Drawing a blank: In search of the Tate Modern’s blank canvases

It’s hard nowadays to mention the words “modern” and “art” without someone laughing through their nose. I’ve heard all kinds of dismissals of abstract modern art, from “I wouldn’t hang that on my wall” to “a child could do that,” but my all-time favourite has to be something a friend said to me the other day: “half of them are just blank canvases!”

Really? Blank canvases? I’m no art expert, but I knew this couldn’t be true. Was it possible that more than one artist has made the same quasi-philosophical point, each smugly hanging blank canvases in modern art galleries like a group of Halloween party-goers all turning up as a pumpkin?

If there really are that many blank canvases in modern art, I thought I’d probably find some in the world’s most-visited modern art gallery: London’s own Tate Modern art gallery. I decided to go along and see for myself.

So how many blank canvases are there in the Tate Modern?

My search began in the first free gallery, on Level 2 – Poetry and Dream. Armed with only a smartphone, I searched through every room of the Tate Modern, through beautiful Monets and weird Max Ernsts and gibbering Picassos, but nope – no blank canvases in here. I moved on, disheartened.

Zao Wou-ki's Before the Storm
Zao Wou-ki’s Before the Storm

Next up was Transformed Visions, the gallery on Level 3. This was a bit more promising.

Throughout this gallery there are some beautiful abstract paintings, with Dali and de Chirico working their stunningly crisp dreamscapes.

Here is also where I got my first teaser of blankness, too: Zao Wou-ki’s Before the Storm gave me an impressively bleak canvas, although it had definite shape, and every brushstroke was carefully placed.

This wasn’t the blank I was looking for.

I was just about to give up, when I reached Level 4’s Structure and Clarity. Before I’d taken more than twenty steps through the door, there it was:

William Green’s Untitled – my first blank canvas.

Green's untitled

Nothing but pure, inky blackness. Or what art aficionados would call a “colour field”. So it was true.

Shaken, I moved on through the Tate gallery, and before I knew it, I was staring into another blank: Richard Tuttle’s 8th Paper Octagonal. Just as I arrived, a small child asked his father: “Dad, what is it?”

The father’s answer began with “Well…”

Tuttle's Octagonal
I walked past this one at least twice without realising that it was there

Despite all the other beautiful pieces, I hurried out of Structure and Clarity like I was being chased by a drunken Andy Warhol – but on my way, I spotted something even worse than a blank.

Baldwin's untitled
Michael Baldwin’s Untitled Painting (1965)

That’s right: a mirror.

We have Michael Baldwin to thank for that. For just an instant, I had the thought: “isn’t art always a reflection of the world?”

But I slapped myself, and it passed. By the time I reached Gerhard Richter’s Grey, I had had enough.

Richter's Grey
“Grey is the epitome of non-statement,” Gerhard Richter once said. “It does not trigger off feelings or associations, it is neither visible nor invisible.”

In all, I saw eight blank canvases during my day at the Tate. “That’s it,” I thought. “My friend was right. I’m getting out of here.”

I put on my coat and prepared to leave. But on my way out, something made me stop. A monochrome screen, projected into a dark room. A man’s voice, through hidden speakers. I stepped in, and sat down on the sofa provided, staring into the blue. More intense than any colour I have ever seen.

This was Derek Jarman’s Blue.

Derek Jarman's Blue

As I sat and watched, the artist spoke out of the dark in a resounding, woody voice, about his dwindling life, dying of AIDS-related illness. How, towards the end, as he lost his sight, all he could see was that one, brilliant shade of blue.

I thought, as I sat there, that there are some things only a blank can say.

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2 thoughts on “Drawing a blank: In search of the Tate Modern’s blank canvases”

  1. “there are some things only a blank can say”

    Sorry but this point is just as vague and uninspired as the proliferation of blank canvases… I was hoping for some kind of logical explanation 😦

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    1. Aha you’re right – I suppose I found the final blank mesmerising due to it being one part of an artistic whole. The recordings of his reading is the real point, but the blue colour field enhances that experience… quite a moving piece. I think you can find it on YouTube if you’re interested.

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