Class immerses students in monochromatic art exhibition

‘Monochrome Multitudes’ at Smart Museum challenges viewers to see multiple meanings in a singular color

A group of students sit in a white room filled with white art. The class clusters around a piece by Robert Ryman, who painted almost exclusively white paintings. Seated beneath the painting, co-teachers, Prof. Christine Mehring and Orianna Cacchione, gesture upward, prompting students to look closely. Look at the brush strokes. Is this really all white? What does the white allow you to see more of?

Monochrome Multitudes—the newest exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art—encourages visitors to look, and then look again.

The exhibition, open through Jan 8, explores “the monochrome”—art using one color. Visitors to the exhibition alternate walking through color-based rooms of blue, red, white, gray, black and yellow as well as thematic galleries that poke and prod at the meaning of the art practice.

An accompanying Art History seminar course held this Fall Quarter inside the exhibition allows students to dig another layer deeper.

“Sometimes it's difficult to engage with this particular art,” said Milo Last-Yuen, a 4th-year College student currently enrolled in the class. “But it’s nice to discuss Blinky Palermo and then go look at the Blinky Palermos in the exhibition.”

The exhibition highlights 127 pieces of monochrome art mainly from the Smart’s own collection, with the addition of several key loans. It also includes satellite displays across UChicago’s campus—including at the Booth School of Business and the Keller Center.

Though the brainchild of Cacchione, curator of Global Contemporary Art, and Mehring, Multitudes was developed in collaboration with a wide swath of the UChicago community. More than 50 faculty, staff, students and alumni contributed their writing, art and sometimes literal voices to the exhibition.

A ‘multitude’ of voices

The exhibition opens with a joke. Visitors first encounter a 19th-century album from French satirist Alphonse Allais poking fun at the monochrome—years before monochrome art existed.

“Few people know what monochrome art is, or think ‘Art made with one color? Well, I can do that too,’ or ‘Why is this art?’” said Prof. Mehring, the exhibition’s co-curator who specializes in abstract art. “I take those questions seriously, otherwise I shouldn’t have my job!”

Themed galleries help guide visitors through these questions—though the exhibition draws no singular conclusions. “The structure of the exhibition is very much about helping visitors come to first answers all on their own,” Mehring said. 

According to Mehring, the monochrome is all about allowing viewers to make comparisons and see differences. The white room is a perfect example. “For artists like Robert Ryman, white is about a pure essence, reducing painting to its bare essentials, if in surprisingly diverse ways,” Mehring said. “For others, like Bethany Collins, white is racially charged. Within this seemingly constrained practice, there is so much room for creativity, nuance and range of meanings.”

Collins’s piece, A Pattern or Practice, uses pages of the Department of Justice report on the police shooting of teen Michael Brown to form a grid. The text, rendered in raised white letters, is impossible to read unless the visitor looks closely.

The exhibition is part of the on-going “Expanding Narratives” series at the Smart, which according to Mehring is “all about revisiting the collection and pushing against the kind of canonical narratives of white male—and mostly North American—artists.”

“It’s nice to explore Asian artists and African American artists who were working in monochrome, but in a different way,” said Last-Yuen, a philosophy major with an interest in modern art. “That definitely gave me an enhanced perspective of what the monochrome is.”

The multitude of narratives also comes through in the interpretative labels—many of which are written by UChicago students and faculty. An unprecedented 25 UChicago faculty and lecturers—including university President Paul Alivisatos and dean of Physical Sciences Angela Olinto—lent their expertise to the exhibition. “There is a massive amount of resources that this university has,” Mehring said. “They’re just laying at the museum’s doorstep.”

Students were also empowered to contribute to the research, writing and editing process. As a Fundamentals major, Suzanna Murawski takes on big questions like “What is beauty?” – which is why an internship at the Smart caught her eye.

The 3rd year’s previous writing experience made Murawski a good candidate to help edit the interpretive labels. Her job was to preserve the unique voices of each label writer, but still make the exhibition feel cohesive and accessible.

“For a long time I’ve been interested in being an art critic, writer and editor,” Murawski said. “The topic of the exhibition and the skills that I was using both relate to what I really want to do.”

Exhibition as classroom

In the Monochrome Multitudes course, students and lecturers alike can be found sitting on the floor or wandering around the gallery to look closer at a piece. For Last-Yuen, the informal atmosphere and sense of camaraderie makes for better discussion.

“I think being outside of the traditional classroom setting sets us up well to have this nice exchange of ideas,” Last-Yuen said.

The course is a mixture of lecture, discussion and small group work. Class assignments include writing labels for artworks and contributing to the exhibition’s audio guide. Last-Yuen thinks label writing is good practice for his future career path. “I want to go into Law—it’s lots of writing, lots of arguing, lots of analysis, lots of sort of interpreting history with your own particular lens.”

For co-teacher Mehring, getting students in front of art is crucial. “Subtleties of color, of materials, of scale are often impossible to actually see on a screen,” Mehring said. “So my favorite way of teaching has always been with original artworks, be it in the museum’s study room, on traveling seminars, or, in this case, in an exhibition.”

Based solely on the reading, Last-Yuen says he’d never guessed that a black painting by artist Ad Reinhardt had subtle stripes of different blacks. “Looking at it in class, I got a real sense of the complexity within these supposedly purely monochrome paintings,” Last-Yuen said. “I got to look at them in a way that I never would have without being in the Smart Museum.”

“There's something empowering for students who may not yet know much about an artwork;  everything is right there in front of you,” Mehring said. 

Monochrome Multitudes is free and open to the public until Jan. 8. More information on upcoming tours and artist talks can be found here.