There was once a typist from Texas named Bette Nesmith Graham, who wasn’t very good at her job. In 1951 she started erasing her typing mistakes with a white tempera paint solution she mixed in her kitchen blender. She called her invention Mistake Out and began distributing small green bottles of it to her coworkers. In 1956 she founded the delectably named Mistake Out Company. Shortly after, she was apparently fired from her typist job because she made a “mistake” that she failed to cover up: she typed her company name instead of the name of the bank she was working for. She then sold her typewriter correction fluid from her suburban home for many years before changing the name of the company to Liquid Paper Corporation and selling it to Gillette in 1979—for fifty million dollars. She died six months later, and her son—Mike Nesmith from The Monkees—was primary heir to her estate.
Also in 1951, while Bette was concocting her solution, Ludwig Wittgenstein was dying. This is a curious parallel, because it seems that as his cancer spread, the Austrian philosopher spent his final months obsessing over the opacity of whiteness. After his death, a series of unfinished notes were found on his desk, later published in English as the Remarks On Colour. They’re littered with basic Wittgensteinian problems, like having words for what we cannot imagine and thinking of what we have no language for. He is mainly preoccupied with the question, “Why can’t we imagine a transparent white?,” which he rephrases in dozens of ways, with varying degrees of exasperation, and never answers. White is opacity par excellence: the more it moves towards transparency, the less white it becomes. Wittgenstein cites Runge’s letter to Goethe, reproduced in Goethe’s Theory of Colours, in which Runge writes, “White water which is pure is as inconceivable as clear milk.”
What was it about 1951? This was also when Robert Rauschenberg started his White Paintings at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. These empty white canvases would become some of the most seminal works in the history of monochrome painting, famously prompting Rauschenberg’s collaborator and friend John Cage to compose in the following year what he considered to be his most important musical score, 4’33” (1952), which is left empty so that audiences only hear the unprescribed noises that are already in the world.
Actually, this link between imageless pictures and soundless music predates the postwar North American avant-garde by many decades. At the risk of validating the classic philistine response, it should be said upfront that the first monochrome paintings were done as a joke. Thirty-five years before the Soviet avant-garde artists proclaimed the death of painting with their iconoclastic monochromes, the 1882 exhibition of Les Arts Incohérents in Paris featured an all-black painting by the poet Paul Bilhaud sardonically titled Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night. Soon after, the author Alphonse Allais made a series of monochromes that he published in an album in 1887, including a blank white page with an ornamental frame, named First Communion of Anemic Young Girls In The Snow. These late-nineteenth-century monochrome images were posited as a gibe against French Impressionism; its logical reductio ad absurdum where everything is turned to pure atmosphere and blank nothingness is all that registers in the pictorial field. And, beating John Cage by more than half a century, Allais’s album of monochromes was accompanied by a nine-page silent musical score billed as a Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man.
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