Winter 2000–2001


Horrible, implacable, murderous

David Batchelor

This is roughly how it began: sometime one summer during the early 1990s, I was invited to a party. The host was an Anglo-American art collector, and the party was in the collector’s private house, which was in a city at the southern end of a northern European country. First impressions on arrival at this house: it was big (but then so were the houses around it, so it didn’t appear that big). It was the kind of area, a wealthy area of a rich city, where only small or shabby things looked strange or out of place. The house looked ordinary enough from the outside: red brick, nineteenth century or early twentieth, substantial but not ostentatious. So, there was the outside, big but fairly ordinary; and there was the front door, which was just ordinary; and then there was inside. Inside was different. That was the point. Inside was something else. Inside was on its own. Inside seemed to have no connection with outside. Inside was, in one sense, inside out, but I only realized that much later. At first, inside looked endless. Endless like an egg must look endless from the inside; endless because seamless, continuous, empty, uninterrupted. Or rather: uninterruptable. There is a difference: uninterrupted might mean overlooked, passed-by, inconspicuous, insignificant. Uninterruptable passes by you, renders you inconspicuous and insignificant. The uninterruptable endless emptiness of inside was impressive, elegant, and glamorous in a spare and reductive kind of way, but it was also assertive, emphatic, and ostentatious. This was assertive silence, emphatic blankness, the kind of ostentatious emptiness which only the very wealthy and the utterly sophisticated can afford. It was a strategic emptiness, but it was also accusatory.

Inside this house was a whole world, and it was a very particular kind of world, a very clean and very clear and very orderly universe. But it was also a very paradoxical, inside-out world, a world where open was also closed, where simplicity was also complication, and where clarity was also confusion. It was a world that didn’t readily admit the existence of other worlds. Or it did so grudgingly and resentfully, and absolutely without compassion. In particular it was a world that would remind you, there and then, in an instant, of everything you were not, everything you had failed to become, everything you had not gotten around to doing, everything you might as well never bother to get around to doing because everything was made to seem somehow beyond reach, like it is when you look through the wrong end of a telescope. This wasn’t just first impressions, this wasn’t just the pulling back of the curtain to reveal the unexpected stage set, although there was that too, of course. This was longer lasting. Inside was a flash that continued. Inside was: WHITE.

There is a kind of white which is more than white and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white which is not made by bleach, but which itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything around it, and nothing escaped. Some would hold the architect responsible. He was a man, it is said, who put it about that his work was “minimalist;” that his mission was to strip bare and to make pure, architecturally speaking; that his spaces were “very direct” and “very clear,” and in them there was “no possibility of lying” because “they are just what they are.” He was lying of course, lying big white lies, but we will let that pass for the moment. Some would hold this man responsible for the accusatory whiteness that was this great hollow interior, but I suspect it was the other way around: I suspect that the whiteness was responsible for this architect and for all his hollow words.

This great white interior was empty even when it was full, because most of what was in it didn’t belong in it and would soon be purged from it. This was people, mainly, and what they brought with them from outside. Inside this great white interior, few things looked settled and even fewer looked at home, and those that did look settled also looked like they had been prepared: approved, trained, disciplined, marshaled. Those things that looked at home looked like they had already been purged from within. In a nutshell: those things that stayed had themselves been made either quite white, or quite black, or quite gray. This world was entirely purged of color. Specifically: all the walls and the ceilings and the floors and the fittings were, of course, white; all the furniture was black; and all the works of art were gray. It’s true.

