I think the funniest artwork in the Art Institute’s collection is Robert Ryman’s Charter series. I hear people laughing in front of it all the time. In 2008, at the annual Speyer lecture held here at the museum, Ryman himself made a little joke about his four decade-long career as an artist who uses solely white paint. Snow—that was Ryman’s preemptive answer to a question not asked by the audience. The crowd chuckled in knowing agreement; an artist like Ryman must have to employ a readymade counter to the incessant question, why white?
Ryman’s artworks are not paintings of snowscapes, but they sometimes do prompt an icy response from viewers. “Pictures of nothing” is what former MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe might call them. “Icons of silence” is another poetic description, coined by art historian Barbara Rose. The Modern Wing gallery featuring Ryman’s five fiberglass panels, painted white and bolted to the gallery walls, is installed in the manner of the Rothko Chapel (Houston, 1971) or Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross (1958-66). It is a total environment for the slow contemplation of painted objects.
On a recent walk through the Modern Wing, I counted thirteen white monochromatic paintings and sculptures on display, not including the several that have been recently rotated out of the galleries. The large number of all-white objects in the museum’s collection means that white monochromes are not an aberration in the history of art, at least, not any longer. They are a genre, like landscape or still-life. A nude painted by Picasso is very different than a nude by Matisse. Likewise, not all white monochromes are equal.
There is a spectrum of monochromes in the Art Institute’s collection, from Yves Klein’s shocking blue to a rainbow of Ellsworth Kelly panels to Ellen Gallagher’s tar black—but it is the white monochrome that seems to most persistently jar viewers. Where an art masterpiece is perhaps supposed to be filled with great substance and generous artistic insight, a white canvas rejects this assumption. A white canvas connotes a blank canvas. In a sense, the white monochrome offends because the artist seems to be withholding something. But what?
White monochromes have come to signal, in the history of art, the death of painting. The artist collective General Idea extended the death metaphor into their 1992 painting White AIDS #3. On this canvas they painted the word AIDS in the same style as Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE design, with the letters stacked into a square. Then, they whitewashed their message with gesso so that AIDS became obscured, with only the empty spaces inside the letters (in typography this empty space is called the “counter”) showing through the painted surface in a slightly different shade of white. The message here is visibly buried. Unlike Ryman’s flat, cool panels, General Idea’s canvas sucks you in for a close inspection. The prognosis is indeed death; the pallid painting has been bloodlet. If viewers are already provoked by white monochromes, then General Idea steers their anger toward a specific, political provocation.
Painter Judy Ledgerwood similarly exploited General Idea’s method of using various shades of white to reward perceptive, and perceptually sensitive, viewers. Ledgerwood’s white painting, So What (1998), unlike Ryman’s, does actually seem to be a picture of snow. It was exhibited in a show titled “Cold Days” at The Renaissance Society in the winter of 1999. Ledgerwood used a mix of white paints, and some shine with pearl and iridescence. When hit with the museum’s strong lights, the painting can pain one’s eyes, just like the experience of staring at fresh snow. Explaining the way she builds up layers of paint on her canvasses, Ledgerwood wrote, “I hope [there are] rewards for the people who are willing to spend more time in the process of looking at them.” For a painter of white monochromes, this is a generous offering.
—Jason F., Department Coordinator, Prints and Drawings
Judy Ledgerwood. So What, 1998. Oil on canvas. 1999.225. Mr. and Mrs. Frank H. Armstrong Prize Fund, 1999.225.
Agnes Martin. Untitled #12, 1977. India ink, graphite, and gesso on canvas. Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund, 1979.356.
 A. James Speyer Memorial Lecture on Contemporary Art. May 7, 2008.
 Neal Benezra, Robert Ryman: The Charter Series (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987).
 Judy Ledgerwood, “Speakeasy,” New Art Examiner 23 (January 1996): 15.