White / Flower / Fist


Frederic Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, courtesy of The National Gallery of Art


By Mark Alice Durant


There is a kind of white that is more than white… there is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it and that is almost everything…. there is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is a bleach.  David Batchelor

If you take the commuter train from Baltimore to Washington D.C. you observe passing fragments of third world America.  Blocks of boarded up brick row homes, entire neighborhoods without a single tree, kids playing in rubble-strewn lots. It’s a horrible cliché at this point yet one cannot help but feel a tug of despair.   The color palette is dominated by browns and grays; graffiti provides occasional splashes of primary.  As the train gains momentum, the strips of weeds bracketing the tracks blur into a river of dusty green. Clusters of wild yarrow appear like misplaced constellations among the rusting detritus by the side of the tracks.

I am on my way to the National Gallery of Art.  Secreted away in my satchel are eight small artist books created by 21st century photographic artists.  Each book is an independent work based upon a color, Andry Bogush / Yellow, Robert Canali / Green, Dillon DeWaters / Indigo, Nicholas Gottlund / Violet, Inka and Niclas / Blue, Brea Souders / Orange, and Penelope Umbrico / Black.  I want to see what happens, what kind of words and ideas might be generated in bringing these contemporary images into proximity, to collide them, as it were, with historical paintings. I have no agenda, no list of potential interactions, I only plan to climb the grand staircase that faces the National Mall, pass under the oculus and begin wandering in search of productive encounters.

I only notice color in exceptional cases, a red dress in a field of denim, a yellow car in the parking lot, catching the gaze of someone with green eyes, early morning skies.  I am not sure what I think of color, if anything.  I am a color agnostic.  When I hear or read of some theory of color or emotional equivalent, it is like listening to someone talk about his or her religious faith; I am fascinated but I don’t believe it.

I have always preferred drawing to painting and worn monochrome when the rainbow was available, although I have never examined why this might be. Perhaps I am an unwitting co-conspirator in what David Batchelor argues so persuasively in Chromophobia, that there is a philosophical prejudice in the West that associates color with the inchoate, the emotional, the feminine and the savage, as if the history of civilization begins with primitive ornamentation and moves erratically but inevitably toward an unadorned, refined and colorless higher realm.

If, as John Gage has written, that any semiotics of color must be historically contingent, it would be nearly impossible to think about color in contemporary America and not consider race.  Two weeks ago white police officers killed another unarmed black teenager. In a malicious display of institutional power over black bodies, Michael Brown was left where he fell, in full view of his neighbors, friends and family, viscous red streaming from the six bullet holes that brought him down.  Meanwhile, as if there were any ambiguity at all about the message, virulently arguments ensued.

There are very few representations of non-white bodies in the National Gallery of Art. Darker skin appears here and there, minor characters sprinkled lightly in crowded religious scenes or bucolic evocations of exotic locales. Rarely are they rendered as individuals with names, titles, or social importance.  A qualified exception is Frederic Bazille’s 1870 painting Young Woman with Peonies, while the anonymous woman is apparently not worthy of identification, she is at least represented as a fully sentient being.

Bazille is paying a humble tribute to Manet whom he greatly admired.  Manet’s favorite flower was the peony. His painting Olympia was famously scandalous for its representation of unashamed female sexuality and the unsettling presence of her black servant unwrapping a gift of flowers at the foot of the bed. Art historians write of Olympia’s frontal nudity and direct gaze as a challenge to male power and the presumption of possession, but few speak to the asymmetry of power between the two women, between the ‘colors’ of humanity.

Bazille’s flower seller poses a more complicated question than Manet’s Olympia. She is neither servant nor courtesan; she is a working woman. In exchange for coin, she provides bouquets to (white) men who will, in turn, offer these scented seductions to wives or mistresses. In her right hand she holds the bounty of abundant nature but her expression belies the serenity of a summer garden. Her gesture is ambiguous as if she is having second thoughts. Is she offering or withdrawing? The painting hints at an unsettled interiority and commands that we pay attention to her gaze, to the tired fire in her eyes.  She is framed by floral exuberance, her hand clenches the stems so tightly that it becomes an incipient fist.

This is an excerpt from a longer essay commissioned by Conveyor Editions to accompany the project Visible Spectrum (2014)