There's something wonderfully ironic about black paintings that are best viewed in bright, natural light. Rarely have I seen works that produce a visceral desire to reach out and touch the page. Such is the case with Stephanie Rosenthal's book Black Paintings: Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella.
Admittedly, this book caught my interest in The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's gift shop because of my love for Rothko's work but there was also a sense of playfulness in trying to make sense out of works virtually lacking in color.
So let's begin with the virtual lack of color and by "virtual" I mean "not". In these paintings, black is not the absence of color but rather the confluence of all colors. Rather than death or night, black takes on a role that Rosenthal calls "a dissolver of boundaries," something transitional rather than destructive. Whether the individual artist uses black as a means of breaking with past tradition before launching into a new format (i.e. Rauschenberg) or as the maturation of an established format (i.e. Rothko) what's significant is the replacement of an overt reliance on color with form, depth, and brush.
Abstract art's lack of representation challenges many viewers so the lack of color in black paintings takes that incomprehension to a new level. One may assured, however, that just as there are many shades of gray, so there are many shades of black that are employed in these artists' dark paintings. Rothko in general painted large canvases to make them more human and experiential; to draw the viewer into the painting itself. With the dark canvases, the eye and brain are further connected to the canvas; they seek meaning, ground, and depth.
Borrowing from James Joyce, "close your eyes and see."