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Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg). 


By Andrew Dietz

Sometimes black is just black. Sometimes it isn’t.


Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich, who painted Black Square circa 1915, claimed it was meant to evoke, “the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing." Like this statement, Malevich’s black seems, on the surface, elusive.  Yet, like the black of a Rorschach inkblot, Black Square is a magnet for the self-projected perceptions and predilections of its audience. 


One hundred years after Black Square’s unveiling, in a 2015 article in The New Yorker, Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya called Malevich’s black of nothingness a “gloom, a cellar, a trapdoor into the underworld, eternal darkness.” Is the nothingness of Malevich’s black a sinister nothingness? Is it, as Tolstaya pronounced the painting, “one of the most frightening events in art in all of its history of existence.” Or, is that simply Tolstaya’s Rorschach-like projection?  Who are we to say?  Some artists are more telegraphic about their intentions than others.  As an audience member, we can express our own response to an artwork but we’re not in a position to know the inner workings of an artist’s mind … even when they tell us.  They may not know themselves.  Or, they may know but choose not to tell.

Paul Benjamin at his performance at MOCA GA Photo: Andrew Dietz

Paul Stephen Benjamin sits before an audience that has just watched him laboriously rake a field of glass shards for 40 minutes without speaking.  The rectangle of broken glass titled “Ceiling” centers a white-walled gallery.  This is the opening of Benjamin’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, titled Pure Black.


Every piece in Pure Black that hangs on the surrounding walls has either been painted, dyed or printed black or somehow involves the color black, the concept of black and the nature of blackness. There is the piece “Paint the White House Black,” and “14th Amendment” and a trio of black paintings each named for the commercial paint color used to make them, including “Pure Black,” “New Black,” and “Very Black.” Paul is wearing all black: suit, shirt, tie, and shoes. Paul is a brown-skinned black man.

Paul Benjamin 14th Amendment Photo: Andrew Dietz

This all begs a seemingly obvious question. “You seem to be making a statement about identity politics with your work, is that fair to say?” asks the curator of another Atlanta museum. Like a Zen master, Paul deftly deflects the question – which he considers to be a default interpretation of his work - and responds with one of his own, “How do you see it?”  To answer directly would dilute the power of the art that is at full force not on the canvas, not in his mind, not in the mind of the viewer but someplace in between those elements wrestling with the ineffable nature of black.


The artist Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston Roshi actually is a Zen master. He is the founder and Abbott of Atlanta Soto Zen Center and the Silent Thunder Order, a global network of Zen Buddhist practice centers. He is also a designer and visual artist having trained at IIT Institute of Design and instructed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Elliston doesn’t paint his pieces so much as he sets them in motion by applying water-based pigments to various surfaces and allowing them to interact, creating the image of their own accord.

Elliston Roshi Studio September 14, 2012

Elliston first discovered this approach while in a college printmaking class where he became intrigued by the stippled textures and saturation stains that emerged when he applied black Sumi ink to a greased lithography stone and pressed the combo against paper. “The less I tried to manipulate the materials, the better the piece was.  When I didn’t interfere too much or too little, I discovered that something else – natural forces, not me - was doing a better job than I of creating the artwork,” he says. Elliston’s painting-without-a-painter technique continues today. “I set materials in motion and watch, on a micro scale, how pigments of different weight will mix together and interact with each other and with natural elements – Earth, Wind, Fire, Water – to more or less paint themselves.”


Several weeks after the opening of Pure Black, the black-robed, white-haired Elliston sits in a black leather chair across the polished brown conference table from Paul Stephen Benjamin.  They are at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center drinking hot tea and cold ginger beer, discussing art, Zen, black and blackness, and preparing for a brief Zazen meditation session.  The black Sumi ink lithograph that led Elliston to his current approach to art, titled Buddha Seed, hangs on the wall opposite him.

Paul Benjamin and Michael Elliston Rochi Photo: Andrew Dietz

The conversation begins with the physics of black.  “The color spectrum is rendered differently for pigment than for light,” Elliston points out.  “In the visual spectrum, Black is how we perceive the absence of visible light.  Like when you close your eyes. In pigment, Black is the absorption of all colors of light; it is all pigments combined.” In a way, physically, black is both nothing and everything. There is a fluctuating reality based on custom and perception and the constantly changing nature of our world. The color black cannot be pigeon-hold as it is in constant motion.


“In America,” Elliston continues, “black is the color of death and white is the color of life.  In Japan, white is the color of death and black is the color of life.”  After a pause he says, “In the light there is darkness, but do not take it as darkness.  In the dark there is light but do not see it as light.  Light and dark oppose one another like the front and back foot in walking.” 


Benjamin picks up on what may sound at first like a statement that pits dark (black) against light (white).  “They oppose one another.” Elliston clarifies, “It’s from the Chinese poem, the Harmony of Sameness and Difference. We think of things as opposites but when you analyze them, you see there’s not so much difference. It is only in the presence of sameness that you can perceive difference.  We want to cling to labels. Black and white. Light and dark. Zen is the practice of not getting stuck in duality.”

Paul Stephen Benjamin, Pure Black Installation View Photo: Andrew Dietz

Being entangled in the double bind of distinctions and trying to resolve the paradoxes of life can be a short cut to insanity. If you spend enough time sitting in Zazen meditation, watching discriminating thoughts ricochet about one’s skull without interpreting or interfering with them, the opposites that haunt you may find an unresolved equilibrium on their own. 

Sometimes, a Zen Master will supplement the process of sitting still with one’s hyperactive mind by assigning a kōan for a practitioner to contemplate. A classic example: “You know the sound of two hands clapping.  What is the sound of one hand?” Thirteenth century Zen Master Wumen Huikai said of a good kōan, “It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't.” You’ve got to face it directly.  Using intellect to probe a kōan is an ill-fated approach. Kōans demand an intuitive response beyond words. 


Like a good kōan, black may be beyond words. It is unresolvable and inscrutable and perhaps that’s its highest value as an artistic element. To open to the black of possibility, of multiple interpretations is to unclench our tight fist of perception and let the black of art move towards us.

Surely, Malevich’s Black Square is about a wide-open black.  The Black Square is aware of no thing other than art.  It is the absolute zero of art – just a black square.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg) Image from 2011. 

By 2014, Black Square was showing its age.  The black paint was cracking severely and revealed what appeared to be color beneath the black. In 2015, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow X-rayed Black Square and discovered that it was painted atop an abstract multi-color composition and that was painted on top of yet another work. At least as surprising, though, was that the x-ray revealed handwriting under the painting’s white border. Malevich had left a note – a racist joke about his black-on-black art - that reads, “Negroes battling in a cave.”


Sometimes black is just black.  Sometimes it isn’t.

Andrew Dietz is a writer, entrepreneur,

and art lover based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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