The Surrender of White


Pablo Picasso, “Dove”, 1949

Nele Azevedo, “1000 Ice People”, Berlin installation 2009

Dear All,

Last but not least, in this series of blogs about colour, comes White. I have delayed writing about it as White comes loaded with centuries of cultural baggage and identity issues. Should White be considered a colour at all? In its material form, as pigment, it represents the absence of hue or chroma. Furthermore, White cannot be made from the three primaries, as Black theoretically can be. In its ethereal form, as light, however, White contains the presence of all the other colours which, under certain conditions, can be refracted into a visible rainbow. One way or another, be it a colour or non-colour, or both/and, White is an essential pigment to load onto every artist’s palette.

The ancient Romans had two words for White; albus, a plain White, (the source of the word albino); and candidus, a brighter White. A person seeking public office in Rome wore a White toga brightened with chalk, called a toga candida, the origin of the word candidate. The Latin word candere meant to shine, to be bright. It was the origin of the words candle and candid.

During Post-classical history, painters rarely ever mixed colours; but in the Renaissance, the influential humanist and scholar Leon Battista Alberti encouraged artists to add White to their colours to make them lighter, brighter, and to add hilaritas, or gaiety. Many painters followed his advice, and the palette of the Renaissance was considerably brighter as a result.

Lead White was one of the earliest and most reliable Whites discovered, and has been in use since 400 B.C. Unfortunately, its toxicity sickened and killed scores of people, and for that reason, it is no longer manufactured. Lead White’s victims included not only the workers engaged in its manufacture and the artists who used it, but also the women who once applied it as face cream and make-up!

Despite its obvious toxic effects, Lead White continued to be used for centuries. It took the work of many chemists over a very long period of time to develop the formulas for Zinc White and Titanium Dioxide White, two colours that would eventually replace the widespread use of Lead White. Zinc White was developed for use in oil paints in the late 1700s and Titanium White only in 1921. Zinc White is more transparent and useful in tinting and glazing work, though prone to cracking over the long term. Titanium White has become the most common replacement for lead White in artists’ pigments because of its lack of toxicity, its thermal and environmental stability, and its opacity.

So much for the material chemistry of White. In the daily experience of humans, White occurs naturally in their surroundings as chalk, milk, moonlight, fresh snow and mist. And bones; let us not forget the deathly aspect of White. White’s innate extremism (as an embodiment of the total absence of colour), means that every speck of anything else that lands on White, is starkly visible, interrupting its silence and stillness. As a result, White has been associated with cleanliness, purity, innocence, perfection, exactitude, goodness, honesty, new beginnings, neutrality.

It is easy to see how White became an important colour for almost all world religions. The Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has worn White since 1566, as a symbol of purity and sacrifice. In Islam, and in the Shinto religion of Japan, it is worn by pilgrims; and by the Brahmins in India. In Western cultures and in Japan, White is the most common colour for wedding dresses, symbolizing purity and virginity. In many Asian cultures, White is also the colour of mourning. The Taj Majal is an ivory-white marble mausoleum commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It eventually housed his tomb as well. 

And so White can hold the idea of a new beginning, or birth, as well as death; of being and non-being, presence and absence. As such, White acquires an elusive, metaphysical undercurrent which, by its very nature, is almost impossible to put into words. Where words fail us, art steps up.

After millennia of art grappling with various aspects of reality (forms, colours, narratives, symbols), artists started exploring the non tangible, hidden or overlooked aspects of creative expression such as emotions (Expressionism), gesture (Abstract Expressionism), materiality (Minimalism), thought process (Conceptual Art). These more abstract preoccupations were also enabled through the influence of Eastern philosophies exploring ideas such as transience and the illusions of material reality. When exactly did art break with the “thingness” of reality? In my mind, there is one painting that ushered in the new era of abstract or metaphysical art and naturally it just had to be a white painting! Also, unsurprisingly, it was created in the wake of the Russian Revolution. (White: new beginnings, remember?).

