Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2023
Monochrome Multitudes
Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, September 22, 2022–January 8, 2023
Claire Zeisler, Triptych, 1967. Installation view, Smart Museum of Art

The paradox of Monochrome Multitudes is more than titular: Of multitudes there are many, as all but one of the galleries of the Smart Museum are taken up by this ambitious review of the outsized genre. Indeed, much of the work is not truly singular in color at all but tinted, toned, or shaded within a hue, if not outright multicolored. To account for the coming cacophony, we are made to understand at the outset that the exhibition aims to revisit “this notoriously hermetic art to reveal its creative possibilities and complicate its histories” without attempting a comprehensive survey. In the galleries that follow, the task is conquered methodically, color by color, a curatorial approach that belies the complexity of what is actually proposed in attempting to see the multitudes of monochromaticity.

The problematic roots of the monochrome confront us immediately upon entering the exhibition. In the first gallery, before we reach the thematically colored rooms, a diminutive wall-mounted vitrine houses Alphonse Allais’ Album Primo-Avrilesque (1897), a graphic booklet published by the famed French humorist at the end of the nineteenth century often cited as the intellectual antecedent to the modern monochrome. In it, Allais reproduces the 1882 painting Combat de nègres dans un cave, pendant la nuit (Battle of negroes in a cave during nighttime) by his friend the poet Paul Bilhaud. The reproduction, a black rectangle delicately framed, bears no resemblance to what one would have expected a painting to look like at the time. Instead, the reader is presented with a punchline to a linguistic-pictorial joke that privileges humor over artistic excellence or conceptual rigor. This point is crucial: the earliest modern monochrome, the exhibition posits in agreement with prevailing art history, was a turn away from art’s capacity for visual apprehension––not in the pursuit of abstraction nor painterly purity, but as a racist joke. This will become crucial to the exhibition’s later treatment of the monochrome’s encounters with race.

Taking us quickly into the twentieth century, the captivating Triptych (1967) by Claire Zeisler, a trio of rich red, blue, and yellow panels adorned with massive, knotted woolen tassels, responds to Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1921 monochrome group of the same colors, reproduced in reference on the object label. Not only does Zeisler’s Triptych introduce the primary pigments that will be explored later in the show in-depth, but the material and form of the work most directly refute the triumvirate attributes of male, painting, and two-dimensional that have historically hemmed in the genre. Drawing further attention to the materials that have confined a typical definition of the monochrome, Zeisler’s luxurious tassels droop to the floor much like Robert Morris’s monochromatic felt sculptures of the same period, but the former testifies to the skilled labor of craft with their intricately crocheted knots and loops.

Both the conceptual strengths and potential pitfalls of the exhibition are encapsulated in the intriguing grouping of yellow works across from the Allais and the Zeisler. A low plinth displays a heaping sculpture of rolled and knotted fibers, Sheila Hicks’ Evolving Tapestry—Soleil (1984), and a diminutive painted steel construction, Yellow Throat (1973) by Lyman Kipp. Together, they generate compelling friction between soft forms and firm facture in sculpture. On the wall behind them, William Turnbull’s 17-1963 (Mango) (1963) reflects the fruit’s richly yolky flesh scarred on its right with a lightning bolt of pale white, disrupting what would have otherwise made for a perfectly minimalist monochrome rectangle. Anne Truitt’s humanscale Sun Flower monolith works even harder to complicate the genre, offering four perceivable surfaces with subtle tonal shifts visible only near the edges and corners where the planes meet. And while Beauford Delany’s 1967 untitled oil on canvas appears single-hued at first, the heavily worked-over surface of painterly impasto and whitened scumbling engages Abstract Expressionism more directly than it does typical associations with monochromatic minimalism. A photograph by Amanda Williams from her Color(ed) Theory series of painted condemned buildings on Chicago’s South Side called Safe Passage/Currency Exchange (2014–16, printed 2017) returns the visitor to the theme of race that opens the exhibition with two derelict structures covered in a fresh coat of caution tape-yellow paint. Finally, and most curiously, the yellow gallery includes a 1975 specimen of Ray and Charles Eames’ classic 1950s rocker with a pale yellow fiberglass seat. The label describes the Eames’ discerning palettes and their pioneering pursuit of colored fiberglass. Even considering modernism’s proclivity for manufactured materials, the decision to include the chair foretells the exhibition’s coming attenuation of the monochrome’s limits.

