The magnetic allure of the monochromatic spectrum of black and white has proven an indispensable stronghold throughout the history of artmaking, a common denominator in nearly all artists’ investigations at one time or another. Not only serving to distill and focus an artistic expression, the black and white scheme also holds a particular personality all its own, one of mystery, emotion and formidable sway. Many an artist across genres has remarked on the indescribable perfection of utilizing black and white— it complements everything, and it speaks silently, allowing a deeper truth of motive to emerge from a work. Perhaps it is simply less distracting than adding an element of color, but what is more likely is that, in its simplicity, it is inherently supportive of all range of nuances hidden within a voice, a powerfully emotive vehicle by which a creator can make full use of their strength.
In color theory, there is an interesting paradox. With opaque material, which is paint on a surface, black is the combination of all the colors and white is the absence of color. With transparent, projected light, black is the absence of color and white contains them all. This allows for a very dynamic and shifting library of symbolism to draw from, one that is as rich and varied as the artists who tap into it. Each one wields it with different intent, and it provides a lush raw material through which to voyage. Black can be the void, or it can be the nigredo of prime unformed matter, in the words of the alchemists. Comparatively, white can be the nothing, or it can be the light at the beginning, sprung forth to create the world. Even our own intricate personal histories can influence the way in which we experience an artwork as a viewer, with specific pieces building powerful links for us, reflecting multifaceted truths oftentimes eluding words or description.
Eduardo Chillida made wonderful abstract movements in black and white, this piece Collage evoking maybe the way a mind meanders across a new subject or through learning a dance step perhaps.
Edward Steichen’s black and white photography is monumental in its place in American history, capturing a seemingly endless depth of humanity— visible here even in the architecture and fading light of George Washington Bridge.
Louise Nevelson created stunning deep works that seem to extend the boundaries of where black is capable of going. “I fell in love with black; it contained all color. It wasn't a negation of color... Black is the most aristocratic color of all... You can be quiet, and it contains the whole thing.” This print Untitled is impossibly seductive, and characteristic of her inventive use of materials with its two-toned semi-lustre finish. It almost creates layers as you look at it, kaleidoscopic and enigmatic, drifting in and out of view like a wildcat in dark night.
"...it complements everything, and it speaks silently, allowing a deeper truth of motive to emerge from a work."
This 1977 signed print titled Spherical Nimbus I by Harvey Edwards is from the "Night Shadows" collection, a suite of 15 limited edition stone lithographs in duocolor. Expertly printed on handmade curtis rag paper and signed by the artist, it is from a special limited edition of 20 reserved for the publisher. Nothing can compare to the beautiful grey tones achievable when representing the human form contrasted with its textural surrounding world.
Benton Spruance created a collection of lithographs titled "Moby Dick Passion of Ahab", the black and white pieces of which are especially disquieting and profound. This piece Ahab in the Jaws does the narrative justice, and simultaneously builds its own raison d'être.
And in a Jasper Johns original edition stone lithograph exhibition poster, we see the direct use of the light analogy, which he deftly employs to conjure any and all associations with such an object, in the characteristic manner for which he is famous. Johns' imagery derives from, as he put it, "things the mind already knows," leading to interpretations both commonly fundamental and complexly revolutionary.