Not all whites are as tyrannical as this one was, and this one was less tyrannical than some: “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?[1] Next to the white that was Herman Melville’s great Albino Whale, this white paled. Or next to the deathly obsessive white that insinuated its way into the dark heart of Joseph Conrad’s Captain Marlow, this white was almost innocent. Admittedly there was some Conradian residue in this shallower white: “Minimalism,” it seemed to say, “is something you arrive at, a development of the sen­sitivity of the brain. Civilization started with ornamentation. Look at all that bright color. The minimal sensitivity is not the peak of civilization, but it is at a high level between the earth and the sky.” But this wasn’t spoken with the voice of a Marlow, it contained no irony, no terror born of the recognition that whatever appeared before you now had always seen you before it a thousand times already. Rather this was the voice of one of Conrad’s Empire functionaries, one of those stiff and starched figures whose certainties always protect them from, and thus always propel them remorselessly towards, the certain oblivion that lies just a page or two ahead.

What is it that motivates this fixation with white?

First of all let’s get the term “minimalism” and its careless association with whiteness out of the way. In reality it didn’t happen very often at all, at least in the minimalism which was the three-dimensional works of art made during the 1960s, mostly in New York. Certainly there are a good many skeletal white structures by Sol LeWitt. And Robert Morris was suspicious of color—so he painted his early work gray, but not white. Dan Flavin used tubes of white light—or rather daylight, or cool white—which is to say whites, not white—but his work was more often than not made in pools of intermingling colored light: red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and white. Carl Andre: intrinsic colors, the specific colors of specific materials—woods and metals in particular—no whites there to speak of. And Donald Judd: sometimes intrinsic colors, sometimes applied, sometimes both together, sometimes shiny, sometimes transparent, sometimes polished, sometimes matte. Dozens of colors on dozens of surfaces, often in strange combinations: polished copper with shiny purple Plexiglas, or brushed aluminum with a glowing translucent red, or spray-painted enamels with galvanized steel, or whatever there was. In truth the colors of minimal art were often far closer to that of its exact contemporary, Pop Art, than anything else. Which is to say, found colors, commercial colors, industrial colors; and often bright, vulgar, modern colors in bright, vulgar, modern collisions with other bright, vulgar modern colors.

To mistake the colorful for the colorless or white is nothing new. However, it is one thing not to have known that Greek statues were once brilliantly painted, it is another thing not to see the color when it is still there. This seems to speak of a different psychological state, of a different level of denial. Not perceiving what is visibly there: psychoanalysts call it negative hallucination. But we have to tread carefully here, and we should be especially careful not to get drawn into seeing color and white as opposites. White was sometimes used in Minimalism, but it was mostly used as a color and amongst many other colors. Sometimes it was used in combination with other colors and sometimes it was used alone, but even when used alone it remained a color; it did not result, except perhaps in LeWitt’s structures, in a generalized whiteness. In these works, white remained a material quality, a specific color on a specific surface, just as it always has done in the paintings of Robert Ryman. Ryman’s whites are always just that: whites. His whites are colors; his paintings do not involve or imply the suppression of color. His whites are empirical whites. Above all, his whites are plural. And, in being plural, they are, therefore, not “pure.” Here is the problem: not white; not whites; but generalized white, because generalized white, whiteness, is abstract, detached, and open to contamination by terms like “pure.”

Pure white: this problem is certainly a Western problem, and there’s no getting away from it. Conrad and Melville were both ruthless analysts of the metaphysics of whiteness. For both, annihilation and death lurked behind the shroud of purity. But the virtuous whiteness of the West also conceals other less mystical terrors. These terrors are more local and altogether more palpable; they are terrors, mainly, of the flesh. Melville’s great white whale is, conceivably, a monstrous corruption of the great Western ideal of the classical body. This body, at least in its remodeled neo-classical version, was of course a pure, polished, unembellished, untouched, and untouchable white. For Walter Pater, writing on the neo-classical scholar Winkelmann and classical sculpture sometime between the publication of Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, this “white light, purged from the angry, blood-like stains of action and passion, reveals, not what is accidental in man, but the tranquil godship in him, as opposed to the restless accidents of life.”[2] A few pages on, this light loses its whiteness and re-emerges as “this colorless, unclassified purity of life” which is “the highest expression of the indifference which lies beyond all that is relative and partial.” In his elision of whiteness with colorlessness and transparency and purity, Pater is at least following the logic of the great neo-classical scholar Winkelmann, for whom the ideal beauty of the classical form is “like the purest water taken from the source of a spring...the less taste it has, the more healthy it is seen to be, because it is cleansed of all foreign elements.”[3] And Winkelmann, in his turn, is following the example of Plato for whom truth, embodied in the Idea, was, as Martin Jay has put it, “like a visible form blanched of its color.”[4]

