ESSAY

WHITESCAPES

by Artist & Writer

DAVID BATCHELOR


David Batchelor (1955) is a Scottish artist, writer, and a Senior Tutor in Critical Theory in the Department of Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London. He has exhibited widely in the UK, continental Europe, the United States and Latin America; written several books, Minimalism (1997), Chromophobia (2000) and The Luminous and the Grey (2014), is the editor of Colour (2008) and contributed to a number of journals including Artscribe, Frieze (magazine), and Artforum. David was a member of Tate Britain Council from 2002-5, an advisory body on development and programming at Tate Britain. Two of his works are held in the collection of Tate.

 

The notion that colour is bound up with the fate of Western culture sounds odd, and not very likely. But this is what I want to argue: that colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture. For the most part, this prejudice has remained unchecked and passed unnoticed. And yet it is a prejudice that is so all-embracing and generalized that, at one time or another, it has enrolled just about every other prejudice in its service. If its object were a furry animal, it would be protected by international law. But its object is, it is said, almost nothing, even though it is at the same time a part of almost everything and exists almost everywhere. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that, in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded. Generations of philosophers, artists, art historians and cultural theorists of one stripe or another have kept this prejudice alive, warm, fed and groomed. As with all prejudices, its manifest form, its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable. This loathing of colour, this fear of corruption through colour, needs a name: chromophobia.

Sometime one summer during the early 1990s, I was invited to a party. The host was an Anglo-American art collector, and the party was in the collector’s house, which was in a city at the southern end of a northern European country. First impressions on arrival at this house: It was big (but then so were the houses around it, so it didn’t appear that big). It was the kind of area—a wealthy area of a rich city—where only small or shabby things looked strange or out of place. The house looked ordinary enough from the outside: red brick, nineteenth or early twentieth century, substantial but not ostentatious. Inside was different. Inside seemed to have no connection with the outside. Inside was, in one sense, inside-out, but I only realized that much later. At first, inside looked endless. Endless like an egg must look endless from the inside; endless because seamless, continuous, empty, uninterrupted. Or rather: uninterruptable. There is a difference. Uninterrupted might mean overlooked, passed by, inconspicuous, insignificant. Uninterruptable passes by you, renders you inconspicuous and insignificant. The uninterruptable, endless emptiness of this house was impressive, elegant and glamorous in a spare and reductive kind of way, but it was also assertive, emphatic, and ostentatious. This was assertive silence, emphatic blankness, the kind of ostentatious emptiness that only the very wealthy and the utterly sophisticated can afford. It was a strategic emptiness, but it was also accusatory.


Inside this house was a whole world, a very particular kind of world, a very clean, clear and orderly universe. But it was also a very paradoxical, inside-out world, a world where open was also closed, simplicity was also complication, and clarity was also confusion. It was a world that didn’t readily admit the existence of other worlds. Or it did so grudgingly and resentfully, and absolutely without compassion. In particular it was a world that would remind you, there and then, in an instant, of everything you were not, everything you had failed to become, everything you had not got around to doing, everything you might as well never bother to get around to doing because everything was made to seem somehow beyond reach, as when you look through the wrong end of a telescope. This wasn’t just a first impression; it wasn’t just the pulling back of the curtain to reveal the unexpected stage set, although there was that too, of course. This was longer-lasting. Inside was a flash that continued. 

There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything around it, and nothing escaped. Some would hold the architect responsible. He was a man, it is said, who put it about that his work was ‘minimalist’, that his mission was to strip bare and to make pure, architecturally speaking, that his spaces were ‘very direct’ and ‘very clear’, and in them there was ‘no possibility of lying’ because ‘they are just what they are.’ He was lying, of course, lying big white lies, but we will let that pass for the moment. Some would hold this man responsible for the accusatory whiteness that was this great hollow interior, but I suspect it was the other way around. I suspect that the whiteness was responsible for this architect and for his hollow words.

