the color of a leather jacket
Black, as the opposite of light, has always been associated with something negative – a symbol of the devil, the color of sadness and mourning, the embodiment of death. On the one hand, it is associated with darkness and mystery, on the other – with elegance and luxury. But it’s better not to read too much into the meanings or rely on them blindly, because they can easily lead us astray. In China, for example, black also has positive connotations, being seen as a heavenly color associated with immortality.
So, when looking at black abstract paintings, we shouldn’t presume right away that the artist was in despair and was going through a rough patch. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Black is a color with unique properties, offering a wealth of ways to express self artistically. This may sound unlikely, as most of us think about a wide range of hues, when thinking about painting a picture.
Meanwhile, black isn’t just black and there’s quite a few shades to this color, such as: Charcoal, Onyx, Black Bean, Black Leather Jacket or Raisin Black. As far as painting is concerned, it’s not only about different shades, but also about how they correspond and complement each other on the canvas.
Pierre Soulages is an artist notably famous for his black canvases. And although he has painted dozens of such pictures, each is different and one of a kind. As the artist himself says about his work, he paints with paints, but it’s light that has the last say; it is light that completes his work. By applying the paint in thick layers, using spoons or even a rake on one occasion, the artist creates unevenness on the surface of the canvas, off of which light then refracts and reflects. Not only that, Soulages uses both matte and glossy paints. By juxtaposing the two, the black abstraction takes on life and lightness, though at first glance it is still just a black canvas.
A similar approach can be observed in the work of the Mexican-born artist Mareo Rodriguez. His canvases have even more depth than those of his French counterpart. Looking at them from the side, one can see that a layer of acrylic paint was applied as if it were a sculpture, creating a surface somewhat resembling a bas-relief. The play of light and shadow makes the black hues sparkle with different shades of white and gray, which is something hard to wrap your head around until you see the work – and how it plays out – in person.
Mark Rothko is yet another master of black canvases, though he’s mainly known for oversized pictures covered with colorful paints. The works we’re interested in today are exposed in The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. In this non-denominational chapel, we will find 14 black (but different shades of black) paintings, that create a truly unique atmosphere. The example of this place shows how many different emotions, feelings and associations a color, in this case black, can evoke. In the chapel, people of various faiths and even atheists meet to pray, meditate and contemplate art, and it’s safe to assume that each of them sees something completely different in the black canvases!
transl. Jakub Majchrzak