ARTicle: White on White, on White

Published September 29, 2016 in Revels Magazine

I’ll be honest: I am super excited to write about this painting. While I am being honest, I would like to qualify that I am far from an expert on Russian Revolutionary history or Eastern European art. In terms of badgering people into grudging acceptance of controversial minimalism, however, I believe I can claim no small amount of authority.

What is most exciting to me about this work is how much what I like to think of as “self-proclaimed uncreatives” don’t like it. White on White acts as a divisive piece for people with only a casual knowledge or interest of art as a discipline (and serious art folk as well). If you’re not sure how to appreciate art, White on White doesn’t do you any favors. It’s hard to see the same technical skill in art that revolves around simple shapes and color planes as you see in, say, DaVinci. I hope I can offer a way to think about this painting that helps others see the value in it. One work can appeal to a million different people in a million different ways. Art is cool like that.

Some background: A Ukrainian artist working in and around Stalin’s rise to power, Kazimir Malevich developed a style of art labeled Suprematism later banned by the government in the vein of BauhausDeStijl, and other art movements I am probably alienating people by referencing. Suprematism is pretty theoretical, which may be a reason it’s frustrating for the non-art-nerd contingent. It’s hard to appreciate a couple of squares when you know nothing about them and the wall text’s perspective is that it is “in accordance with human phylogenesis, that is, the evolution of human consciousness.”[1] My own introduction to Suprematism was a guest lecture by a woman who had a Ph. D in pre-war Eastern European Abstraction and my notes from that day basically read: WTF?

I will try to simplify without butchering. Basically, these movements show an idealistic turn in art rejecting depiction of an inherently flawed material world in favor of formalist principles such as shape and color. Got a reason why people around 1918 might have been dissatisfied (read:horrorstruck) by reality? Suprematism in particular reflected the utopian ideals of the Russian Revolution, and artists’ conviction that visual and material culture were integral to achieving them.[2]  “For Malevich, that realm, a utopian world of pure form, was attainable only through nonobjective art…Malevich imagined Suprematism as a universal language that would free viewers from the material world.”[3]

It need not get more art-snobby than this, but I think it is important to call attention to this solid theoretical because of the criticism usually leveled at abstract art. Malevich, like many, many abstract artists, was a talented artist in command of plenty of technical skill he moved from in order to explore other areas of art.[4] Interpretations of White on White can get into the shapes and the colors as well as theory.[5] You see brushstrokes; the squares are hand-painted. The whites are not the same color. The painting is decidedly intellectual, but not sterile nor thoughtless. The artist is making concrete decisions on how best apply theory to practice.

On matters of taste I will refer back to a conversation I had with a great friend who also happens to be a great artist. I expressed how I had a hard time staying engaged with monochromatic atmospheric paintings, because I couldn’t grasp onto them intellectually. She brought up Agnes Martin and explained that it was less of an intellectual experience than an emotional one. I loved how she put it: “they’re paintings I want to be around.”

I thought about how I usually relied on art objects for intellectual challenges, interesting cultural commentary, etc. I’d always believed in the value of seeing a work of art in person, but I’d never considered just hanging out around one. Realist paintings have a presence, but this is part of the magic of abstract art, especially in the digital age. You can get a lot from a realist painting sitting in front of your computer. This kind of art makes you go out and see it. You’ll know why when you’re hanging out with Agnes Martin, or if the scarlet Rothko is making you want to cry.

This is how I think of White on White. I’ve never seen it in real life, but looking at the computer image makes me jump on the next plane to New York. I want to see if that outline around the square is paint thickness or color, I want to see exactly how big it is. I want to see if it allows me to transcend the real world and join this pale utopia. White on White might only be intellectually stimulating for people who love to discuss the underlying anthropological concerns of paintings, but thinking about art is not the only way to interact with it. I appreciate White on White as a perfect example of how varied, how subtle a painting can be, and how nice it can be to hang out around art.

Liking it when I shamelessly promote my friends? Sarah Perea-Kane taught me to appreciate color in art, and get my head out of it a little.

Liking learning about art greats? Mark Rothko is the go-to you-have-to-be-there-to-get-it color plane painter.

Hate it when I use obscure art words? I try not to, but MOMA can help when I fail.


[1] Borš, Vanja. “The Transpersonality of Kazimir Malevic” Journal of Integral Theory & Practice 9:2 (2014) 26.

[2] “Kazimir Malevich: Suprematist Composition: White on White.” The Collection: MoMA. (retrieved 17/9/2016)

[3] “White on White.” MoMA Website.

[4] Borš, 23.

[5] “White on White.” MoMA Website.