The “All-White” Painting Worth $20.6 million

Robert Ryman (b. 1930), Bridge

What was the first thought that came to mind when you looked at the painting above? It probably wasn’t,  “Wow, I bet that painting is worth $20.6 million!” At an art auction held by Christie’s (a British auction house), it sold at the shocking price of– you guessed it– –$20.6 million. Why would a seemingly all-white painting be so valuable? 

Minimalism, an art style

To pinpoint the origin of the trend of “all white” painting, one must go back to an art piece called White on White by a Russian artist Kazimir Malevich in 1918.

Malevich was not the only artist who painted “white” paintings, though. Other examples are Agnes Martin’s White Stone,

Untitled by Jo Baer,

and my painting, which I titled My Brain During an In-Class Essay.

These “all-white” paintings are part of an art movement that emerged in the late 1950s called Minimalism. It began as a rejection of another movement in the 1940s and 1950s called Abstract Expressionism. That movement called for art that is expressive in untraditional and nonrepresentational ways. A famous abstract expressionist artist is Jackson Pollock, one of whose works showcasing his symbolic technique of splashing paint on a canvas is featured below. 

Minimalism isn’t about that; instead, its artists wanted their art to embody order, simplicity, and harmony. The artwork was supposed to be as far removed from the artist as possible and stripped of its burden of being “something else.” It wasn’t supposed to be seen as an imitation of reality, because it was supposed to be the reality. Frank Stella, a minimalist American painter, sculptor, and printmaker, summed it up nicely by saying: “What you see is what you see.”

The $20.6 million minimalist painting mentioned at the beginning of this article is entitled Bridge. It was painted by an American painter Robert Ryman, who was best known for his abstract, white-on-white paintings. He identified with the movements of monochrome painting and minimalism. Through the computer screen Bridge may not seem like much, but a closer look shows the complexity of the different shades of white and its distinct textures. It is far from just an “all-white” painting. 

“I could do that.”

Before reading this whole article, did the thought of “I could do that” cross your mind? Though these minimalist paintings seem like they require no art skills whatsoever compared to a lot of other contemporary art, a lot of works are more about the idea of it rather than the expertise. Maybe you could have painted that $20.6 million dollar artwork, but you didn’t.

Fiona Han 2019 Copyright

Fiona Han

Fiona Han is a freshman from Shanghai, China. She is a writer at The Oracle who is interested in philosophy and psychology.