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Milton Art Bank (MAB) is thrilled to present BLACK WHITE, an exhibition of artworks and objects spanning a wide range of mediums, genres, and historical periods. These works explore the many ways black and white are used in art. Black is the absence of visible light, while white contains all wavelengths of visible light. One draws in and absorbs while the other pushes out and repels. These two colors have been locked in binary opposition throughout history: Evil/Good; Dark/Light; Night/Day; Dirty/Clean. However, this belies the true nature of their relationship, for they are actually sympathetic companions, the one needing the other in order to find its fullest expression. For how can we ever truly know what is light without ever experiencing that which is dark?

There are innumerable ways in which artists have used black and white: formally, conceptually, metaphorically, politically, graphically, structurally. Some of the works on view are simply black, some simply white, while others mix the two colors to create striking ranges of gray. There are also works that are neither strictly black nor white, but rather use muted colors to portray an idea black and white, of opposition and pairing. In order to help the viewer better understand some of the larger ideas and motifs found in the works in BLACK WHITE, MAB has invited noted author and art critic Lance Esplund to peruse the exhibition and write about works he considers exemplary of how black and white can function in an artwork. His texts can be found throughout the gallery by the works they describe, and the viewer is invited to use them as their guide through the exhibition.

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Barbara Goodstein (1945-2015)
Church, New Haven, 2003
Acrylic plaster, paint, wood on board
Courtesy Barbara Goodstein Foundation

Goodstein, who worked with white plaster on painted plywood (an original medium), merged drawing, sculpture, painting, collage, and relief. Here, she distills a church and landscape into idyllic, linear, elastic elements—shorthand interpretations spontaneous and alive; incisive, immediate, graphic. The sculpture’s stark contrasts are reminiscent of chalk drawings on blackboards, X-Rays, and of shadows blackening brightly lit snow during a full moon. Goodstein’s hand is playful, sophisticated, and economical. She conveys both the skeletal scaffolding (the insides) and the gestural overall (the outsides) of her motif. Working in opacity and translucency, she arrives at essences that blend figure and architecture; crucifixion, altar, icon, and memory.


Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Deux nus, d’après photographie, 1850
Pencil on paper
Private Collection

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Study of a Youth (study for the fresco “The Golden Age”), 1849
Pencil on paper
Private Collection

The contemporary 19th-century French painters Delacroix and Ingres have long been polarized: Delacroix is designated as the Romantic Dionysian—a champion of free, loose, expressionistic color; Ingres, seen as the Neoclassical Apollonian draftsman—a champion of precision and line. Here, seen together, their passions feel neck-and-neck. Ingres’s study of nude male figures for his orgiastic fresco, The Golden Age, in which he said he wanted to create something altogether heathen, something “Greek,” loosens up; its trembling edges courting the freely sensual. Ingres’s delicate, crystalline line is heightened, if not further eroticized, by a tantalizing primed surface reminiscent of sparkling marble. Meanwhile, Delacroix, tightening his two nude figures’ weighty volumes between pressed contours, like nestled fruit, slows us down, rocks us into a languorous rhythm.


Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749)
St. Ambrose Standing in a Niche, circa 1725
Oil on paper, laid down on canvas
Private Collection

The Italian Baroque visionary artist Magnasco was a masterly tonal painter. His palette was dark, even morose: seeping, liquefied zigzagging browns, grays, blacks, and blues—pictures in which uneasy strands of light, unable seemingly to gather purchase, and hounded by darkness, dart and glance across and through forms. Magnasco’s subjects were often claustrophobic landscapes, ruins, crowded interiors, and religious scenes—such as hooded monks and the tortuous Inquisition; and his figures are elongated and undulated, like stretched taffy, cracking whips, melting wax. Yet, as in this grisaille painting, St. Ambrose Standing in a Niche, they remain solid, monumental. Besides his gorgeous, gloomy light, what keeps us moving and engaged are Magnasco’s restlessness, his willful distortions, his equivalence of violence with eroticism and of humans with nature and beasts, and, especially, his inimitable whiplashing line—as if he saw the world made up not of people and things but of lightning bolts, clashing in a thunderclap.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Portrait of Jean Renoir, circa 1902
Pencil on paper
Private Collection

