So-called "white paintings" are in museums all across the world and Robert Ryman's all-white painting "Bridge" sold for a record $20.6 million at a Christie's auction in 2015. How are these seemingly plain white paintings considered art and why is it that not anyone can pick up a tube of white paint and make one?

‘I could do that!’: Why do all-white paintings end up in museums? 

An all-white painting called ‘Bridge’ sold in an auction at Christie’s for $26m in 2016. This fact enrages people, who believe that there is no skill involved in the creation of an all-white image. 

However, we take a look at the history of the all-white painting, beginning in 1918 and really finding its home with the Minimalists in the 1950s. 

Elizabeth Sherman, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York says it isn’t as easy as just spreading white paint on canvas. She says white isn’t really a pure colour – it’s always tinted in some way, made up of a variety of shades. And when you get close to a white painting, there’s a lot going on: lines, texture, pattern, even hints of colour. 

Minimalists wanted their work to embody order, simplicity and harmony, and to counter the work of the abstract expressionists, who wanted to evoke the unconscious mind through movement and colour. (Jackson Pollock was the quintessential abstract expressionist). They had a desire to strip the art of the burden of being about something else, allowing it to become a pure representation of itself. 

It is easy to be dismissive of something you’re not immediately attracted to, but Elizabeth Sherman urges us to look past our gut reactions. And once we achieve that, an all-white painting becomes, literally, a blank canvas onto which we can project our own thoughts and from which we can draw our own conclusions.

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