In front of many works of contemporary art, even famous , there are frequent reactions ranging from disbelief to indignation and which result in a “this could have been done by me or my six-year-old son too! “. It happens above all with abstract and expressionist paintings, made of blotches, lines and spots, and with conceptual art: in short, with movements where the artist’s manual skill takes second place compared to the elaboration of an idea, to the free expression of interiority or a formal study. If combinations of lines and colors are difficult to understand, white canvases are even more so: yet they are fundamental works that have made the history of world art and that are sold for millions of dollars at auctions. Most of the artists who painted white canvases are part of minimalism, a movement that developed mainly in the United States between the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to the abstract expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, a type of gestural, expressive, emotional, which wanted to express the author’s unconscious: for example Jackson Pollock was an exponent, with his brushstrokes and buckets of color instinctively thrown and poured on the canvas. On the contrary, the minimalists were convinced that the author should disappear and that art should not necessarily indicate something else: as the painter Frank Stella explained, “What you see is what you see”. They wanted their work to be simple, harmonious, orderly and essential, just like a blank canvas. The first important example of a white canvas, however, is before American minimalism and dates back to Suprematism, a movement of the Russian avant-gardes focused on lines and geometric shapes: in 1918 Kazimir Malevich painted White on White, with two squares of different shades of white interlocked asymmetrically one on the other. It was one of the most revolutionary and radical works of the time, where the only trace of the author emerged in the texture and in the subtle variations of white.
Equally revolutionary, so much so that the art world spoke of a “scandal”, were the White Paintings by the American Robert Rauschenberg, of 1951. Rauschenberg wanted to create an object that seemed immaculate, never touched by human hand, born entirely pure. He once compared them to a watch: if you were careful enough you could see very slight changes and nuances on the surface and understand what time it was and what time it was outside. Twenty years later, one of the most prolific authors of white canvases was Robert Ryman, a conceptual artist and mistructures who created dozens of white monochromes playing on the diversity of frames, textures and structures. His most famous work in this sense is Vector, made up of a panel of eleven wooden modules of the same size painted white and hung at the same distance from each other, so that even the background became part of the Opera. In 2015, Bridge, one of his blank canvases, was sold at auction by Christie’s for 20.6 million dollars, 17 million euros. Other blank canvases are those of Agnes Martin, who seek beauty and serenity: “art is the concrete representation of our subtlest feelings,” he once explained. And another that “my paintings do not speak of what you see, but of what is eternally present in the mind”.
They are works that do not so much say something in themselves, but that often provoke a reaction in the viewer: whether it is anger, indignation, disorientation or abandonment. As Sherman explains, only by observing them you can learn something about the work, but above all about us. Feeling free to judge a work of art of any kind is what excites us most! Beyond aesthetics and taste there is a world of study that leads to the interpretation of this splendid language that is art.