In 1951 the painter Robert Rauschenberg was just 26 years old—a student at the experimental Black Mountain College, fresh out of the U.S. Navy. Rauschenberg was studying under the famed Bauhaus colorist Josef Albers, whose rigid formalism made young Rauschenberg crazy. Robert would eventually shake the art world with his blending of two-dimentional painting and three-dimentional sculpture with objects he called combines, but in 1951 he made a series of five artworks that were far more subtly subversive. He called them the white paintings.
The artwork above is a triptych, a formal composition used for religious art during the Renaissance and Middle Ages. But Rauschenberg’s canvasses appear empty. Did he just put raw canvasses on the wall? Had he done anything to them? Was this art, or was it satire?
The White Paintings were not the first of their kind. So-called monochrome paintings have been traced back to 1617, when the physician and occult philosopher Robert Fludd published an all-black illustration called “Darkness” in his book on the origin of the universe. Monochromatic art continued to be speculated on and joked about, with the 19th century writer and humorist Alphonse Allais describing an exhibition of incoherent arts, including an all-red artwork called “Tomato harvesting by apoplectic cardinals on the shore of the Red Sea” and an all-white painting called “First communion of anaemic young girls in the snow.” The cubist painter Jean Metzinger took the idea seriously in 1911, stating in an interview with the Paris Journal, “Who knows if someday, a great painter, looking with scorn on the often brutal game of supposed colorists and taking the seven colors back to the primordial white unity that encompasses them all, will not exhibit completely white canvases, with nothing, absolutely nothing on them.”
— But these were not real artworks, they were thought-experiments, jokes. But Rauschenberg took the idea of white paintings seriously, applying basic house paint to his canvasses, rolling it on like you'd paint a wall. The results were divisive to say the least. They were called a scandal. When shown in 1953 at the Stable Gallery in New York, the art critic James Fitzsimmons described them as a “gratuitously destructive act.”
It took a musician to understand the value of the white paintings—the experimental composer and Rauschenberg’s close friend, John Cage. Cage recognized that a white painting was indeed art, and good art, not for the skill it took to create, but for the experience it created for a viewer. In Cage’s words, the white paintings were “airports for the lights, shadows and particles” that they interacted with. A white painting forced the viewer to contemplate the space they were in. And for Cage, that contemplation inspired his own seminal musical composition, called 4’33,’’— a musical arrangement of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of total silence.
With five paintings, Robert Rauschenberg changed the landscape of modernist painting, infuriating critics, opening the way for the burgeoning Minimalist art movement, and forcing viewers to consider the space, light, shadow and time of day that an artwork lives within. Of course, maybe he was just trying to stick it to Albers.
Reed Enger, "White Painting, Three Panel," in Obelisk Art History, Published August 29, 2019; last modified August 29, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/robert-rauschenberg/white-painting-three-panel/.