Dubai art exhibition discovers the history of monochrome
Jean-Paul Najar Foundation's 'The Monochrome Revisited' runs until February 2019, and assesses Modernism, composition and race
The monochrome – a canvas painted in one colour – might seem a simple proposition. But that would be like saying a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee. The Monochrome Revisited, the current show at Dubai's Jean-Paul Najar Foundation reveals the infinite variety of the art-historical subject, beginning with a bombshell about its potentially more salacious past.
Strange beginnings for monochrome
The story of the monochrome typically begins with the Russian Formalist painter Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), seen as the ground zero of Modernism. Describing both what it depicts and what it is, Black Square achieves almost religious beauty in its simplicity.
But co-curators Wafa Jadallah and Deborah Najar reveal earlier black squares in printed material from the 1700s onwards, such as Laurence Sterne’s monochrome in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which observes the death of the hero’s friend with a page covered entirely in black.
The curators also turn to new research on Malevich’s Black Square that alleges to have found a reference, scrawled on the painting, to a racially provocative predecessor: a black square exhibited by the French poet Paul Bilhaud in 1882, which he titled Negroes Fight in a Tunnel. (It was later appropriated and published in a book of monochromes by French writer Alphonse Allais, who gave it an adapted but equally terrible title.)
“It was meant as a rude joke,” Jadallah says, noting that it was a dig against Impressionist painting. “The racial connotations of it would have been recognised at the time.” Researchers are currently authenticating whether Malevich did allude to Bilhaud’s illustration and, if so, what that might suggest for the painting’s inspiration.
New York in 1970s
For Jadallah and Najar, it is an indication of the monochrome’s much wider, and more socially relevant, history. After the short introduction to its chequered past, the show focuses on the moment of a return to the monochrome, in New York in the 1970s, as well as its elaborations in recent work since.
“The monochrome is about process, materiality, and technique,” Jadallah explains. “Artists explore the materiality of the paint, but they also make choices that affect how the painting appears. And those choices mean each painting ends up very different” – though they might appear similar.
James Bishop, for example, makes monochromes in brown, an earthy colour that he believes slows down the process of looking. Bishop would start with red and yellow paint, diluted with turpentine, and apply it to the canvas as it lay flat on the floor. He would let huge drops fall onto the canvas and then move them around with his brush, adding layer upon layer until he reached a muddy brown. “There’s an incredible complexity when seen in different lights,” Jadallah says. “It changes from morning to midday to evening, or depending on your perspective.”
Artists' series of works
Many of the artists worked in series, giving the paintings almost a performative feel – they are the results of the experiments of the process. At the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, one can see differences in the strokes and stripes in the paint-handling, the thickness of the texture and the shifts in colour. Even the sides of the paintings tell their own stories: some show the paint dripping in horizontal stripes from a canvas laid flat on the ground, while others show the pull of gravity in their vertical drips.
Jadallah emphasises the many ways that a painting is made. Susanna Tanger’s 1978 work looks like a muddy blue with a lopsided square painted in black around the edges. Tanger actually began by painting the whole surface black, then built it up through whites, yellows, reds and blues until she reached a subdued blue. She scratched out the square-like outline in the final product to reveal the black underneath, which gives the impression of something excavated.
The upstairs section of the exhibition leaves behind the 1970s to show how monochromes persist as a subject, as in David Batchelor’s photographs of blank white rectangles spotted around London (of which there are surprisingly many), or Mohammed Kazem’s series where he attempted to depict sound.
The final work is four panels of dark colour – three blackish and one red – titled I’m Not Red, I’m OJ. Made by the artist Alteronce Gumby, it’s based on an apocryphal saying by OJ Simpson about his identity, “I’m not black, I’m OJ.”
“It examines what blackness means in America today,” explains Jadallah. “Alteronce paints it with his hands, and it responds to the idea that blackness might seem to be one shade from afar, but seen up close, is actually a variety of shades and hues.”
I’m Not Red is also a nice curatorial rejoinder to the monochrome’s beginnings, in this neat and well-conceived re-examination of its only, apparently straightforward, subject.
The Monochrome Revisited is at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation in Dubai until February 28
Updated: December 20, 2018 09:54 AM