Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings




Associate Professor of Art History

Project Summary

The focus of my project is on American abstract art and avant-garde music after World War II. By visiting various art museums across the country (including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia), I have been able to immerse myself in the thoughts of the artists Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Lately, I have been interested in the related concepts of reduction, nothingness, and silence. These concepts informed the production of radical works, including monochromatic white paintings and musical compositions that require performers to refrain from playing their instruments.

As a case in point, I had the pleasure of touring an anechoic chamber owned by Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis. An anechoic chamber is a small room equipped with hundreds of echo and sound absorbers so that when one is in the room, one can experience drastic levels of silence that are unobtainable outside of a laboratory setting. After I sat inside the chamber for 50 minutes in complete darkness, I found that my ears had adjusted to the silence so much that usually unnoticeable actions such as blinking and breathing became extremely loud sonic events. It was an experience like this that inspired many artists to create works that require intense looking and listening in order to appreciate their full aesthetic power. 

Understandably, white paintings and silent musical compositions have invited their fair share of criticism as gratuitous gestures that rely on shock tactics. What I have learned through this project, however, is how to pay close attention to and derive positive meaning from the formal details of art such as line, color, and shape. I have gained greater confidence, ambition, and fluency in the fields of art history and music, and I am excited about continuing to pursue this topic in an honors thesis during the school year.