The Black Square

For anyone who doesn’t know I’ve recently developed a strange fascination for black squares. My post today is a little bit of a thought experiment on the subject.

First the back story. Last summer I found a tee shirt at Liberty Graphics in Liberty, ME in their reject pile that was just a white shirt with a large black square on it. I bought it and didn’t think too much of it.

“Self Portrait” Fall 2010

Last fall I started thinking about how I like wearing white tee shirts because then I don’t have to associate myself with any brand or idea. Its just a tee shirt and you can’t really read into it. The shirt with the black square had the same feel to it, except there was the feeling that there was a message there, or rather the absence of a message. It was like a place holder saying ‘where something should be, now there is nothing’. During a creative block last semester I painted a black square. It was a way of acknowledging that I had nothing important to say at that moment. The painting was not important, it was more about the thought, and the actual process of painting a Black Square to acknowledge that there was nothing there.

On Thanksgiving I made a series of photoshop compositions utilizing the Black Square. In my theory, the Black Square represented the absence of something, or a symbolic way of showing nothing. In this way it could be the subject of a piece, yet at the same time be a meaningless, mysterious object. It was a way for me to make something without worrying about what it was or what it represented. You can view the full series here.

“One” 2010

Then things got a bit strange. Over winter break I stumbled across Kazimir Malevich, a russian painter who painted a Black Square in 1913.

Kazimir Malevich developed an art movement called Suprematism, which focused on basic geometric forms. Heres some quotes to provide some context. I found them here.

“Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art, which in the course of time, has become obscured by the accumulation of things.”

“The contours of the objective world fade more and more and so it goes, step by step, until finally the world “everything we loved and by which we have lived” becomes lost to sight.

“This was no “empty square” which I had exhibited but rather the feeling of nonobjectivity.”

“To Malevich, however, this square symbolized a “full void,” in that it showed how painting could fulfill itself unaided by any reference to a specific external reality. For him the square represented only Suprematism: “the supremacy of pure feeling” in and of itself. Malevich removes specific subject matter by shifting away from representation and mimesis and towards the purity of mathematical geometry.”

The Black square was also displayed above his deathbed, after he died of cancer in 1935.

Needless to say discovering a dead Russian who thinks like you can be a bit weird. While our ideas didn’t match up perfectly, the fact that someone else had chosen the black square as a symbolic representation of nothing (other than pure feeling) was quite inspiring.

Moving on.

Now that I had discovered the Black Square I began seeing it more and more frequently in art.

“Triptych–August” 1972

Francis Bacon used it as a doorway in this tryptich dealing with the suicide of his romantic partner George Dyer.

“Triptych” 1991

He also used it in this series of three self portraits painted 2 years before his death. In both cases he uses it as a symbolic doorway for death. I haven’t found any explanations on the possible meaning of Bacon’s Black Squares, but if you look through his work you will seem them repeatedly.

“Composition with red, yellow, blue and black” 1921

I won’t read too much into this one, but there it is.

Photo from Life Magazine.

Ad Reinhardt is perhaps best known for his many Black paintings. They are actually not perfect black squares, but rather compositions of almost black shapes on a black background.

“Rothko Chapel” 1971

Mark Rothko designed a chapel in Houston, Texas featuring 14 black paintings. While not all squares, the fact that solid black has been elevated to a position of divinity is worth noting.

So what does it mean? I don’t know yet, but I’m thinking about it. To my surprise a black square also subconsciously crept into my latest painting which I’ll wait to share for the sake of suspense.

About Aaron Mitchell
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One Response to The Black Square

  1. Debbie Madore-McLeod says:

    I just love reading your thought process Aaron. Just love it!

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