed the more traditional styles of painting as exclusive and off limits. By using a more raw and emotional style, Dubuffet attempted to connect with the viewer in a more personal way, making art more accessible to all.
Though art brut isn’t necessarily an enduring movement, it has certainly influenced many contemporary artists and art movements. Artists have taken Dubuffet’s idea of a raw and emotional experience with art and expanded on it to create new forms of expression.
Take an artist like Joseph Conrad-Ferm, for example. In a true Dubuffet-esque style, Joseph had no formal training when he began painting, and that is part of what makes his work so great. His style is emotional and truthful, as he pours his experience of time and place onto canvas, creating a world that is distinctly his own, through a language which is universal.
Many artists have been inspired by Art Brut while also implementing other artistic styles, like pop art or expressionism, to create their own form of expression.
Sinejan Kılıç Buchina is another artist whose works represent lived experiences that are nearly impossible to quantify or pinpoint without some form of creative expression. She focuses on time and place, whether real or imagined, present or defunct, not shying away from discomfort or strangeness. In the same way that Dubuffet wanted to collect and represent the trauma of post-war Paris in the 1940s, Sinejan simultaneously unravels and pieces together experiences. Her Collected Memories series are a sort of salvage operation in which she is picking up shards of memories and pulling them together to make sense of what has happened.
Initially a work of art that seems as though you (or your kid) could have done it may be a bit unsettling. But looking deeper, the reason why you feel as though you could have painted it, is maybe because you have a connection to it.
The truth is, anyone can create art - you don’t have to have formal training from a fancy art school. All you need to do is pick up a paintbrush and see what happens. Differentiating between what is allowed to be perceived as art and what is not only places limits on creativity.
It is important to expand and explore the ways that we can express ourselves creatively. We can’t guarantee that your all white painting will make you millions of dollars and change the narrative of art history, but we can guarantee that it will bring you a step closer to a sense of understanding.