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The attitudes we bring to black are very ambiguous. Black can be understood as a puritanical colour, representing goodness, virtue and obedience; at the same time, it can suggest wisdom, creativity and wealth. In other contexts, black carries entirely negative associations: it suggests evil and disease, totalitarianism and anarchy, mourning and melancholy. Most fundamentally, black can represent the end of something and a new start.

Perhaps reflecting these unstable meanings and associations, black played a highly significant role in the story of twentieth century art. In many ways, it was the primary colour of twentieth century art. For many artists, black marked a new, revolutionary beginning for art—an art-for-art’s sake that was liberated from the need to represent the world. For others, black returned art to its primordial roots—both in reference to the charcoal, soot and ebony, which were used to make prehistoric marks and objects, and to the fact that black is often derived from the most basic organic materials such as burnt bones and carbon.

Black also found a place in twentieth-century art for its capacity to elicit strong feelings or associations, whether poetic or political.

This was especially so in Europe during the first decades of the century, when black assumed great revolutionary potential, and during the 1950s and 1960s, when abstract painters in Europe and America found in black the perfect expression of postwar chaos and uncertainty. Indeed, no other colour or tone quite so readily evokes such divergent feelings as dread, mystery, awe or power as does black.

Lee Krasner Untitled 1953 oil, collage, gouache National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1983 © Lee Krasner/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy