What does it mean?

White on White

It was in June. Circa 1995. A sticky late afternoon. I jump in a Yellow Cab to visit a client’s home to inspect Fine Art collateral. The cab pulls up to his building. A massive, black granite stone polished to a high sheen. Money.

I offer the doorman my name and the purpose for my visit. He reaches for the phone to confirm. Sir, I’ll escort you up.

The Doorman holds the door as I enter the elevator. Hat. Uniform. White gloves. He presses the button. Penthouse. 

Hi. Good to see you again. Would you like me to show you around our place?

I graciously accept. My feet are damp in my wing tips; they clop on the white Italian marble floor. The echo ricochets off the vaulted ceiling, off the contemporary furniture with its sharp lines, and off the floor-to-ceiling windows. I look out over the city – – a spectacular view – – and then look down below.  I note that my hands are trembling. Take a deep breath. It’s acrophobia. Step back and away. 

Would you like something to drink?

I thank him and pass. I can’t have anything near my stomach now. I’m nauseous. Stomach is churning. I’m breathing rarified air. I don’t belong here.

The air conditioning, noiseless, offers a cooling feathery touch. I shiver. Fine Art and humidity are not friends. The temperature, constant and cool, preserves.

Here’s what you came to see.

My client steps away. I stare at the canvas. I move closer. A foot away now. There is evidence of some texture, but it’s otherwise a white canvas. What does it mean? What am I missing? In an condominium with minimal accoutrements, it was hulking in its size and haunting with its silence.

My client returns to the room. Please. Please do not ask me what I think. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Rauschenberg, a Kandinsky or my younger brother’s finger painting.

Did you like it?

I did.

The elevator races to the bottom. The only sound is the clicking of neon lights on the floor indicator…68, 64, 59, 47… – and my heart thumping.

I glance down. My shoes are dusty and scuffed.

Get me out of here.


~ Terry Tempest Williams: When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

In 1951, the American artist Robert Rauschenberg created White Paintings, a seven-panel exploration of white, 72 inches by 125 inches by 1 1/ 2 inches, oil on canvas. When it was first exhibited at the Stable Gallery in October 1953, it shocked the art world. There was no acceptable narrative that could be attached to it except, What does this mean? 

“This particular group of works,” said Rauschenberg, “were somehow sort of icons of eccentricities… they didn’t fit into the art world at that time. I did them to see how far, you know, you could push an object and yet, it’d still mean something… There was a kind of courage that was built into them in their uniqueness. Most of the work in this collection scared the shit out of me, too, and they didn’t stop frightening me.”

During this time John Cage was deep into Zen Buddhism. He gave a talk at Vassar College, where he said, “There should be a piece that had no sounds in it. One can imagine a breathing space.” In a later interview he said, “The thing that gave me the courage to do it finally… was seeing the white empty paintings of Bob Rauschenberg to which I responded immediately .” The composer saw the White Paintings as “landing strips” for light and shadow. What Rauschenberg executed was something akin to silence.

Rauschenberg was not the first artist, however, to experiment with the power and palette of white. The Russian artist Kazimir Malevich painted a large, asymmetrical white square tipped inside a larger white square. He titled it White on White. He called this departure from painting the visible world “supramatism,” defined as “the supremacy of pure feeling or perception.” He painted his white squares in 1918, the year after the Russian Revolution.

“White is energy— impulse —it is question and answers— it is total in its spirit,” writes Richard Pousette-Dart. “White is something you endlessly return to.”

Wassily Kandinsky calls white “the harmony of silence.”

Art: Intofineart – Kazimir Malevich, White on White (1918), oil on canvas 78.7×78.7


  1. I love it.
    It’s energy and “totalness of spirit”.


  2. Reminds me of the play “ART” http://www.playbillvault.com/Show/Detail/10189/Art


  3. Ohhh, this post is SO in my wheelhouse, pal–love it…the description, the quotes (“a landing strip for light and shadow” –wow.) Art that has a visceral impact…doesn’t get any better…


  4. it just is.


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