In “The Monochrome and Black Canvas” by Thierry de Duve, the author is developing a discussion around several works of critics such as Greenberg, Fried and Judd and challenging how minimalism is affecting the definition of the modern painting.  I need to explain the relationship to Modernist art and theory by using a work of Allan McCollum, Plaster Surrogates, in this discussion of 1500 words.

I will focus on the different ways the work is displayed in a gallery, also discuss the title, the medium, the way the individual elements are formed, as well as give considerations to the term ‘Monochrome” and its distinction from a blank canvas.  As Danto (1997:85) explains: “Modernism began insidiously in the 1880s, but it did not especially force aestheticians to rethink their distinctions, which fit fairly readily with Cézanne and Kandinsky and could even … be made to fit with Duchamp. Aesthetics seems increasingly inadequate to deal with art after the 1960s… .”

Allan McCollum began making a series of objects he called Surrogate Paintings after testing Formalist, Minimalist, and Postminimalist trains of thought.  He arrived at his conceptually driven Surrogate Paintings in 1978, consisting solely of a minimal frame, mat, and rectangle overlaid with many coats of paint. This body of work marked his move beyond preoccupations with form and content to a focus on the strategies and systems through which objects are more broadly assigned meaning and value in contemporary culture.  By 1982, McCollum was casting the surrogates in plaster from rubber moulds so that the image, mat, and frame would be seen as an integral whole, what he has called a ‘standard sign-for-a-painting.’

Although each Plaster Surrogate is a unique, hand-painted, dated, and signed
object, McCollum install them in groups, sometimes large enough to
fill entire walls or galleries.  Ninety-six sculptures of paintings – are clustered together in dense rows on the wall, or can also be adjusted/arranged linear, for instance one man shows and modern galleries.   The way in which the Plaster Surrogates are hung, have recalled a  cluttered wall of family photographs, images of bygone generations.  McCollum considered the space of the gallery/museum and tried to contextualize the different ways we as humans have of showing objects that have meaning for us.  This arrangement is challenging ideas of artistic agency as he creates a conventional looking installation and keep to fairly evenly spaced hanging of the arrangements.

McCollum is not really asking us to look at the individual objects, especially the blank spaces inside the frames, but to look at the entire space or environment as a representation of the way we display pictures in our culture. Plaster Surrogates are generic objects, painting substitutes signifying the essential signifiers of any painting. Every picture is unique, dated and numbered——but at the same time they are all exactly the same, epitomizing the kind of serial repetition that is characteristic of images as species or genera of artifacts.  Plaster has many connotations, especially its connotation as a medium for mass-produced replicas.  The casted plasters are black rectangles, which is another form of reduction.  The monochrome saturated black could also remove the possibility of a viewer ‘reading into’ the work, to focus on decisions the artist makes when creating or working.  It is not about what the ‘subject say’ to us, but what the artistic thinking was about his invention.

The title of the work draws attention to one element standing in for another through repetition. The components of the work (substitutes) stands in for traditional framed art works. I see this as the Minimalist idea, that not only form is radically abstracted, but equally so a reduction of the content.  These works explore how objects achieve public and personal meaning in a world constituted in mass production. It is a take on labour and art, and the methods and systems of mass production.  The Surrogates are produced through reproductive processes of moulding and casting – a repetition of forms are created and becomes the artwork itself.   However, each Surrogate is also hand painted-both center and frame-paradoxically emphasizing the physically present trace of the artist’s involved creative process.  Trevor Starke makes a comment which I find adapt around the title of the work: “But it is not a painting. It is a fraud, a fake, a stand-in.”  He reviewed the work as it exhibitions in 1984 at Cash/Newhouse Gallery. In a 2001 interview the artist recalled his approach in the early 1970s as “a cross between post-painterly abstraction and post-minimalism.”

The artwork hereby becomes the result of automatic, almost industrial processes -a production line model of painterly work. He devalues the mystique of the great artist and creates large quantities – almost as a drama, which makes one question monetary value and art valuation.  The artist hands responsibility to the viewer in terms of the experience of viewing the work.  It takes me to think about acquiring artwork one would like to ‘hang on your wall’, which is mostly restrained by the price, many a time the beauty is in the fact that the art connoisseur could afford and ‘show off’, sometimes absurd amounts for the work, and not necessary attach aesthetic value.  In this way art can be used to dominate and exclude/ polarize because of monetary value becomes the only value. In our current situation I believe success is generally judged by an artist’s standing in the marketplace, challenging the value and nature of what art is.

I ask myself:  Is the artist challenging authenticity and idea of the autonomy of the arts?  Kant declared that ‘art’ was purposeless, had no function, and was a particular entity in itself. Kant’s aesthetics is not interested in functional works of art; it ignores the artist and the concept, but argues that works of art are born through the artistic genius. McCollum is in my opinion moving towards Conceptual and Contemporary art and challenges the ideas of quality judgements.

