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    Black moods 

    By Gabriel Ramin Schor

    1 May 2006

    Tate Etc. issue 7: Summer 2006 

    Robert Fludd

    Detail of the black page from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque

    technica historia, published by Oppenheim (1617)

    © Courtesy University Library, Vienna

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    Gabriel Ramin Schor surveys the dark passages of black’s meaning and how artists have used it in

    their work.

    We talk of colours as if they were physical fixtures in our daily lives. We say they can be cold or warm,

    though in doing so we draw on an ad hoc mix of vague metaphors. In his book on colour theory that

    appeared in 1810, Goethe studied the psychological effect of colours. He called colour “troubled light”, and

    there is a no more troubling – yet fascinating – colour than black. Could it even be called a colour? Goethe was not so sure. We see black as a surface that absorbs all the colours of the visible spectrum. And it has

    always had a special aura of its own. It has also had a major influence on artists. Piet Mondrian, who

    admired Goethe’s theories, used black to great effect in his abstract compositions of horizontal and vertical

    axes. Here the lines were a structural, architectural framework. For him, it was a “non-colour”. Ad

    Reinhardt, who made a close study of Mondrian’s work, took this position further when he said: “Black is

    negation.”He saw it as the negation of all colours, the colour of pure negativity, the representation of the

    impossibility of representation. The classic example of this is his series of “black paintings”, which rather

    than reflect a progressive modernism, gave way to a more mystical, contemplative stasis.

    The mysterious side to black has appealed to artists. For Paul Klee it was not to be rationalised: “We do not

    have to understand the black, it is the primeval ground.” His comment recognised the archaic origins of

    black – back to the time when man had neither tamed fire nor used it to lighten the hours of darkness. One

    is reminded of the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the enigmatic black monolith appears unexpectedly in the early days of humankind, and of the night that

    follows which induces overwhelming fear and existential uncertainty in the apes. Does black actually tap

    into our brain stem; is it part of our evolutionary experience? For all the progress in neurological research,

    there is still no answer. All we know for certain is that in our collective consciousness it can evoke a sense

    of helpless vulnerability.We talk of the Black Death, the black market and blackmail. It often connects to

    irrational things or those that refuse to submit to any system of cultural certainties.

    So you could say that black is subversive, in that it undermines the status quo. In his Philosophical Enquiry

    into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Edmund Burke suggests that it is

    connected both with the terrible and the sublime. His sensualist aesthetic exerted a considerable influence

    on future generations, such as the American Abstract Expressionists in New York in the late 1940s and

    Barnett Newman in particular. His atmospherically black Prometheus Bound  1952 is the last in a series of

    four paintings. The first three, from 1951 –  Day before One, Day One and Ulysses – are all presented in the same format as Prometheus Bound . The first and third are in dark blues, Day One is in red, and all three are

    signed and dated. Prometheus Bound , on the other hand, is not signed. The year before he made this

    painting, he had had his second one-man show in New York. It met with an extremely poor reception that

    wounded the artist. Even fellow members of the avant-garde and otherwise loyal colleagues turned their

    backs on him. The traumatic experience ushered in Newman’s “blackest years”, as he later called them.

    During that time he withdrew completely from the art world and even considered abandoning his career. In

    addition, he suffered a near fatal heart attack. Prometheus Bound , a painter’s meditation on the trauma of

    being shut out, is Newman’s negative self-glorification, an abstract allegorical portrait of his own artistic

    fate. It was to be seven long years before he found a way out. He had to wait until the late 1950s for a new

    generation of painters to emerge who were able to understand his work for what it was. The young Frank

    Stella, for instance, regarded Newman’s creations as the immediate precursors of his own famous pin-

    stripe paintings.

    Black has repeatedly been associated with solid and geometric forms. The best known example dates back

    to the early seventeenth century in a page within volume one of Robert Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi maioris

    scilicet et minoris metaphysica (1617). The image – a black square – is presented in the context of a

    metaphysical iconography of the infinite. Each of the four sides of the square (slightly distorted so that it

    looks more like a rhombus) is marked with the same words: “Et sic in infinitum.” For Fludd, this image

    was nothing less than a representation of the prima materia, the beginning of all creation.

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    Kasimir Malevich

     Black Square on a White Ground 1914–15

    Oil on linen

    80 x 80 cm

    © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

    Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square on a White Ground , painted almost 300 years later in 1914–15, seems

    like a distant echo of Fludd’s pictorial creation myth. In Malevich’s canvas the pictorial space, perspective

    and any sense of illusion are eradicated to leave just the pure black plane. This Suprematist picture, which

    was to become an icon of modernism, in turn provided the springboard for Ad Reinhardt’s geometric

    black paintings.

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    Behind these traditions of radical non-representationalism, these celebrations of iconoclasm, we can detect

    a sense of melancholy that runs through the works. This mysterious sentiment has a connection with black

    that dates back to Aristotle – in the Greek language the roots of the word melancholy literally mean black

    bile. Following in Aristotle’s footsteps many centuries later, Robert Burton, whose low spirits held him

    hostage in Oxford, adopted the pseudonym Democritus Junior when he published his treatise The Anatomy

    of Melancholy in 1621. An investigation into the state of melancholy, its history, causes and potential

    remedies, it was a huge literary success – reprinted and enlarged five times during his lifetime and onceposthumously. The above-mentioned celebrations of iconoclasm were not, however, always received

    without complaint, and conservative cultural critics repeatedly targeted the entirely black page in the first

    chapter of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67), which is

    accompanied by the text: “Alas, poor YORICK!”

    In the nineteenth century, the colour black featured in very different contexts. Crucial to its role was the

    response to the work of Velázquez by two very different artists, Goya and Manet. For Goya, black is the

    vehicle for a radical negativity in the social universe – you just have to look at his copious images of death

    and disaster. In Manet’s case, it often serves to highlight the self-referentiality and autonomy of painting.

    This was to be of ground-breaking importance for the course of modernism – a good example being Henri

    Matisse’s French Window at Collioure (painted, incidentally, in the same year as Malevich’s black square).

    It draws the viewer’s gaze through the atmospherically differentiated centre section of the painting to a

    darkened balcony scene. Matisse was the master of autonomous colours who instigated an important arthistorical shift with his text Black is a Colour (1946), where he writes:

    Black is a force: I depend on black to simplify the construction… The Orientals made use of black as a

    colour, notably the Japanese in their prints. Closer to us, I recall a painting by Manet in which the velvet

     jacket of a young man with a straw hat is also expressed by a blunt, lucid black. Doesn’t my painting of the

    Marocains use a grand black which is as luminous as the other colours in the painting?

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    Frank Stella

    From Black Series II  1967 Lithograph on paper

    38.1 x 55.9 cm

    © Tate

    © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2006

    In other words, Matisse is at pains to release black from its generally accepted identity as a purely

    absorbent colour, and to establish it as a radiant one with a luminescent quality. This is a reversal of the

    approach taken by the Impressionists, who, with their predominant interest in light, largely ignored it.

    Kandinsky, who also liked using black lines in his work, regarded black as leading an existence somewhere

    away from the “li