The subject of this pencil study, for the oil painting Gabrielle and Jean (1895), in Paris’s Musée National de l’Orangerie, is Renoir’s second son, Jean (1894-1979)—the filmmaker who brought us masterpieces such as La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game, as well as the biography, Renoir, My Father. Jean was probably drawn here while sitting on the lap of Renoir’s teenage model and Jean’s nursemaid, Gabrielle—fidgeting and playing with toy animals, as he is in the finished painting. Renoir depicts Jean as a plump cherub, a downy cloud; the smudged, double- and triple-contour edges of his head quivering, conveying an infant in constant motion. Jean recalled that his father was not overtly demonstrative, except through his art: “With sharp but tender touches of his brush,” Jean wrote, “he would joyfully caress the dimples in his children’s cheeks or the little creases in their wrists, and shout his love to the universe.”


Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1540)
The Last Supper, nd (lifetime impression)
Woodblock print, four sheets
Private Collection

In Schäufelein’s depiction of The Last Supper, white light, emanating from Christ’s diamond-shaped halo, ripples outward, as it permeates and begins to dissolve the spaces and shadows of the composition—eliminating depth and darkness. Everything is illuminated, pushing forward, and—as with the architecture’s central support column—nearly flattened against the front plane of the picture, which feels ready to burst. Schäufelein’s light-filled Last Supper table—with Christ at the helm and the apostles as insufficient anchor and ballast—swells, begins to turn and to threaten to roll over us, like a wave about to break on our shore.


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Les Pauvres (The Poor), 1905
Etching on paper, from the Vollard edition of 1913
Edition of 250
Private Collection

Picasso is often celebrated more as a graphic artist than a colorist. He excelled at both, but also claimed that color weakens, which is why, throughout his career, he repeatedly returned to monochromatic and neutral palettes, as he did during his Blue, Rose, Cubist, and Neoclassical Periods—a practice in the studio, as in the science lab, to control variables. In the early print, Les Pauvres (The Poor), from his Rose Period Saltimbanques (or traveling circus performers) series, Picasso builds up a dense crosshatching of itchy lines that nearly obliterate as they delineate the figures. It’s as if the family members are being absorbed into or emerging or struck from their surroundings. Picasso’s landscape is heaving ocean; the performers, set adrift. Unlike the grazing animal, woven into the grasses, the family feels rooted. The father stands like a carved totem, sentry, standard, or tree; the mother, like a stump, rock, or Pieta. Yet these travelers also recall the Holy Family, destined to perform; and the children are illuminated, as if from within.


Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Champs, 1991
Private Collection

Mitchell, born in Chicago, moved to Paris in 1959 and later settled in the small French village, Vétheuil, on rural property with a view of the Seine and a house once owned by Monet. She is considered a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, but she was a metaphoric abstractionist rather than an action or gestural painter. Many of her works, though they recall aspects of Pollock and de Kooning, are abstract landscapes or portraits of place inspired more by Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh. In the abstract lithograph, Champs (the French word for “fields”), Mitchell’s burnished silvery-gray strokes are reminiscent of natural elements such as clouds, horizons, mist, and fog; striations of earth, wheat, and surf—but, wavering among associations, they refuse to settle. I’m reminded of bodies in mass graves; niggling reminiscences; a metallic taste; blunt words; skinned knees. Vertically stacked, her buoyant, plangent forms, though top-heavy, press forward to the plane and insistently rise, refusing—as in a traditional landscape—to recede beyond the horizon. Luminous, calligraphically muscling into our consciousness, their restiveness lingers.