Monochrome abstraction—the use of one colour over an entire canvas—has been a strategy adopted by many painters wishing to challenge expectations of what an image can and should represent.  I looked at the work of Gotthard Graubner, Ad Reinhard, Yves Klein, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman,  R Rauschenberg.  Interesting opinion of Greenberg ( P251 -256) on the “art-denying look” being found in Pollock’s ‘all overness’ and the emptiness/void of the minimalists and monochromatic painters.  He however maintained that its idea remained and idea, something deduced instead of felt and discovered.

T de Duve said :  ‘Duchamp’s extreme intelligence and acute sensitivity in not actualizing the blank canvas is echoed and, if properly interpreted, accounted for, in and by Greenberg’s refusal to cross the thin line between a picture and a successful one. In order to call a blank canvas a picture, not an object or a piece of the artist’s
material, you need to “see” it as art. But only if your eye is trained and acquainted
with the whole history of modernist painting down to Stella and
Reinhardt to you “see” it as art.” (P255)

Below is Diptych, 1977  by Graubner, which at first glance look monochrome; a closer look reveals they are polychrome. He does not use specific shapes, he uses colour shades and the warm-cold contrasts very well.  His artworks have no specific topic and theory and represent his own research into colour and a ‘tone in tone’ approach. It is a painting about, it is not as with the Surrogates a ‘representation’ of a painting.

I add this with reference to de Duve’s critique on Greenberg’s “doctrine” of modernism where he refers to a polychrome as a ‘hybrid’ of painting and sculpture. Rather than an outright abandonment of modernism, what we have is an expansion of formalism taking advantage of a disparity in Greenberg’s attitudes toward painting and sculpture. It may be that the monochrome, and certainly the blank canvas, set the limit beyond which “a picture, stops being a picture and turns into an arbitrary object.” “


Reinhardt’s Black Paintings are below.  Reinhardt sought to create an art form, which in its monochromatic purity, could overcome the tyrannies of oppositional thinking.


Yves Klein developed his own particular brand of blue, called International Klein Blue and entertained esoteric and spiritual ideas in which blue played a vital role as the colour of infinity.

Frank Stella is noted for his work in minimalism and post painterly abstraction. His focus also started with the enquiry into the flatter surface and emphasizing the object, rather than it being a representation of something.

Each of the five works in Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) consists of a different number of modular panels.  In each case, Rauschenberg’s primary aim was to create a painting that looked untouched by human hands, as though it had simply arrived in the world fully formed and absolutely pure.  Greenberg refers to these works as ‘blank canvases’.  Barnett Newman was working on monochrome canvases by 1948 –  his ‘zips’ became his trademark – painted bands traveling vertically from one edge of the canvas to the other.

A few interesting comments in the essay by Thierry de Duve to remember as I try to come to grips with this assignment:

“As I have previously argued, when the message Duchamp put in the mail in 1917 with Fountain arrived in the ’60s, it revealed, like an onion, multiple layers of meaning. A first layer—when a urinal is art, anything can be art—was soon misread as implying a second layer: that anyone could be an artist.”


ArtForum Magazine, Feb 2014, The Invention of Non-Art: A History,  Thierry de Duve on the Salon des Refusés

Danto, Arthur C, After the end of Art, Contemporary Art and the pale of History, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, 1997

De Duve, Thierry, Kant after Duchamp, 1996,  PDF downloaded

Greenberg, Clement, The Collected Essays and Criticism Volume 4, University of Chicago Press, Chigaco 1993

Evans, Jessica, Hall, Stuart, Visual Culture:a reader, Sage Publications 1999

Hartness, Paula B , PO POMO: THE POST POSTMODERN CONDITION, a Masters Thesis in Art, 2009, PDF Downloaded

Vekony-Harper, Delia, What defines a good work of art within the contemporary art world? 2010 University of SouthAfrica, M thesis online reading

Ruhrberg, Schenckenbruger, Fricke, Honnef.  Art of the 20th Century, Volume 1, Taschen Verlag, Bonn, 1998

Artscribe, December/January 1985/86, article on an interview with the artist by Gray Watson

  Allan McCollum, in Robert Enright, “No Things but in Ideas: An Interview with Allan McCollum,” Border Crossings 20 (August 2001): 31.

Duve, Thierry de, An October Book, MIT press, downloaded as a PDF file.

Vekony- Harper, Delia, What defines a good work of art within the contemporary art world? Theories, practices and institutions. Online submission for Masters Degree of Arts in History of Arts, Unisa, South Africa,  June 2010

Ruhrberg, Art of the 20th Century, Volume 1, Painting, 19 page 393, 1998, Taschen Verlag GmbH, Koln.

Oxford Art Journal, 33.2, 2010 ( pdf downloaded) Amy Powell article, Painting as Blur: Landscapes in Paintings of the Dutch Interior.

Leave a Reply