Blank Canvases: Masterpiece Or Minimalism To The Extreme?

Victoria Mileson

A Danish museum has asked an artist to return around 534,000 kroner (£61,000) that he had been given in cash to recreate his previous artworks using banknotes, after he produced blank canvases with the title ‘Take the Money and Run’. The pieces are part of an exhibition called Work It Out, which explores people’s relationships with work. This isn’t the first time a blank canvas has been considered art though. In the name of minimalism, blank canvases require more consideration than it first appears.

Jens Haaning, a Danish artist, was commissioned by the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art to reproduce two of his works representing the annual salary in Denmark and Austria. Instead, he pocketed the cash and returned blank canvases.

The works to be recreated were “An Average Danish Annual Income” and “An Average Austrian Annual Income”. Both had the aim of highlighting modern capitalism and the drastic difference in the canvas sizes reflects the salary gap between the countries.

“He stirred up my curatorial staff and he also stirred me up a bit, but I also had a laugh because it was really humoristic,” Lasse Andersson, director of the museum in the city of Aalborg, told the BBC. The director has said that there is a contract stating that the money will be paid back in full when the exhibition ends. However, Haaning has vowed to keep the cash.

“The work of art is that I have taken their money,” the artist told “I encourage other people who have just as miserable working conditions as me to do the same,” he added.

However, these simple blank canvases aren’t the first of their kind. In the art world, blank canvases have recently risen in popularity. Are they masterpieces or minimalism to the extreme?

Blank canvases are some of the main victims of the “I could do that” criticism of modern art. However, their beauty lies in the classic “but you didn’t” response.

The blank canvas revolution can be said to have begun with Kazimir Malevich’s ‘The Black Square’ (1915). It’s a plain black canvas surrounded by a white linen border and aside from the patience required, it could have been done by a child.

‘The Black Square’ was a rebellion against the dominance of depicting real life. According to the artist, “up until now there were no attempts at painting as such, without any attribute to real life”. It’s an abstract painting to the point where it has no reference to reality whatsoever, but has been considered an emblem of a new art and a new society.

Art critics loved Malevich’s Black Square: “‘The Black Square’ absorbed all painting styles that existed before it; it blocks the way for naturalistic imitation, it exists as an absolute form, and it heralds art in which free forms—those that are interconnected and those that are not—make up the meaning of the painting.”

But is it too simple?

Well, many artists using blank canvases focus on the surface and texture rather than the aesthetic value of the piece.

Li Yuan-chia’s ‘Monochrome White Painting’ (1963) uses dots on the surface, to mark the beginning and end of everything, and the individual in the space of the universe.

Robert Ryman’s ‘Ledger’ (1982) pays great attention to brush marks and uses white because it is less “emotionally charged” than other colours. Many of his works focus on texture rather than composition. Another one of Ryman’s white paintings, ‘Bridge’, was sold for $20.6 million and he has been very successful with his simplistic artworks.

These all-white paintings were part of the minimalism art movement commencing in the late 1950s. It began as a rejection of Abstract Expressionism and the minimalism artists wanted to embody order, simplicity, and harmony in their artworks.

Although, Haaning’s work is different. He didn’t add any texture to the canvases and their 534,000 kroner value now resides in what is missing from the artwork; an absence rather than what is in front of the viewer.

Beauty (and the value of art) is in the eye of the beholder and part of art’s importance is that each viewer derives a different meaning from it. So, it all comes down to concept over expertise.

Whether these blank canvases are forms of art due to their bold statements about the world or that they require more artistic skill to be considered a masterpiece, is up to each viewer. It all depends on what you define as a masterpiece — a whole lot of talent or a thought-process you’ve never come across before.

Victoria Mileson

Photo by Justyn Warner on Unsplash. License found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article image 1 courtesy of @verena_altenberger via No changes made to this image.

In-article image 2 courtesy of @collecteurs via No changes made to this image. 

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