The artist Auguste Rodin once said: “Black is the queen of colours.” But is black a colour? Scientists say No. Black absorbs light and thus sucks all colours in. Black is absence rather than presence. It covers rather than reveals. No wonder that black associated with the hidden and the secretive and creates an air of mystery. Take the black panther or the valuable black orchid for instance: It is their enigmatic and sublime beauty that fascinates us.
But black is also a very powerful colour, radiating authority, seriousness and dignity. As a result, scholars, clergymen and rulers did wear black garments throughout the centuries. Then, in the 20th century black was omnipresent colour in fashion. Think of Coco Chanel who made it ubiquitous. In 1926, American Vogue published a Chanel drawing of a simple yet elegant black dress, worn with a string of pearls – it would become a classic.
Four decades later, in the 1960s, fashion saw a time of upheavals. From Japan emerged designers such as Issey Miyake, Yoshi Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and others. They challenged the western notion of what fashion might be. Black dominated their early creations and for Yamamoto it is his signature colour till today. “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy – but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don’t bother you – don’t bother me.” Yamamoto also sees black garments as a protest against elitism and one-dimensional thinking: “I believe my clothes are … without nationality. They don’t belong to any country, any religion, or any culture. They are outsiders…”
In art – especially in modern and contemporary art – the colour black plays a special role. Take Malevich’s iconic work “Black Square” for instance. He exhibited the work at the Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 in Petrograd in 1915. Black square is removed of all visual – no line, nor shape, no colour – nothing. One could say, that Malevich emptied his picture of any form of depiction, expression or symbolic representation. What remained was a black painting. Black stood for the unknown, the infinite, that which cannot be understood. However, the real of the absolute is the source of creativity. He explained that it is the state of zero which one has to reach and overcome in order to be able to create something new.
Malevich had an enormous influence on American painters. A number of artists living in New York produced a series of black paintings in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The critic Harold Rosenberg captured this movement with a most telling description: “Barnett Newman shut the door, Mark Rothko drew the shade, and Ad Reinhardt turned out the lights.”
Ad Reinhardt was probably the most radical artist. He argued that art should be completely separate from life, and life from art, saying “Art is art – as art and everything else is everything else.” He drew up a number of rules for art: Visible brushwork was not allowed because it is personal und thus subjective. He argued that there must not be sketches, because everything should be worked out in the mind beforehand. He also was adamant that there cannot be any form, as “The finest has no shape.”
Finally, talking about black in art I have to mention Anish Kapoor. The world-famous artist who stuns us with extraordinary installations had seized exclusive right to the “Blackest Black”. This substance, which is called Vantablack, was produced in 2014 by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. Vantablack is so black that it can barely be seen because it absorbs 99,3 % of visual light. It is made of carbon nano tubes, each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. It is so dark, that it is not possible for our eye to work out what it is actually seeing.
Looking at the new material has been described as staring into a black hole. Needless to say, that Anish Kapoor angered other artists. But the company is a bit sneaky. As soon as Anish Kapoor had acquired the exclusive right to Vantablack, Surrey Nanosystem went ahead and produced an even darker version. Perhaps, that was a dark day for Anish Kapoor.