Despite itself, the yellow gallery demonstrates two important considerations that might get in the way of expanding the scope of the monochrome: first, variations in tint, shade, and tone within an apparently single-hued work are often only incidentally monochrome, as in Delaney’s painting and Hick’s sculpture. On the other hand, an artist’s choice to render an object within the scope of a single hue does not itself make for a meaningful foray into monochrome-making. The uniform yellow of Kipp’s Yellow Throat may not significantly impair a spatial understanding of the work’s dimensions, as its label argues. The Eames chair could be called a yellow monochrome in the same way that a New York taxi might be when it rolls off the factory line. There is another significant factor of the monochrome, put forth by Allais, that signals artistic intent: language.

Par excellence, the photograph of Williams’s painted structures in Chicago works brilliantly as a monochrome painting precisely because it engages directly in style and substance with the essential question of the monochrome: What does color alone signify in art? The houses she has painted are effectively readymade canvases charged with socio-political meaning. The color applied, with the assistance of pointed titling, reacts with these latent forces to produce dazzling and profound monochromatic artworks. The racial connotations of the bipartite title Safe Passage/Currency Exchange and the yellow-painted structures are distinctly Chicagoan, but other works in the series exhibited in a later gallery, including Flamin’ Red Hots (orange), Crown Royal Bag (purple), and Loose Squares/ Newport 100s (mint green), are more universally understood as signifiers of the relationship between race and color. Williams is an artist whose work deliberately operates within a range of intellectual, formal, and sociopolitical resonances, making her ideal for this expansive consideration of the monochrome.

Curators have populated the majority of this staggeringly large exhibition with monochromes whose success might be measured against how unexpectedly artists deploy color to advance a message that does not dwell in form. David Schutter’s diminutive after YCBA C grisailles cite passages from John Constable’s cloud studies kept at the Yale Center for British Art while operating materially within a known art historical tradition of études and underpainting. Other works in the gray section lack such rigor, including several gelatin silver prints that are merely incidentally monochromatic. The vibrant and painterly Red, Tone #6 (2021) by Jennie C. Jones vibrates with chromatic energy but would have absolutely sung had it been hung next to the similarly hued Lucio Fontana slashed canvas and Carmen Herrera’s aluminum construction in the red room, instead of the sound-themed gallery where it was mounted. In the blue gallery, Yves Klein is requisitely represented by his posthumously produced Table Bleue, and a Dark Blue Panel (1981–82) of acrylic lacquer on aluminum by Ellsworth Kelly becomes a monochrome by accident, having been separated from a set with other colors. Speaking of blue, a questionable entry to the checklist is the typeface used throughout the exhibition titling, a font designed by artist Joe Scanlan called Palermo, after a blue monochrome sculpture by the late German artist of the same name. Alarmingly, the exhibition didactic, written by art historian and the show’s cocurator Christine Mehring, does not mention Scanlan’s history of alienating, racist artworks and recent teaching choices.

The ill-advised use of this typeface, in fact, draws attention to other curatorial choices that seem to miss the larger questions of race central to the monochrome’s problematic origins. Samuel Levi Jones’ Black Artist (2018), an asphalt-covered tapestry of football skins in the “Body” section—an homage to Colin Kaepernick—is just barely visible from the “Black” gallery, where, where it would have paired well with Mark Bradford’s Raidne (2017), an imposing grid of darkly dyed hair perm endpapers in composition and content, and a roof tar composition by Theaster Gates. In the white gallery, a grid of ninety-one blind-embossed white sheets, A Pattern or Practice (2015) by Bethany Collins, recapitulates the entirety of the 2015 Department of Justice report of systemic civil rights violations by the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. While the title refers to the legal grounds upon which such a report can be made, the words “pattern” and “practice” are also inescapably artistic terminology.

In the works of Jones, Bradford, Collins, and William, language and naming operate equally in tandem with color in the meaning-making of the successful monochrome. This should be unsurprising given that the monochrome has been a conceptually rooted practice since the time of Bilhaud and Allais, requiring words to animate otherwise inscrutable images.

Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert
Curator of Contemporary Art
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University