The black square is an iconic motif of artistic modernism.
In 1617, the physician, natural philosopher, Kabbalist and astrologer Robert Fludd used a black square in his treatises on the macrocosm and the microcosm to illustrate the original, primordial blackness of the universe at the moment just prior to creation. He approached the impossibility of representation pragmatically by adding the words ‚Et sic in infinitum’ to each of the four sides of the intricately hatched square. He assumed that darkness precedes light, and that light would not be possible without darkness. His ideas were quickly overthrown, as the guiding principles of the enlightenment didn’t resonate with his Aristotelian philosophies.
While Fludd’s writings were soon indexed, the idea of the preliminary darkness infiltrated the arts. The Pittura Tenebrosa (shadow paintings) or Chiaroscuro, elaborated through Caravaggio and other painters of the period, became the dominant style in late baroque and renaissance. These paintings rely on darkness to accentuate the light and navigate the viewers attention. But it took almost 300 years before full blackness took the center stage of modern art.
Kazimir Malevich painted the most iconic black square, not only once, but several times. Initially, in 1913, it was part of a futurist theatre performance. And in 1915, he produced the painting for the inaugural suprematist exhibition, called 0,10. The black square is again placed in a religious context: The hanging references the traditional place reserved for Russian icons, in the corner under the ceiling, tilted slightly downwards, overlooking the room. While the exhibition received mostly negative reviews, it is today considered as the breakthrough of abstract art.
During the 20th century, in film as well as in painting the black or empty canvas is lent almost metaphysical substance as a paradoxical representation of the unrepresentable, as passivity, denial, negativity, transcendence. In an artistic context, the black square seems to represent mystic elements that hand down the sacred structures of a state of not knowing, of the unnameable.
In the trilogy Last Look by Charles Burns (first published as X’ed out in 2010, The Hive in 2012 and Sugar Skull in 2014), the black square plays a central narrative role. The blackness and emptiness of the panels provide the readers with a negative space into which they have to place their own image in order to join the story. The whole story evolves around the abyss at the center of the narrative, which is represented by the absence of information in each black panel.
The black square is a condition of and a call for creation and imagination. It captivates, sounds out, provokes and demands our power of imagination and creativity.
We understand the black square as an infinite resource. The black square is an artistic take on the productive absence of all the things that are yet to come.
Of all the things for which we have no name yet: that which is unknown.