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Monochrome

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term applied to a work of art predominantly of a single colour or tone (for which see Grisaille), or to a type of painting originally associated with the practice of 20th-century avant-garde artists in Russia. The paintings and writings of Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko were responsible for the two principal interpretations of monochrome painting: the transcendental and the materialist. Malevich’s White Square on White (1918; New York, MOMA), generally regarded as the source for 20th-century monochrome painting, was produced in the context of his programme of Suprematism. A fascination with the asceticism of monochromatic painting and its mystical or occult associations can be found in extreme form in the work of Yves Klein and of Anish Kapoor (b 1954). Rodchenko’s Colour Pure Red, Colour Pure Yellow, Colour Pure Blue (1921; Moscow, priv. col.) established the antithetical position for the monochrome as the radical materialist analysis of painting. Materialist theories value the monochrome as pure painting, because it reduces the art form to its theoretical limit of a single colour uniformly dispersed on a ground. Although such work convinced Rodchenko that painting’s terminus had been reached, varieties of this analytical or formal approach have remained influential and vital to Abstract art and are illustrated, for example, by the monochromatic works of Lucio Fontana, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Gottfried Honegger and Brice Marden.

Artists concerned with criticizing rather than with affirming the value of painting in art have, paradoxically, also employed the monochrome. In such cases the monochrome functions polemically as metonym, substituting one type of painting for all painting or art in general. Examples of this strategy include the white and black monochromes of the early 1950s by Robert Rauschenberg and the achromes of Piero Manzoni; both artists aimed to reinvigorate the nihilism associated with earlier anti-art movements such as Dada. In the work of Olivier Mosset (b 1944), Niele Toroni (b 1937) and Terry Atkinson (b 1939) the monochrome signifies a radical political negativity; for Claude Rutault (b 1941) it represented an ironical expression of the historical impasse of painting itself.

Michael Corris
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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