In the nineteenth century a group of young artists who called themselves “The Incoherents” created works of art with no purpose other than to annoy the academy. Alphonse Allais ended up painting one of the first minimalist pieces that would be replicated for over sixty years.
These jokes were funny at the time, but years later, when the great artists started to create similar works, the audience revolted and began a discussion that continues to this day: is that art? For many, Neoclassicism is the maximum artistic expression given its realism, technique, and themes. However, to believe art needs to be beautiful is contradictory. Impressionism changed the way artists’ study light, movement, and time. The avant-garde of the twentieth century showed there was more than one path to art.
These forms evolved art in a completely new way yet kept its traditional focus on the canvas. In the forties, the US became a superpower and began to colonize the rest of the world. In the art world, this was done through abstract expressionism with artists such as Pollock and De Kooning. The canvas became a symbol of an artist’s personal emotions where they exploded creativity into incomprehensible shapes.
That power play turns abstract expressionists into the great transformers of the concept of abstraction. But the groundbreaking suprematism of the second half of the twentieth century was also an important movement; in 1915 Kazimic Malevich painted “Black Square,” a canvas that showed exactly that. But even then, this painting had a concrete figure. In 1918 with “White on White,” he was able to create the greatest abstraction in art until then: A white square over a white canvas. The emptiness and totality represented on it was something so simple yet complex. It’s no coincidence that after that brilliant idea, Malevich left painting to become a writer and art theorist.
To believe that is not art is to leave behind the theory and history of art. One must consider the evolution of pigment, the questioning of the canvas, exhibit space, and even the critic. “White on White” made art cease to be about representation and gear it towards questioning. Not just an observation of humanity but also on what constitutes art. It doesn’t claim an answer; it simply paves the way for the dialogue of new ideas.
In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg created a piece called “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” He asked de Kooning to give him a drawing, which he then proceeded to erase from the canvas, exhibiting as such. Is the work of art annulled if his piece is erased from the canvas? The symbolic charge of this piece is both relevant and valuable. If an artist today did what Rauschenberg did back then, it would not be seen as shocking, but simply a work of appropriation.
Agnés Martin, Li Yuan-Chia, Barnet Newman and several others also expressed the void in a work of art as a statement beyond the aesthetic. We can’t forget William Turnbull, who in the seventies did a white painting that said “top part” in the back of the canvas. This provided the piece with a double discourse, a physical property beyond the traditional work of art, as well as a touch of nonsense that makes it into one of the most trailblazing paintings in the art world today.
Next time you see a blank canvas you might say it’s not art, but only until you understand the context, time, and intention under which it was created. Those artists from the early twentieth century have plenty to say. If someone claims they left the canvas blank for no reason, then it loses artistic force.
Translated by María Suárez