For Kazimir Malevich, a Ukrainian/Russian avant-garde painter, theoretician and a devout Christian mystic, White was a symbol of uniformity, equality and purification, pointing the way to what he believed was the art’s new, ‘non-objective’ future. He spent a year experimenting with it. In his own words, he sought ‘the supremacy of pure feeling’. In 1918, he painted “White on White” but it could just as easily have been titled ‘Square On Square’! The painting is made of two clearly differentiated Whites, one cooler than the other. The cooler White square set at an angle within a warmer White square canvas seems to defy gravity. The paint is quite thickly applied so that the marks left by the paint brush are bold and emphatic. This is made possible because the all White surface picks up the ambient light in the room. This in turn creates a shadow under each painted brush stroke and highlights the individual marks. By minimising the palette to White(s) and emphasising his painterly process, Malevich created a painting which is ‘about’ painting itself. By doing so, Malevich radically shifted the focus of visual art away from objectivity and the observable world, towards non objectivity and the act of painting itself. Suprematism was declared to be a radical new art language for a radical new world order, following the Russian Revolution of October 1917. However, in 1930 Malevich was forced to abandon non objective abstraction by Joseph Stalin who decreed that Socialist Realism was the only legitimate art for the Soviet State. Abstraction was in Stalin’s mind a form of dissent and a decadent art-form.

Kazimir Malevich, “Suprematist Composition: White on White”, oil on canvas, 1918.

But Malevitch’s legacy was far-reaching and liberating and 30 years later, it re-surfaced in the USA. Art could now be self-referential. It could interrogate itself. The canvas could be the record of a performance, a process, an intervention. The artist could be a performer, a magician, a shaman. Many of the works that emerged in this period, principally in the 1950s, are ‘untitled’, reinforcing the idea that these works are about the Here and Now and the transient light in the room. They are not windows onto the remembered past or the imagined future nor are they offering an illusion of any reality, as was the tradition of European art until Malevich. Square formats were favoured so as to avoid any references to the landscape or portrait traditions. A huge number and variety of White paintings also came about as a response to Abstract Expressionism’s emotional excesses and the outsized gestural personalities of Alpha male artists such as Wilhelm De Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Artists like Josef Albers (ex Bauhaus teacher)and the Minimalist Frank Stella proposed that “the art object” should “be as far removed from the author as possible.” No greater an attack could be launched on the idea of art as personal expression than the all-White painting. Robert Ryman dedicated virtually his whole artistic career exploring white in all its subtleties and the ways an artwork of this kind attached itself to the reality of a wall.

Robert Ryman, “Surface Veil”, oil on fiberglass with waxed paper and masking tape, 1970-1971

Another artist, Jasper Johns, responding perhaps to the cultural appropriation of Pop Art, frequently used well-known images such as targets, maps, and flags—in his words, "things the mind already knows. "White Flag” is part of his famous flag series, which he began in 1954. In this rendering, he commits a provocative whitewashing, instantly draining an iconic symbol of nationalistic colour identity leaving it to loom, ghostlike, on the equally white wall. The painting’s bleached appearance and composite, layered form make the familiar image strange. By challenging our understanding of what constitutes a national symbol and complicating our relationship to this highly charged American image, it speaks powerfully, if ambiguously, to the issue of national identity.

Jasper Johns, “White Flag”, encaustic, oil, newsprint and charcoal on canvas, 1955

Jasper Johns’ "White Flag", vividly springs to mind for us today when, in the throes of a pandemic, in the aftermath of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the absurdity of national boundaries and the construct of national identity have come into sharp focus. At this point in time, White gathers even more layers of veiled meanings around itself like the silky strands of a cocoon, or a baby’s swaddling, gauze on a bandaged limb or the white shroud of our recently, dearly departed ones…. White gathers its enfolded meanings around us too, like the wings of a messenger angel. More than ever perhaps the message of White is Surrender! White is to be found in the fading memory of some former greatness, in the white-out of flashbulbs from too much celebrity, in the pallor of illness and the chalk of desiccated bones. White is also about Death and Surrender. Interestingly, White flags were used as a surrender signal in both Rome and China for thousands of years. What is incredible is that the tradition is believed to have been developed independently in the West and East. During the American Civil War, soldiers were waving White flags when entering the battlefield to collect their wounded. That etiquette was honoured in subsequent wars also but who knows whether it would hold today…

WWI Australian soldier searching for the wounded under the protection of a white flag, 1916

Jasper Johns shared a studio with another artist, Robert Rauschenberg who, as the story goes, in the early 1950’s, began experimenting with strategies he hoped would help him move beyond the expansive gestural mark-making so revered by the Abstract Expressionist at the time. Rather than fill the canvas with profligate form, he was intrigued with the idea of producing a drawing that was empty. And so he asked his friend Wilhelm de Kooning if he would allow him to erase one of his drawings. De Kooning agreed and after some searching in his studio, gave him a mixed media drawing that he considered would be very hard to erase. Rauschenberg painstakingly erased de Kooning’s drawing and exhibited the result in a gold frame given to him by his friend, lover and fellow artist, Jasper Johns.


