Fall/Winter 2003

Darkness Visible

Tom Vanderbilt

“The uniform black that is worn now,” wrote Oscar Wilde to the Daily Telegraph in 1891, is “dull, tedious and depressing.” Balzac observed that “we are all dressed in black like so many people in mourning.” In late nineteenth-century Europe, in those days before seasonal color forecasting, black was the new black, the de facto hue of the metropole. What made this adoption (as well as other episodes in which black became the new black) particularly compelling, notes art historian John Harvey in his book Men in Black, “is the way in which, through time, the use of this color—the color that is without color, without light, the color of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame—has been adopted in its use by men not as the color of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery.” 

Harvey invokes the case of the Black Friars, those thirteenth-century Dominican monks who would eventually be known as “Domini canes,” the “watch-dogs of God.” Clad solely in black (in a time when such dress was abnormal), their stoic pageantry of self-abnegation acquired, conversely, a strange power. “With the Black Friars one encounters the great paradox of black,” writes Harvey. “For black is a negative quantity, the absence of color: considered as a color, which one chooses to wear, it is the sign of denial and loss. Yet self-denial can also give power, and authority over un-denied selves.” 

There is perhaps no color freighted with as much meaning as black; what makes this significant, as art students will remember, is that black is not a color at all, merely the absence of wavelengths of visible light. To truly see black would require the loss of any visible light, meaning in fact that all would be black. As the OED gently reminds us, “perfect blackness being a rare attribute of objects, those from the surface of which very little light is reflected are commonly called black.” (Note the sense of condescension in that italicized black. Not black, but “black.”) Black’s paradox has long been the subject of inquiry. Lucretius demanded: “What color can there be in total darkness?” Plotinus sounded out the complexities: “To see darkness, the eye withdraws from the light it is striving to cease from seeing, therefore it abandons the light which would make the darkness invisible; away from the light, its power is rather that of not-seeing than of seeing and this not-seeing is its nearest approach to seeing Darkness.”

It is as if black, like a black hole sucking up light, absorbs the capacity for description. “We do not have to understand black, it is the primeval ground,” said Paul Klee. Into this non-color of the void we do not so much as project our meanings and fantasies, as on to a white screen, than they are swallowed up by the black itself; our lives consist of those things that we draw away from the black. In his book The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Wassily Kandinsky wrote that “black is something burnt out, like the ashes of a funeral pyre, something motionless like a corpse. The silence of black is the silence of death.” Robert Motherwell, one of the supreme practitioners of black in art—he viewed black and white as his “protagonists”—noted: “I tend to think of black much more as ‘thingness,’ like a piece of coal, a piece of paper, a black dress, or a black shadow which you might see in Mexico in the summer.” Matisse once said that when he didn’t know what color to use, he went for black. “Black is a force,” he said. 

All this is preface towards introducing a rather remarkable scientific achievement of late; the creation of the “blackest black” that has ever been found on this planet. “Super Black,” as it has been dubbed by its inventors at England’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), is said to reflect as much as twenty times less light than the previous “blackest black.” This is presumed to have enormous implications in the field of optical instrumentation, as the enhanced capture of stray light will allow for more precise instruments in a smaller package, which in turn will permit, in a poetic touch, more accurate looks into the deepest black of outer space.

The medium of Super Black is etched nickel-phosphorous alloy plates, used as coating on such metals as aluminum. As Dr. Richard Brown, senior research scientist at NPL, describes it, Super Black was achieved by lowering the ratio of phosphorous to nickel found in the alloy. “When the shiny alloy plate is etched in the acid bath, the nickel is chemically oxidized to produce nickel oxide,” he says. “Nickel oxide is the actual material on the surface which looks black.” With a higher phosphorous content, the surface of the alloy submitted to the acid bath emerges with a surface that, when viewed under an electron microscope, appears “spiked.” By lowering the phosphorous content, the NPL scientists found they were able to create a surface that contained “craters.” As Brown describes it, “The low phosphorus content Ni-P alloys lend themselves well to the production of the surface morphologies, or roughnesses, required to trap the light after etching.”