Moon jar

Moon Jar, 17th century
Private Collection

Young Sook Park (1947-)
Moon Jar, 2003
Private Collection

Korean white porcelain moon jars, popular during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897), get their name from both their moon-like shape and milky-white color. They are traditionally fashioned from two nearly identical hemispherical bowls stacked, or joined, at the middle and open at the top, to resemble not a full but, rather, misshapen gibbous moon—waxing or waning or both. Here are two excellent examples: a 17th-century pear- or pregnant belly-shaped jar by an anonymous artist. It is ostensibly white, but happy accidents of glazing and firing have rendered hues of salmon, celadon, and plumb, giving variation, depth, and life to the white surface, as if the sun were setting in the moon. The second moon jar, by contemporary ceramicist Young Sook Park, is more spherical and stout and purely white, but casts an azure glow, as if rising and swelling, reflecting dusk-blue.


Deborah Rosenthal (1950-)
Uphill and Down, 2010
Oil and oil stick on linen
Courtesy the artist

Titian claimed that a good painter only needs three colors: black, white, and red. Rosenthal works here with a minimal palette of black, white, and red, as well as red’s complement, green, and a tonal, milky range of intermixed hues: veiled pinks, grays, and violets. Other artists’ works in this show, such as Barbara Goodstein’s Church, New Haven, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled, Melissa Meyer’s Untitled, and Louise Fishman’s Upright in the Studio, also expand their palettes beyond black and white. Rosenthal’s painting was inspired by Kandinsky’s abstract paintings, in which Rosenthal sees fields of white or black as “standing in for a cultural memory of Byzantine gold backgrounds,” and by El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88), “where black is so much void and volume at once.” In Uphill and Down—an abstract picture about a mountainous or hilly terrain—Rosenthal says that its “tension,” or “dare…is to posit the black and white shapes as equal;…to create a disequilibrium or inequality in the two halves of the painting, different as…the sensations of walking up a hill vs. down a hill.” “I did not start from any sort of declaration of ‘black-and-white’ as a given ploy,” Rosenthal said, “but rather from black’s needing white, white’s needing black.”

Japanese bowl

Tea bowl, 17th century
Stoneware, with Christian motif
Private Collection

This beautiful Japanese stoneware tea bowl, with its Christian cross, is historically and aesthetically important and very rare. For every one extant, thousands were destroyed during the 16th and 17th centuries, when, under Imperial edict, Catholic Christianity was repressed and Christians were persecuted, tortured, and even crucified in Japan. Although forced to renounce their beliefs, some Japanese faithful, known as “hidden Christians,” practiced in secret, concealing their Christian iconography on roof tiles, in shrines and discreet parts of buildings, and on tea bowls. The warm, off-white cross, both humble and heraldic, stands emblazoned on the chest of its modest tea bowl, yet also appears to step back slightly, under the protective eaves of the bowl’s outwardly curled lip. The cross was created through a wax resist process: drawn in wax on the naked clay, it resisted the brownish-black glaze, revealing, as if branded there, the bare emblem of its user’s devotion. Illuminated by 17th-century candlelight, the white cross would have stood resolute against and embedded within the reflections dancing across the tea bowl’s lustrous, dark surface.

White triangle

Thornton Willis (1936-)
Untitled Study in White,1990
Oil on paper
Private Collection

Willis gets a lot out of a little in this economical, mostly white abstraction. Interlocking triangles are separated yet wedded by spider web-thin linear elements, like the tracery of stained glass. The delicate triangles, held taut, seem tentatively balanced as if on tightropes—contour lines that are sometimes dark and incised; at others bright, like a glinting knife edge. The triangles feel puzzled together, folded like origami, faceted like the planes of a cut diamond, or like the simultaneous though splayed views showing multiple sides of buildings and their pitched rooftops in early Renaissance cityscapes and children’s drawings. At times the facets suddenly appear to buckle forward in the flat plane, creating three-dimensional geometric volumes—architecture, pyramids, gems. Willis’s whites make me squint, as if I were adjusting my eyes to a blizzard in bright sun. Only then do I begin to see the range of warm buttery white to cool icy white; the various qualities of translucency and opacity; only then do I begin to ascertain the bend and warp of the plane, which is flat yet malleable—operating very much like this show’s nearby ancient Egyptian white limestone relief sculpture. Willis’s painting is decorative yet primal. It explores movement and countermovement, expansion and contraction, tension and release, a membrane stretched and in flux. It plays with our sense of what, exactly, is figure and what is ground, what is on top and what is beneath, what is inside and what is outside. Look up close. Willis’s brushy universe—both body and spine—is teeming with life.


