If the idea of monochrome painting occurred to anyone before the twentieth century, it would have been understood as a picture of a monochrome reality, and probably taken as a joke. Hegel likened the Absolute in Schelling to a dark night in which all cows are black, so a clever student in Jena might have had the bright idea of painting an all-black picture titled Absolute With Cows–witty or profound depending upon one’s metaphysics. In 1882 the Exposition des Arts Incohérents in Paris featured a black painting by the poet Paul Bilhaud titled Combat de nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit, which was appropriated in 1887 by the French humorist Alphonse Allais, in an album of monochrome pictures of various colors, with uniformly ornamental frames, each bearing a comical title. Allais called his all-red painting Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea.
Only in the most external and superficial respect does Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 black square painted on a white ground belong to this history. For one thing, Black Square is not a picture; it does not, in other words, depict a black square outside the frame. One of its immense contributions to the concept of visual art lies in the fact that it liberated the concept of painting from that of picturing, and thus opened up a new era in the history of art. “All paintings are pictures” would have been a strong candidate for a necessary truth until Malevich proved it false. But it was not a difference that met the eye. Had Bilhaud’s all-black painting of 1882 been square, it might have looked exactly like Malevich’s Black Square.
Black Square‘s radical difference from everything before it does not end there. Malevich’s disciple, El Lissitzky, declared in 1922 that Black Square was “opposed to everything that was understood by ‘pictures’ or ‘paintings’ or ‘art.’ Its creator intended to reduce all forms, all painting, to zero.” I think by its opposition to painting, El Lissitzky is saying that the fact that the square is painted is incidental to the work’s meaning. Malevich himself said later, “It is not painting; it is something else.” And so far as its opposition to art goes, well, you don’t have to study art to be able to paint a black square. Anybody could do it. So though it was almost certainly Malevich’s most important work, and inaugurated a new era in the history of art, it hardly seems appropriate to call it his masterpiece, just because the factors that make for something being a masterpiece don’t really apply to it. It would be curious to think of it exhibited alongside Mona Lisa in a show called “Two Masterpieces.” We marvel at its originality, not its painterly brilliance.
The idea behind what Malevich called Suprematism is that you cannot carry things beyond Black Square. It is as far as you can go: You have reached a point of absolute zero. Which isn’t to say that Black Square is empty–there is, after all, a difference between not being a picture and being a picture of nothing! Calling an empty rectangle a picture of nothing would be a Lewis Carroll-like joke, whereas everything connected with Black Square underscores its seriousness.