The Black Paintings of the New York School

Black – a color that has always been associated with strong emotions and a certain mysticism. It stood not only for the simple representation of darkness and night but also carried symbolic connotations such as power, melancholy, and death. However, this perception changed in the 20th century with the emergence of Abstract Art. Artists of that time broke away from the traditional symbolism of the color. They now used black as a powerful tool for personal self-exploration and expression. In particular, artists of the New York School such as Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella, increasingly explored the color black in their work in the late 1940s. In this essay, I will explore how these artists brought a new perspective to the color with their black paintings.

Barnett Newman – Black as a tool for self-exploration

Barnett Newman was one of the first to paint a dark, monochrome painting in 1949 with his work “Abraham“. Already in this painting, his characteristic “zipper” can be seen. He compared looking at the painting with the experience of facing a person directly. Newman, who saw abstraction as a language, believed that with works like this he had shed the burdens of art history and made a new beginning for painting. The painting’s title, “Abraham,” raises associations with Newman’s own father as well as with the biblical figure Abraham, who nearly sacrificed his son to God.1 Black becomes an expression of an introspective attitude, an exploration of his own intuition. “Abraham” can thus be interpreted as his individual search for the artistic self.2

Robert Rauschenberg – Artistic independence through black

Robert Rauschenberg created a series of black monochrome paintings between 1951 and 1953 by layering glossy and matte black paint. At that time, he also made a series of modular, all-white canvases to explore the changes of light in them. (if you want to learn more about this, I recommend the following article: Beyond The Visible: How White Paintings Challenge Our Perception Of Art)

Rauschenberg, who was a student of color theorist Josef Albers while studying at Black Mountain College, felt that Albers’ methodological and theoretical approaches severely limited his view of art. Instead of putting Albers’ color theory on canvas, Rauschenberg created his first monochrome black and white paintings as a protest.3 These paintings marked a decisive step in his artistic independence. The color black represented the reduction to the essential. It served as the basis for his search for himself. The color was a symbol of detachment from traditional, artistic restrictions and of his uncertainty about his own artistic future. For him, black marked the transition from the visible to the invisible, the material to the spiritual, and the conscious to the unconscious.

Ad Reinhardt – Exploration of perception and thought

Ad Reinhardt began working more intensively with the color black around 1956. These “meditation panels” as he called them, show minimal differences in pigmentation and subtle patterns upon closer inspection. Only after a few minutes it is possible for the eye to recognize the details.4 He skillfully explores the limits of vision, perception and thought. He asked questions about the nature of vision, the potential of color, and the relationship between art and reality. Reinhardt saw his task as an artist as reducing art to its purest, most original form by eliminating all external influences and unnecessary elements. Despite the negative connotations of black, Reinhardt suggests that black can be the counterpart of enlightened consciousness – represented by white – and as such, can be equally revealing.5

As an artist and painter I would like to eliminate the symbolic pretty much, for black is interesting not as a colour but as a non-colour and as the absence of colour.

Ad Reinhardt

Mark Rothko – Black as a symbolic representation of emptiness and nothingness

Even though Mark Rothko, one of the most prominent representatives of Abstract Expressionism, is known for his bright, bold red and orange color field paintings, he created a large number of darker and almost black paintings later in his life, more precisely from 1957 onwards. His work “Black on Dark Sienna on Purple” is one of these first, darker works (fig. 5). In doing so, Rothko used a variety of colors, applied in several layers, to create the effect of black and gray in his so-called “Black-form Paintings” (from 1964).

For a long time, his dark paintings were interpreted as a reflection of his own depressed state of mind and his worsening illness in his last years – however, I should mention here that at that time he also made works on paper in pastel blue, pink and terracotta on white. So it can’t have been due to his supposedly “gloomy” state of mind.6 Instead, for Rothko his dark paintings were an aspired culmination, a representation of emptiness and nothingness.

Frank Stella – Black as a rejection of the traditional expressionist style

Frank Stella presented his “Black Paintings” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959 at the young age of 23. In contrast to the prevailing trends of Abstract Expressionism at the time, Stella created a system of repetitive forms in his works that caused confusion and shock among critics and viewers alike. All black paintings consist of white, rectangular geometric lines on a black background, which always form a rectangular shape (as seen in fig. 6). With his Black Paintings, he rejected the emotional and individual form of expression that the Abstract Expressionists emphasized and wanted to reinterpret the idea that art was a direct and individual creative expression of the artist.7

What you see is what you see.

Frank Stella

The use of the color black marked a new understanding of color and art, especially among the artists of the New York School. For Newman, Rauschenberg, Reinhardt, Rothko, and Stella, black was a tool for their individual, artistic expression. The symbolic meaning of color varied depending on the artist and ranged from the rejection of traditional painting and the search for the artistic self to the mere reduction of art to its purest form.

Further Reading / Resources

  2. The Colors Black in the New York School, Stephanie Rosenthal, 2003, p. 169
  5. Barbara Rose, Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, p. 96 ff.
  6. Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Mark Rothko, p.74 ff.

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