This great white interior was empty even when it was full, because most of what was in it didn’t belong in it and would soon be purged from it. This was people, mainly, and what they brought with them. Inside this great white interior, few things looked settled, and even fewer looked at home, and those that did look settled also looked like they had been prepared: approved, trained, disciplined, marshalled. Those things that looked at home looked like they had already been purged from within. In a nutshell: those things that stayed had themselves been made either quite white, or quite black, or quite grey. This world was entirely purged of colour. All the walls, the ceilings, floors and fittings were white, all the furniture was black and all the works of art were grey.

Not all whites are as tyrannical as this one was, and this one was less tyrannical than some: ‘Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?”1 Next to the white that was Herman Melville’s great Albino Whale, this white paled. Next to the deathly, obsessive white that insinuated its way into the dark heart of Joseph Conrad’s Captain Marlow, this white was almost innocent. Admittedly there was some Conradian residue in this shallower white: ‘Minimalism’, it seemed to say, ‘is something you arrive at, a development of the sensitivity of the brain. Civilization started with ornamentation. Look at all that bright colour. The minimalist sensitivity is not the peak of civilization, but it represents a high level between the earth and the sky.’ But this wasn’t spoken with the voice of a Marlow, it contained no irony, no terror born of the recognition that whatever appeared before you now had always seen you before it a thousand times already. Rather, this was the voice of one of Conrad’s Empire functionaries, one of those stiff, starched figures whose certainties always protect them from, and thus always propel them remorselessly towards, the certain oblivion that lies just a page or two ahead.

What is it that motivates this fixation with white?

First of all, let’s get the term minimalism and its careless association with whiteness out of the way. In reality, this didn’t occur very often at all, at least in the Minimalism that consisted of three-dimensional works of art made during the 1960s, mostly in New York. Certainly, there are a good many skeletal white structures by Sol LeWitt. And Robert Morris was suspicious of colour, so he painted his early work grey, but not white. Dan Flavin used tubes of white light—or rather daylight, or cool white, which is to say whites, not white—but his work was more often than not made in pools of intermingling coloured light: red blue green yellow orange, and white. Carl Andre: intrinsic colours, the specific colours of specific materials—woods and metals in particular—no whites there to speak of. And Donald Judd: sometimes intrinsic colours, sometimes applied, sometimes both together, sometimes shiny, sometimes transparent, sometimes polished, sometimes matt. Dozens of colours on dozens of surfaces, often in strange combinations: polished copper with shiny purple Plexiglas, or brushed aluminium with a glowing translucent red, or spray-painted enamels with galvanized steel, or whatever there was. In truth the colours of Minimal art were often far closer to that of its exact contemporary, Pop art, than anything else. Which is to say: found colours, commercial colours, industrial colours, and often bright, vulgar, modern colours in bright, vulgar, modern collisions with other bright, vulgar modern colours.

To mistake the colourful for the colourless or white is nothing new. But it is one thing not to know that Greek statues were once brilliantly painted; it is another thing not to see the colour when it is still there. This seems to speak less of ignorance than a kind of denial. Not perceiving what is visibly there: psychoanalysts call this negative hallucination. But we have to tread carefully here, and we should be especially careful not to get drawn into seeing colour and white as opposites. White was sometimes used in Minimalism, but mostly as a colour and amongst many other colours. Sometimes, it was used alone, but even then it remained a colour; it did not result, except perhaps in LeWitt’s structures, in a generalized whiteness. In these works, white remained a material quality, a specific colour on a specific surface, just as it always has done in the paintings of Robert Ryman. Ryman’s whites are always just that: whites. His whites are colours; his paintings do not involve or imply the suppression of colour. His whites are empirical whites. Above all, his whites are plural. And, in being plural, they are, therefore, not ‘pure.’ Here is the problem: not white; not whites; but generalized white, because generalized white—whiteness—is abstract, detached, and open to contamination by terms like ‘pure.

1    Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, The Whale  (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 212.