Another artist, Agnes Martin, spent a lifetime trying to capture existential subtleties in her canvasses. Using minimal means, a restricted palette and predictable, repetitive forms (a square, a grid or stripes), any subtle variation becomes an event redolent with meaning. It’s virtually impossible to photograph or to appreciate through a reproduction because contemplating Agnes Martin’s paintings “in the flesh” is a participatory, almost spiritual encounter. Her work often seems to question whether White is an absence or presence of colour. In "Untitled #5", she placed bands of equal width across a square canvas. Powdery pink, dusty blue, white. Powdery pink, dusty blue, white. Repeated over and over until the end. The subtle pinks and blues are rubbed onto the canvas in a delicate, almost tentative way. In contrast, the bands of White appear uniform, substantial and deliberate. Are they present or are they absent? It brings to mind the famous Miles Davis quote, ‘Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there’: It is what is not being said that speaks the loudest in much of Agnes Martin’s work.

Agnes Martin, “Untitled #5”, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 1525 x 1528 x 35 mm, 1994

Only a century earlier, another artist, also female, Cecilia Beaux explored similar shades of dusty pink, powdery blue and stark White in a painting that captures the innocence of infancy. Soon the innocent girl child might grow up to resemble a young lady of white privilege such as the White Girl painted by James Whistler. White and Innocence seem to go hand in hand.


Cecilia Beaux, “Ernesta with Child”,1894

 James Whistler, “Symphony in White, no 1 (The White Girl)”, 1862

And yet innocence is not all its dressed up to be. Like most things, it has its shadow side: the complicity of ignorance. In the painting “Symphony in White, no 1 (The White Girl)” painted in 1862 by James Whistler, we see a young girl/woman dressed in virginal White, (an almost or wannabe bride). She looks docile; innocently expressionless, compliantly posing for her artist lover, James Whistler and she’s standing on the pelt of a slayed wolf or bear. Some of the wild flowers she’s holding have dropped onto the floor, drawing our gaze to the flower motif on a plush, bourgeois carpet. (Of course she’s left holding just the White flower!) All things wild have been subjugated and civilised here, including the portrayal of femininity. Naturally, in 1862, such a reading would be met with incredulity or derision as many other forms of violence, such as slavery, were commonplace and therefore considered acceptable.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, “Portrait of Madeleine” (formely known as Portrait of a Negress), 1800

Apart from this complicity of innocence associated with White, there is also an implicit privilege in perfectly maintained whiteness; a constant supply of laundered clothes and scrubbed surfaces whose degree of whiteness relies on the toil of servants and affluent living; far away from the grime of manual labour. So the colour White easily acquired the distinctiveness of wealth. Wealth concentrated in the hands of lighter skinned people exploiting darker skinned people. It is absurd, and yet hardly surprising, that these different shades of brown became polarised into the extremism of symbolic nomenclature supporting racial separation between so called Whites and Blacks. The rest, as they say, is history. And yet histories such as these, are what we are descended from and whose legacies we still carry. If the pandemic achieved one thing, it was in disrupting “normality” and all its inherent complacency and complicity with a system built on the suffering of others. Hopefully, we are now emerging from centuries of Othering, of silencing and erasing traces of violence against anything other than the prestige of whiteness and all its intersectionalities and trappings (patriarchy, capitalism, exploitation, ecocide, gender-based violence, racial discrimination, to name but a few). There may be a huge resistance to whitewashing now but there is also a counter push-back using the obscuring effects of fear-mongering, fake news, alternative facts and smear campaigns. As I said at the start, White comes loaded with a big pile of baggage… Some of it is excess baggage and should be let go of, abandoned or surrendered. In the emptied space we might find White again as pure potential. The White of Newness and Birth eventually goes full circle to become the White of Dissolution and Death. Surrendering graciously to the vast cosmic picture is what the bigger artwork of our lives is all about.

In the interim, be kind, be happy and well.

With love -always,