Broadly speaking, the effect is similar to using a “matte” paint, whose rougher surface reflects less light than the glossy variety and so appears darker. Brown says that black matte auto spray paint is actually employed often in optics, as they perform quite well with little special preparation. “These can reflect as little as 2.5 percent of visible light,” says Brown. “Other special optical paints incorporate small particles to increase the roughness of the finish and decrease reflectance.”

By its very nature, black tends to defy taxonomies of classification—something is either black or it is not. But the range of blacks we experience—from Gap T-shirts to the spines of Penguin Classics to a 33 rpm vinyl record to a Uniball Micro pen to the shadows from which emerges the full-moon Orson Welles face in The Third Man to the black armbands at the Mexico 1968 Olympics—are a panoply of varying levels of reflectance of light. All of these, however, register somewhere around 6 percent—a bit higher, a bit lower—reflectance of light in the visible spectrum. Super Black, which one will not find on a Pantone color wheel or as a lambswool V-neck option at J. Crew, offers a staggering 0.35 percent reflectance in the visible region. 

How much blacker could it be, as Spinal Tap once wondered? It is not quite so simple to speak of the blackest black, however, as some kind of quantifiable property. “When we talk about blackness, we are actually referring to the reflectivity of the surface,” says Brown (of black). “That is to say, the percentage of the light striking the surface that is reflected back and not absorbed by the surface.” The reflectance figure will vary depending on the kind of light—ultraviolet, visible, or infrared—that is shone upon it. “A human’s perception of ‘blackness’ is, of course, based on the light, or lack of light, which we perceive, and is therefore biased to a material’s reflective characteristics when visible light, which the eye reacts to, is shone upon it,” Brown says. “Super Black surfaces have a performance based on reflectivity so they look exceptionally black in the visible region, but if we could ‘see’ at much longer wavelengths in the far-infrared the surface would have a higher reflectance and not appear so ‘black.’” And to see the Super Black in the first place would, of course, require light—we need light to view the absence of light.

In an exhibition catalog on Dutch painting, Hermine Van Guldener wrote of black that “only the great masters, the true colorists, know how to treat this severe and somber color so that we do not notice its inherent lack of luminosity.” Given the fascination and power that black has held for artists, it is no surprise that the NPL has already been approached by several artists, who, Brown says, are interested in works exploring the concept of “visible darkness” and blackness. Other potential uses for Super Black range from copyright protection (each acid-etched plate is unique), to highway sign manufacturers seeking a greater contrast, to the defense industry—e.g., the Stealth Bomber, whose low-reflectance surface is key to outwitting radar. (With the Stealth Bomber, we see black personified: In its sleek black profile we see the darkness of the invisible, a shadow-symbol of covert prowess, soaking up radar waves, drawing them into the void. And yet, sitting parked on some runway at the Nevada Test Site, standing starkly against the dun-colored desert ranges, it stands in stark obsidian relief, commanding all attention, a black portent of sinister, nocturnal power in a bleached landscape).

In some time from now, perhaps not long, an artist, treading in the hoary footsteps of previous adepts of black, will hoist the inaugural Super Black painting. “The eye takes its first bearings from quantitative differences of illumination, and in their absence feels most at loss,” wrote the art critic Clement Greenberg. “Black and white offers the extreme statement of these differences.” Will the darker black shed new light, as it were, on the meanings and manipulation of loss of light? The NPL’s Richard Brown, who has peered into the blackest black as much as anyone, offers this account: “Looking at a good piece of Super Black is a strange and interesting experience since it is actually very difficult to focus on because so little light is reflected. The surface has been described as looking like black velvet. The surface looks visibly blacker than anything most people will have seen before. The blackest pieces appear to have a greater ‘depth’ to them than their actual physical thickness.”

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America (2002). A regular contributor to Cabinet, his writings have appeared in the London Review of Books, Bookforum, and the New York Times.