Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Mindfulness in art: Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting

An exhibition by artist Robert Rauschenberg at the Stable Gallery in New York, 1953. Photo by Allan Grant/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

In September of 1953, the Stable Gallery in New York City hosted a landmark exhibit of work by a young Robert Rauschenberg (pictured above at the exhibition) and by Cy Twombly.1 Included in the show were two pieces from Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting series, consisting of rectangular canvases covered in matte white paint, applied by roller, placed together side by side. Many at the time did not know what to make of them; critic James Fitzsimmons described them as a “gratuitously destructive act.”2 The paintings include no figuration and no symbolism. They are empty—but not empty. Rauschenberg’s friend and frequent collaborator John Cage strongly resonated with these works. He famously described them as “airports for the lights, shadows and particles”3 and credited them for the courage to compose his landmark composition 4’33,’’ often referred to as the “silent” piece.4 When confronted with Rauschenberg’s white emptiness, the Shunyata-like void, one starts to perceive subtle variations of texture between canvases. Tiny particles from the room that have landed on the surface stand out in relief. Variations of light and shadow lend form. According to Rauschenberg, “I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive, but very – well, hypersensitive. So one could look at them and see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.”5 The paintings become what the viewer, what the air, what the world brings to it. Focused attention is expanded to general awareness. And yet it starts with emptiness. The paradox becomes possible only because Rauschenberg has stripped all traces of ego from the picture. Like John Cage’s 4’33,’’ it is an art of non-intention made manifest. This specific painting pictured above was created in 1951 while Rauschenberg was at Black Mountain College. There he met John Cage, who had recently discovered Zen Buddhism and was struggling to find ways to apply this new mind to his compositions. These two artists soon became friends, sharing ideas and participating in each other’s work. During the realization of John Cage’s Theater Piece #1 at Black Mountain College in 1951, regarded as the first “happening,” canvases from Rauschenberg’s White Painting series were hung from the ceiling. When Rauschenberg created Automobile Tire Print in 1953, it was John Cage who drove the car. Rauschenberg has never attributed direct inspiration from Zen Buddhism when he created the White Painting series. But as Karen Larson argues in her illuminating book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, it seems likely that John Cage’s enthusiasm for Zen at least indirectly informed the White Painting series and vice versa.6 Regardless of the true source of invention, the work does lend itself easily to a Zen conceptualization, albeit secularized.

As a psychiatry resident increasingly interested in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other meditation practices and their effects on the brain, I find myself gravitating to Rauschenberg’s controversial White Painting series with special interest. MBSR, as described by Kabat-Zinn (who developed the treatment) and Ludwig, cultivates present moment awareness by attending to relevant aspects of experience in a non-judgmental manner.7 MBSR essentially adapts the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation and secularizes it for the clinical setting in a way not dissimilar to Rauschenberg’s own secular conceptualization. The program was originally developed as a supplementary treatment for chronic pain, but has subsequently shown efficacy for improving mental health in clinical and non-clinical populations. According to a meta-analysis by Fjorback et al, MBSR and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can complement medical disease management by relieving psychological distress and strengthening well-being, and MBSR can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in psychiatric populations.8 There is also evidence that meditation practice may actually change the brain to allow for enhanced gamma synchrony (EEG),9 modulation of brain activity in areas associated with monitoring, engaging and orienting attention (fMRI),10 and greater grey matter density in the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum (MRI).11 For one 14-year-old female patient whom I was treating for severe depression, MBSR became the central catalyst for remission. Yet some patients remain skeptical, often associating religious or cultural meaning to the practice of meditation generally. Pointing to the pioneering artwork of Rauschenberg and Cage alongside a growing body of scientific literature creates a scaffold upon which I can universalize the concepts of meditation practice, and perhaps convince an otherwise skeptical patient to give it a try.


  1. Bernstein, Roberta. Introduction to Rauschenberg: The White and Black Paintings 1949-1953 (New York: Larry Gagosian Gallery, 1986).
  2. James Fitzsimmons, “Art,” Arts and Architecture 70 (1953): 9, 32-35.
  3. Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961/1973), 102.
  4. Audio Guide to The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now. November 2008. Accessed November 22nd, 2013, http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/audio/aop_tour_404.
  5. Tomkins, Calvin. The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: Penguin Books (1963): 203.
  6. Larson, Kay. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 234.
  7. Ludwig DS, Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness in medicine. JAMA. 2008;300(11):350-1352. PMID:18799450.
  8. Fjorback LO et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2011;124(2):102-19. PMID:21534932.
  9. Lutz A et al. Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Nov 16;101(46)16369-16373. PMID:15534199.
  10. Brefczynski-Lewis JA et al. Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term medication practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jul 3;104(27):11483-8. PMID:17596341.
  11. Hölzel BK et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43. PMID:21071182.

DOUGLAS RUSSELL, MD, is a resident in Psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to medical school he worked as Executive Producer for KUSC fm, a classical public radio station in Los Angeles. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Music from Wesleyan University in 1999, and his Medical Doctorate from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, PA.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 6, Issue 3 – Summer 2014

Summer 2014



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