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Two days ago at a press conference in Millennium Park, Mayor Daley warned residents about this week’s dangerously cold temperatures while at the same time announcing a new campaign to attract tourists from around the world to Chicago in the winter. In his cavalier way, Mayor Daley mocked the media for sounding the alarm every time it snowed: “We’ve had snow, I mean, we’ve always had ice.” (click here to hear it with the Chicago accent) Yes, we’ve always had it, I tolerate it (badly), but if he thinks a gaggle of Australians are going to leave their summer behind to experience mounds of snow, sheets of ice falling from buildings, temperatures below zero, and, when it all starts to melt, slush and muck so deep you could lose a baby in it, well, I think he is in for a bit of a disappointment.

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I’m already sick of winter and it has only just begun. I’m tired of the cold, fed up with the snow, and sick of well-meaning people telling me “how pretty it is”. Aesthetically speaking, I’m sick of the color white. On sunless days white has a hegemonic dominance over the landscape. Looking at the cottony blur in the morning makes me feel as if I’m in a continual process of coming out of anaesthesia, clarity always a bit beyond my reach. Besides, isn’t it unsettling, almost unnatural, when the bottom of the landscape matches the top? Just ask any sailor.

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White might symbolize innocence and purity for some, but in India women wear white saris when their husbands die. White doesn’t fare much better in Moby Dick. In the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale Melville writes, “…it is, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that ere is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” For Melville, white is absence (“dumb blankness”) and it is precisely this which makes it so full of meaning: it is the ultimate fear, the fear of nothingness; it is the great, white leviathan that drags the crew into the vortex of non-being.

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In his short essay Black or White, American abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell doesn’t go into the symbolic powers of white (though he does mention Melville), but he’s pretty blunt about the chemical properties of the respective pigments black and white. Black, he writes, being made of soot, is “light and fluffy” whereas whites are either “cold” and “slimy” (zinc oxide) or “extremely poisonous on contact of the body” (lead). ‘Nuf said.

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White is also a real stickler for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: at least half his comments in Remarks on Color focus on white as a problematic concept. The crux of the conundrum is that white is the only color that doesn’t have an opaque and transparent version. Think about it: grass is opaque green, old Coke bottles are transparent green. An apple is opaque red, a red piece of stained glass is transparent. One can even imagine transparent black, though when a sheet of white paper is put behind it, it appears dark grey (which poses yet another problem according to Wittgenstein, for white dilutes other colors but cannot itself be diluted). All this brings Wittgenstein to postulate: if milk is opaque white then doesn’t it follow that water is transparent white?

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Chicagoans know all too well what happens when our white, opaque stuff begins to turn into (white) transparent stuff: first it gets speckled with exhaust, then the large, grey mounds melt, which produces a flow (not very transparent) of water, dirt, spit, and grease, all of which ends up in a water treatment facility somewhere. Which brings me, oddly, to the beautiful painting on this post by Gerhard Richter called Ice 1, which will soon resurface in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute. Richter takes on the colors of our cold, drab winter and turns them into three amazing paintings of ice; ice out of which seeps infinite and at times almost imperceptible variations of color and texture. Imagine one of our whitish-grey mounds of plowed snow lit up from the inside and embedded within it tiny particles of color: at first glance it looks like ice, upon closer inspection the whole thing is pulsating with color. Now that might (just might) bring the tourists here in January.

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Remarks on Colour, Ludwig Wittgenstein, University of California Press

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The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, University of California Press

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The Daily Practice of Painting, Gerhard Richter, The MIT Pres
nGerhard Richter’s notes are so honest, deep, and poetic that I have an inkling to do a “best of” post with some of his quotes and paintings. Read this book!

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