IN 1883 the French wit Alphonse Allais showed a work of art at the Arts Incoherents exhibition in Paris. It was a sheet of plain white paper which Allais had secured to a board with a drawing-pin at each of its corners. He chose to call it First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow (modern replica, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, right). The critic Felix Feneon could only describe it as 'a sheet of absolutely white Bristol paper', although he admired its 'suave title'. For the following year's exhibition Allais created another work: Apopleptic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea. It was the same sheet of paper, painted red.
Robert Ryman's Embassy I, of 1976 (left, Tate to 25 Apr) is a square of white paint with four black oxide fasteners. He has commented: 'The use of white in my paintings came about when I realised that it doesn't interfere. It is a neutral colour . . . It makes other aspects of painting visible that would not be so clear with the use of other colours.'
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