Louise Fishman (1939-)
Upright in the Studio, 1997
Oil on linen
Private Collection

In Fishman’s entangled, abstract frontal web, wrestling blacks and whites are the protagonists, supported by peeking hues and middle tones of green, gray, and dirty yellow. The painting actively intermixes and advances on us, but is held within the plane by white—both painted white and white ground, which constantly compete with the other colors, especially blacks, for frontality. At the painting’s edges, a white inner frame, in tension with black, bounds the painting from escaping its rectangle and holds the snaking blacks at bay. Fishman’s whites, employed sparingly here, may seem secondary to black. But because her various qualities of white assert themselves as behind, within, and on top of black, they introduce a dynamic spatial havoc.

Egyptian black
White Egyptian

Funerary stele, circa 800 BCE (New Kingdom)
Carved basalt
Private Collection

Relief carving, circa 14th century BCE (Middle Kingdom)
Private Collection

The two Egyptian sculptures in BLACK WHITE, one (above), a Middle Kingdom white carved limestone relief (originally polychromed); and the other, a New Kingdom carved basalt funerary stele (on a pedestal located diagonally across the gallery), demonstrate how ancient Egyptian abstract artists expressed their spiritual views through different approaches and materials. The white limestone relief twinkles across its surface, and its shallow incisions and bulging volumes give life, rhythm, and weight to the flat, still plane, in which the figures and action appear to be embedded, active yet arrested. Each variation in line width, angle, and depth creates expansions, contractions, and elasticity, as if the solid stone—though impenetrable—were malleable and transparent, revealing a separate, veiled universe just on the other side. Fingers seem to flutter in the stone. Hips bulge. Limbs cross over yet penetrate one another simultaneously. Flatness and stillness reign. But so, too, paradoxically, does movement. Similar contradictions occur in the Egyptian black basalt funerary stele. The kneeling figure is concrete, massive, stationary, yet he has forward momentum—like an oncoming train. And the sculpture, buoyant, ballooning, has a lightness of being within the heaviness. Blackness here is almost liquefied, stirring; and the figure, like its obelisk, is both launching and submersing, in motion and at rest.

Love Letter

Sèvres (French)
The Love Letter, designed circa 1780
Biscuit porcelain
This model manufactured in 1876
Private Collection

In European decorative arts, especially busts and small figurines, unglazed, matte white biscuit porcelain (bisque porcelain or bisque) was commonly used—and preferable to polychrome glazes—because it resembled classical, carved, smooth white marble Western statuary. It was also more expensive and laborious to make, since colored glazes could not hide, distract from, or smooth over sculptural imperfections. Our notion of Classical Antiquity, however, is flawed, since it comes down to us through weathered and damaged architecture, white plaster casts, and the unpainted white marble sculptures of artists such as Michelangelo, Donatello, and Canova, who were inspired by ancient sculptures that had lost their original, sometimes lavish polychromy. The West’s very idea of what is classical, ideal—represented in white sculptures and civic buildings—is founded on a lie. But a culturally ingrained lie—especially in the hands of Michelangelo—is difficult to shake and becomes truth. White sculpture is in our DNA. So it is with this delicate, French white biscuit figurine, The Love Letter, in which the woman stands—swaying, angling, her heel lifted, her hip rising—like a wind-caught sail pulled off course; but whose crisp, pristine surface lends dignity, purity, and grace, even a touch of even keeled frigidity, to its heated subject.

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