Blank Canvas

broad art museum, photo by cjverb (2015)
Skeptical Viewer at Broad Art Museum, Photo by cjverb (2015)

Today on Museum Bites we’re keeping it simple and taking a closer look at an art museum staple, the seemingly blank canvas. No battle scenes, fruit bowls or moody portraits here. Instead, these paintings are saturated in color. Seen gracing the walls of art museums—typically the modern art wing—all over the world these unadorned canvases often prompt some head scratching. What is the meaning behind this art? How can a painting featuring just one color be considered art? So today, I thought we’d nibble on these issues by sampling a collection of canvases I’ve come across on my travels. But first, let’s take a spin on the color wheel…

The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.
~Jackson Pollock, American Painter

Flying Colors:  Color has the power to evoke an emotional response. It is both personal and cultural. You may feel bad about blue, passive around pink, giddy for green, or eschew ecru. For example, the color green can inspire national pride in Ireland and Mexico, symbolize fertility and good luck in the Middle East, and represent eco-friendliness in the West. But if you’re a man, don’t get caught wearing a green hat in China because it indicates your wife has been unfaithful. Research and theories abound on the impact of color and artists use it to strike a mood. Click on this Britannica Painting link if you’d like to learn more.

ikb 191 (1962) by yves klein, wikimedia commons
IKB 191 (1962) by Yves Klein, Wikimedia Commons

One For All:  Monochrome painting is a type of art that makes use of just one color or more than one gradient of a single color. The aim of monochrome art is to present art at its simplest, most purest form. In this manner, a piece is in its ultimate form of objectivity. Like a Rorschach test, viewers develop their own interpretation. There are no fussy lines, objects or images influencing a viewer’s reaction.

Fun Colorful Fact #1:  In 1955, Yves Klein’s (1928-1962) exhibition of monochrome paintings fell flat. The public mistook the French artist’s paintings as the backdrop and not the highlight of the exhibit. Klein responded by creating his own unique shade of blue, called International Klein Blue (IKB), and in 1957, displayed IKB on 11 identical canvases to the delight of museum patrons.

Primary Paintings:  Ellsworth Kelly’s Red, Yellow, Blue II (1965) takes monochrome painting to the next level. On display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, this trio of canvases features in wall-size fashion, the primary colors, the basic building blocks of all other colors. Red, Yellow, Blue II brings to mind images of preschool and the simple box of jumbo crayons (sans green!). What do these primary paintings mean to you? To learn more about his life and work, click on this Ellsworth Kelly link.

red, yellow, blue ii (1965) by ellsworth kelly, milwaukee art museum, photo by cjverb (2017)
Red, Yellow, Blue II (1965) by Ellsworth Kelly, Milwaukee Art Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)

The form of my painting is the content. My work is made of single or multiple panels: rectangle, curved or square. I am less interested in marks on the panels than the “presence” of the panels themselves. In “Red, Yellow, Blue,” the square panels present color. It was made to exist forever in the present; it is an idea and can be repeated anytime in the future. ~Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

Fun Fake Fact:  During World War II, Ellsworth Kelly was part of the Ghost Army, a camouflage unit of American GIs who created inflatable tanks, planes, and other military equipment used to deceive the Nazis. Many of the Ghost Army troops were recruited from art schools.

be i (1970) by barnett newman, detroit institute of arts, photo by cjverb (2017)
Be 1 (1970) by Barnett Newman, Detroit Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Red Rover:  Our next painting features a vivid blood-red canvas with a thin white stripe cleaving the center.  Be 1 (second version, 1970), was created by Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). According to DIA Collections, the red represents the earth and the “zip” (aka white stripe) is a split second in time and meant to brighten and enhance the red field. Like a flash of lightning or snapshot from a camera. I see a red ping pong table or playing field with the zip serving as a center line or Red Rover line. Remember that game?! What do you see? Click on this Barnett Newman link to view more of his work.

Fun Colorful Fact #2:  Red is a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Asia while in western cultures it is a symbol of love, passion or danger. White, on the other hand, represents purity and innocence in many Western cultures, but is a symbol of bad luck and bereavement in China and Korea. Among many African tribes, white is worn at funerals and represents the spirit world.

canyon light 1 (c1971-1972) by sheldon iden, dennos museum center, photo by cjverb (2018)
Canyon Light 1 (c1971-1972) by Sheldon Iden, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Man Cave:  Our next canvas is Michigan made and also is comprised of more than one color. Canyon Light 1 (c1971-1972) by Sheldon Iden (1933-1993), is on display at the Dennos Museum Center and features a splash of iridescent blue engulfed in a velvety, midnight black. The Flint Institute of Arts describes Iden’s work as having a mirror-like texture that draws the viewer in. Canyon Light 1 has the feel of a cave or an abyss, but are we looking into the void or gazing out? You decide.

Fun Man Cave Fact:  During a trip to India’s Ajanta cave temples, Iden was inspired to paint these deep, dark canvases. The Ajanta Caves are located in the Maharashtra state of India. These man-made caves were carved from rock during the 1st century BCE through the 7th century CE. Inside, Buddhist shrines fill the more than 30 caves and include ancient sculpture and colorful wall paintings.

While the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.
~Mark Rothko

orange, brown (1963) by mark rothko, detroit institute of arts, photo by cjverb (2017)
Orange, Brown (1963) by Mark Rothko, Detroit Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Color Me Chocolate:  Our final piece, the simply titled, Orange, Brown (1963), by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is also on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rothko was one of the pioneers of Color-Field Painting, a type of abstract art that employs large swaths of color. Figure and ground are one and the same, and the art appears to extend beyond the field (aka canvas). I’m a fan of earth tone colors and Fall so these warm, homey colors resonate with me. Orange, Brown brings to mind many of my favorites, vivid autumn leaves, mugs of hot cocoa, and chunks of gooey chocolate. Does Orange, Brown tempt your appetite? Click on this Mark Rothko link to view more of his work and click on this Color-Field Painting link to learn more about this technique.

Fun Colorful Fact #3:  Barnett Newman of Be 1 fame was also a pioneer of Color-Field Painting.

That wraps up our brief look at the seemingly simple canvas. Next week, we’ll be sampling some unique kitchenware. In the meantime, have a great week!

photo by darkmoon1968, pixabay-100px Cover photo by darkmoon1968, courtesy of Pixabay.


Britannica: Abstract Art

Britannica: Ajanta Caves

Britannica: Painting

Color Matters: Basic Color Theory

Dennos Museum Center

Detroit Institute of Arts

Flint Institute of Arts


Milwaukee Art Museum

New York Times



Shutterstock Monochrome Paintings

Tate: Colour-Field Painting

Tate: Monochrome

The Art Story: Barnett Newman

The Art Story: Ellsworth Kelly

The Art Story: Mark Rothko

The Art Story: Jackson Pollock


Wikimedia Commons


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