It’s about the artist Barnet Newman. Many of his paintings, some of them quite large, are uniform coloured grounds with one or more bands running from top to bottom – he calls these bands “zips”.
This famous story tells how the artists Elaine de Kooning and Franz Kline were sitting in a bar when they were approached by a collector who had just come from Newman’s first exhibition. The collector, nonplussed by what he perceived as the emptiness and repetition of Newman’s work, tells Kline that there was absolutely nothing there to see.
Kline asks the collector how many canvases were on show and what sizes and colors they were.
Then moving on to the zips, he enquires about their particular hue, their dimensions, whether they are upright or horizontal, thick or thin, darker or lighter than the background, painted on top of the background color or straight onto the canvas.
As the collector is forced to enumerate the many variations, Kline finally remarks: “Well I don’t know, it all sounds damned complicated to me.”