Sunlight filters through the windows of Hendrie Hall and projects asymmetrical squares onto a white painting on the opposite wall. I can see the moving shadows of people outside by the parking lot as they walk toward the building’s entrance. They’re little dark spots that grow, then shrink, then disappear.
Next to the all-white painting, someone has mounted a label that reads “effay: albino cow in a blizzard.” Below the title, the card gives the viewers more information: oil on canvas, 2017.
Four years and most — hopefully — of a pandemic later, the all-white painting hangs on. And if it weren’t for the label, no one would know that it’s there.
“Do people notice it?”
“Not really, but I think that’s the point.”
“I’m just surprised that it’s so clean. I wonder if every year, they take a roller or something and paint over it again.” Don’t they do that with the walls, too?
Paintings like “effay: albino cow in a blizzard” aren’t unique. Several artists have created similar paintings: Kazmier Malevich’s “White on White,” Agnes Martin’s “White Stone,” Joe Baer’s “Untitled (White Square Lavender)” and Joseph Albers’s “Study for Homage to the Square.” But unlike Hendrie Hall’s albino cow, these other paintings’ titles do not superimpose any kind of image onto the canvas. They instead allow us to project our own emotions onto it. Through our imagination, we, as viewers, make something that isn’t there into our own work of art.
But by having a title that evokes a concrete image, Hendrie Hall’s “effay: albino cow in a blizzard” removes that freedom of imagination, challenging our preconceptions of an abstract, all-white canvas.
The title tries to force us to see a cow. If you stare long enough, that is. “There’s a cow, but there’s no cow.”
“I like that it’s here, but I would be annoyed if I saw it in a museum. I think it’s just kind of funny.”
Which was immediately followed by “it’s bullshit, and you can quote me,” “I think it’s great” and “if it were in a museum, I might appreciate it more.”
“It took me a year to realize that it was even there. Usually, when I’m walking through here, I’m just focused on where I’m going and don’t look around.”
Maybe it’s a painting for reflection — after all, white reflects all colors.
“I think it’s art, and I’m sure the artist had a purpose behind having a blank or white canvas. I just look at it and wonder, ‘why?’”
I didn’t think people would be so willing to stop and talk to me about this piece of art — music students are busy. The quotes above are from the morning of Jan. 30, 2020, when I sat on the wooden window ledge on the ground floor of Hendrie Hall facing what seemed to be a blank white canvas. I asked each passerby to take a look at the painting. “What does it make you feel?”
I decided to do this after my friend asked me in December of 2019 to meet them in Hendrie Hall “in front of the painting,” I responded, “what painting?” She showed me. I didn’t know how to react.
Earlier that year, I listened to an episode of the podcast “99 percent invisible” called “The Many Deaths of a Painting.” It tells the story of “one of the worst crimes in contemporary art history,” where a man used a utility knife to slash the large canvas of Abstract Expressionist artist Barnett Newman’s piece “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.” He did this because the painting and its plainness evoked such a strong reaction. Then, a conservator, Daniel Goldreyer, was hired to restore the painting. After four and a half years, the painting was returned to its place in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, where a forensic test revealed that the conservator had used the equivalent of house paint and a roller to “finally and irrevocably destroy the work of art.” I looked at the little scratch marks and nicks in the otherwise-perfect wall. The albino cow stared back at me out of the white. I hope no one slashes the cow — if it even exists.
Near the end of my time in the building that morning, I asked Hendrie Hall’s security officer about the painting. She responded in the same way I did: “what painting?” I pointed it out to her on the surveillance camera screen, and we walked over together. We shared laughs and puzzled expressions.
“I don’t see any painting. It just looks like the wall,” she said.
“Is it art?”
“It could be.”
Maybe the painting isn’t meant to be art. Or, maybe, it’s a practical administrative joke. But I wouldn’t tell you if it were; that’d ruin it. If “effay: albino cow in a blizzard” provokes such emotional and reflective reactions from those who pass by it every day, it is art — whether it’s trying to be or not.