The Monochrome Revisited, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation’s ninth survey of difficult-to-grasp yet seminal movements, begins–literally and figuratively–with the darkness before the light.
Publications from the 17th to 19th centuries outline the origins of depicting a single mass of (seemingly) solid colour. “Robert Fludd, mathematician, philosopher and scientist, created a two-volume book, the first of which was published in 1617, on the creation of the universe from a biblical standpoint. To depict the darkness before the light, he inked a blank square,” says JPNF Director Wafa Jadallah of one of the replica archival tomes on display in a vitrine at the museum’s entrance.
Split into three sections that delve into the history and evolution of the monochrome, the exhibition bears a heavy but important load in exposing the nuances and narratives of a regionally lesser-shown movement—especially in light of the developing art historical and educational landscape in Dubai.
It begins with the earliest records of the monochrome, from its first appearances in the world of publishing. “In the 18th century, British author Laurence Sterne wrote a largely autobiographical nine-volume novel with a character named Yorick who passes away,” explains Jadallah. “To depict his sadness over the death of his friend, because words were not enough to express his grief, he inks almost an entire page in black.”
While the use of monochrome in the days of early printing incorporated black to express melancholy and nothingness, it developed a lighter–if still controversial– interpretation come the 19th century. “In 1882, poet Paul Bilhaud inked a black monochrome and presented it in an exhibition called Les Arts incohérents,” shares Jadallah. The work was titled Negroes Fight in a Tunnel, both politically incorrect and intended as a joke to ridicule French Impressionism in particular, and Modernism in general.
“Two years later, Bilhaud’s friend Alphonse Allais stole his idea and created a black monochrome with a slightly different title, and then made six more in colour. He put them into a book in 1897 entitled Primo-Avrilesque (‘April foolish day’) which included an empty score titled A Funeral March for the Deaf,” continues Jadallah, who is about to reveal the first of several contemporary connections: “You can’t mention this work without mentioning John Cage’s 1952 work 4’33 (Silent Piece), one of his most important, when American pianist and composer David Tudor sits at a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds and doesn’t do very much, that is, doesn’t play a single note. The recording, however, captures people moving, coughing, so what really is silence.”
Jadallah further outlines that Bilhaud’s work ties closely into Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich. In 2015, Russian art historians analysed Malevich’s seminal 1915 Black Square, and in the white margins of the work they discovered a hand-written note that partially read “A battle of negroes”, linking directly back to Bilhaud. “This brings us very nicely into the 20th century,” she remarks.
Those with more painterly inclinations will cherish works from the foundation’s collection on view in the main gallery hall: the vertical, short stroked application of undiluted pigment of American artist Marcia Hafif’s square canvases that is consistent across her 15 bodies of work, or of American painter James Bishop’s mottled brown works (two from a series of 20), made to the proportions of his outstretched body, which subtly depict layers of hue only visible if peering at the sides of the canvas before it stretches around the frame.
Marcia Hafif, Strontium Yellow Chromate, 1974
The show’s core inspiration–Hafif’s 1978 essay Beginning Again–considers how she and her contemporaries expressed artistic and philosophical principles through the use of the materiality and integrity of paint in its most essential form.
The exhibition further offers a concise but thorough historical contextualisation of the monochrome, with additional works by the likes of Dale Henry and Douglas Sanderson on display to capture smooth versus built-up textures, circular, square and small canvases, as well as preliminary sketches which illustrate the thoughtfulness and multi-step process of producing what appears to be such straightforward works.
But what drives the enduring relevance of the art form home is the contemporary display in the upstairs viewing gallery, which presents the use of the monochrome as interpreted by today’s artists–which while very much still alive as a movement, deviates from its traditional form in keeping with the development of technology, and includes a heavier infusion of conceptualism. “We thought about how can we go forward in time towards the present, and found so many artists are still working with the monochrome,” says Jadallah.
Featuring works by artists including Miya Ando, Hassan Sharif, Alteronce Gumby, and Mohammed Kazem, the section diverges from the downstairs display in that the current generation of artists incorporate new mediums and materials in order to express themselves, engaging with the monochrome in both conceptual and formal ways.
“The monochrome is about analysing painting and the medium, how you deconstruct all the different elements of a painting and how you put them back,” she adds. “Hassan Sharif’s work, for example, applies pigment onto papier-mâché instead of the canvas, and instead of stretchers, he uses a folding chair because everyday objects were such an important part of his practice. David Batchelor’s photography series–many monochrome artists work in series–captures blank signs, billboards, and message boards in urban landscapes.”
Hassan Sharif, Cadmium Yellow No. 2, 2014
Most hard-hitting, however, is Alfredo Jaar’s May 1, 2011. The staged photograph depicting the Obama administration in the situation room in the midst of their Osama bin Laden operation with laptops and papers abound is presented on a TV screen next to another blank TV screen, flanked by a photograph legend, as well as a blank image. “They’re looking out of the frame, so the artist added a monochrome on the other side so that the viewer can place their own thoughts there,” she says.
Jaar’s inclusion of a blank frame next to a figure-based image underlines the challenge of the monochrome. “Hafif, in many of her past interviews, has said that the monochrome is difficult because generally, when people look at a painting, they ignore what the painting is made out of. They want to look through the painting to some sort of image that they recognise,” explains Jadallah. “With the monochrome, people are often uncomfortable because there isn’t an image you recognise–it just stops you because you’re now looking at the materiality itself.”
By presenting myriad interpretations alongside archival material to contextualise the movement–a key part of JPNF’s curatorial ethos–The Monochrome Revisited offers pointed insight, asserts its quiet accessibility, and reinforces the timelessness of the monochrome.
The Monochrome Revisited runs at Jean-Paul Najar Foundation until 28 February 2019.