So pale, so clean, so darn complicated

PORTFOLIO

White, complex in all its apparent simplicity, poses problems with its many subtle shades.

January 20, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

I spent days deciding what color to paint the walls of our living room. I held paint chips up to the light and against the wall and near the sofa. I debated with my husband the relative merits of various hues. I argued about this shade and that.

I chose white.

The walls are what the paint manufacturer calls "oyster" white. The ceiling? "Shell." I considered but rejected "dove," "ivory," "milk," "stone" and "moon" whites. I was tempted by "bone," but it seemed macabre. I liked "china" white by the light of the moon, but not the morning after. "Design-studio" just wasn't me.

A friend in the midst of redecorating a house on the Eastern Shore came for dinner not long ago, and fell in love with our whites. Could she copy them, she asked somewhat sheepishly. Would we mind?

I'd be flattered, I answered. Soon after that, I was approached by a neighbor who wondered if she could look at our walls. She was redecorating, she explained, and she'd heard about our whites.

Who would have guessed that white could be so complex, so demanding? On the surface, it seems innocent, virginal, pure as the driven snow. But, it arrives weighed down with baggage and fraught with meaning. Think white supremacy. Brides. Communion hosts. Angel wings. Clerical collars. In some cultures, white is a symbol of joy or spirituality. In others it is a sign of mourning. White hats are good guys, white knights may carry you off on their horses and the White Sox are going nowhere soon. What about White Russians? Or the Beatles "White" album, white elephant, white sale, white noise?

Make up your mind

Glen Bossard, assistant manager at the Stebbins Anderson store in Towson, knows the nuances of white through his experience with paint. "People come in and say, 'Oh, we'd just like a nice off-white.' I say: 'I've got about a hundred.' "

From the paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore's line of ready-mixed interior paints, Bossard can offer you "antique," "bone," "simply," "timid," "linen," "winter," "mirage," "china," "dove," "cameo," "moonstone," "atrium" or "Navajo" white.

"The ultimate test is to take a quart of paint home and paint your wall," says Bossard. "I've had people go through five or six cans of off-white. I've had people spend months on white. I've had people who just can't make up their minds about white. All they can say is, 'This just doesn't look right.' "

In the contemporary art world, curators swear by the notion of the "white cube." The less visual interference between viewer and art, they argue, the better. The more abstract the art, the more important it is to have a neutral background.

That explains why so many contemporary art galleries sport all-white walls and neutral ceilings and floors. It does not explain why Baltimore Museum of Art curator Helen Molesworth has spent hours in recent weeks trying to decide what color white to paint the galleries before installing her contemporary art exhibition.

"All whites are different and all spaces need different whites," Molesworth says. Lighting, too, plays a role. "White is vexing."

Last year, to prepare for "Body-space," a show of art informed by minimalism, Molesworth examined pages of paint samples. She thought about the kind of art included in the show. She considered the size and shape of the galleries. She considered the lighting. She eliminated dozens of whites until four remained: "country-stove white," "design-studio white,' "sneaker white," and "picket fence white." Her choice? "Country-stove white."

This year, to prepare for an exhibit titled "Looking Forward / Looking Black," an examination of racial and gender stereotypes in America that opens Feb. 6, she simplified her technique.

She chose the white wall labels she wanted to use, took them to a paint manufacturer and said: "Match this, please." The result is a sort of "bluey-pinky white."

Reflecting on white

White isn't really a color, but the combination of them all. "The color that we see is determined by wavelengths of light hitting an object, some being absorbed, and some being reflected. When all the wavelengths are absorbed, the surface appears black; when all are reflected, we see white," says Catherine Behrent, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Therein lies the beauty and intrigue of white. It can be as dull as chalk and as reflective as snow; as warm as a mother's milk and as icy as an avalanche. In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, a white whale is Captain Ahab's obsession. In Robert Frost's sonnet "Design," white stands for purity and disease. In children's storybooks, Snow White awaits her prince.

Painters long have wrestled with the problem of white. White paint, made with lead, nearly blinded 18th-century still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. In 1749, French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry lectured on the difficulties of painting white on white.

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