It was this classical body, further purified and further corrupted in Stalinist “realism,” that Mikhail Bakhtin counterpoised with the altogether more fleshy and visceral “grotesque realism” of the medieval body. For Bakhtin, the classical form is above all a self-contained unity, “an entirely finished, completed, strictly limited body, which is shown from the outside as something individual. That which protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off [...] is eliminated, hidden or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable façade. The opaque surface of the ’valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed, as well as all signs of its inner life.”[5] Bakhtin’s description of the classical body also describes with uncanny accuracy the art collector’s “minimalist“ interior, where everything was finished, completed, and strictly limited in a closed individuality that was not allowed to merge with the world outside. The idea that anything might protrude, bulge, sprout, or branch off from this sheer whiteness was inconceivable. The inner life of this world was entirely hidden: nothing was allowed to spill out from its allotted space; all circuitry, all conduits, all the accumulated stuff which attaches itself to an everyday life remained concealed, held in, snapped shut. Every surface was a closed impenetrable façade: cupboards were disguised as walls, there were no clues or handles or anything to distinguish one surface from another; just as there were no protrusions, neither was there a single visible aperture. In this way openness really was an illusion maintained by closure, simplicity was ridiculously over-complicated, and unadorned clarity was made hopelessly confusing. You really could become lost in this apparently blank and apparently empty white space. In its need to differentiate itself from that which was without, nothing could be differentiated within. This space was clearly a model for how a body ought to be: enclosed, contained, sealed. The ideal body: without flesh of any kind, old or young, beautiful or battered, scented or smelly; without movement, external or internal; without appetites. (That is why the kitchen was such a disturbing place—but not nearly as disturbing as the toilet.) But perhaps it was more perverse than that; perhaps this was a model of what the body should be like from within. Not a place of fluids and organs and muscles and tendons and bones all in a constant and precarious and living tension with each other; but a vacant, hollow, whited chamber, scraped clean, cleared of any evidence of the grotesque embarrassments of an actual life. No smells, no noises, no color; no changing from one state to another and the uncertainty that comes with it; no exchanges with the outside world and the doubt and the dirt that goes with that; no eating, no drinking, no pissing, no shitting, no sucking, no fucking, no nothing.

But still it won’t go away. Whiteness always returns. Whiteness is woven into the fabric of Culture. The Bible, again: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”[6] We can’t escape, but, as Conrad and Melville have shown, sometimes it is possible to unweave whiteness from within. Henri Michaux, artist, poet, and acid head, writing in “With Mescaline”: “And ‘white’ appears. Absolute white. White beyond all whiteness. White of the coming of white. White without compromise, through exclusion, through total eradication of non-white. Insane, enraged white, screaming with whiteness. Fanatical, furious, riddling the victim. Horrible electric white, implacable, murderous. White in bursts of white. God of “white.” No, not a god, a howler monkey. (Let’s hope my cells don’t blow apart.) End of white. I have the feeling that for a long time to come white is going to have something excessive for me.”[7]

  1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, The Whale (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 212.
  2. Walter Pater, The Renaissance (London: MacMillan, 1961), p. 205.
  3. Quoted in Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 164.
  4. Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 26.
  5. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 320.
  6. Isaiah 1:18.
  7. Henri Michaux, “With Mescaline,” in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927–1984, trans. David Ball (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 198.

David Batchelor is a London-based artist who exhibits at Anthony Wilkinson Gallery. He is also an author whose books include Minimalism and Chromophobia.

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