To get ready for White Linen Night this weekend, we’re taking inspiration from artworks exploring the color white.
Each August, hordes of locals and visitors head to New Orleans’ Warehouse District for White Linen Night, an annual fundraiser held for the Contemporary Arts Center in conjunction with a block party that extends past the commercial galleries on Julia Street. Donning all white outfits, crowds fill the neighborhood to kick off the art season, but it’s arguably more about socializing. White parties, like art, have long been associated with exclusivity and status. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a white party can be found in a 15th-century, unattributed painting of French duke Philip the Good’s court. It doesn’t look too far off from today. Think summer in the Hamptons or muscled bodies at a gay circuit party or Diddy’s infamous Fourth of July bashes. Ellie Shechet cheekily writes for Jezebel, “In plainer words, white is the color of being rich in the summer.”
White is also the default of art spaces. Popularized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the early 20th century, “the white cube” became the accepted method of presenting artwork in museums. The thinking goes that, hung on white walls with lots of room to breathe, artworks could better be interpreted as formal inventions, divorced from the social contexts of their creation, a major tenet of Modern art at the time. In galleries, white became a supposedly impartial backdrop that allowed visitors to focus on the art itself, unlike the bold colors and crowded displays of historic European museums.
But for all of its emptiness, the color white has been loaded with symbolism in Western culture: innocence, cleanliness, a blank slate. The color—or, technically, absence of color—has been seen by artists as a sort of ground zero for all hues, like in Robert Rauschenberg’s seemingly plain White Paintings, which the artist believed would help perceptive viewers better comprehend their surroundings through the play of light. Parallel to this move toward the monochromatic, many artists have reimagined the color white not solely as a background, but also as a subject or a substance in its own right.
Challenging the blankness of the color white also opened up critique of its imagined neutrality—and the racism and colorism deeply embedded in insidious Eurocentric notions of whiteness as something pure and intrinsically valuable. Works by artists like Bethany Collins and Glenn Ligon emphasize the connections between formal concerns and sociopolitical critique. In our latest Image Universe feature, we’re exploring white in its many forms, uses, and meanings.