Ad Reinhardt and The Shape of Time

Just as artists were collapsing “art” and “life” Ad Reinhardt was mightily prying them back apart. It is true: the more you try to force them to be the same thing, the more art and life show you how different they really are. On the other hand, their profound interdependence is never more visible than when separated by an operation of will, like those Reinhardt preforms in his polemic writing. He called these declarations “art dogma” and just like his black paintings they cannot be taken at face value. The obdurate black squares, in their extreme purging of all that is “not art,” beg to be considered as part of a greater totality. Reinhardt gives us the lens: George Kubler’s visionary book The Shape of Time (1962).

“Wave Cycle,” drawing by Ad Reinhardt, undated. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

Kubler reverberates throughout Reinhardt’s writing and is frequently named in the interviews and essays of the 1960s. Anna Reinhardt remembers her father buying many copies of The Shape of Time to give to younger artists who would be receptive to it, including Robert Smithson. “If you want to understand modern art, read this,” he said as he handed a copy to sculptor Mary Fuller. A proselytizer by nature, Reinhardt seized upon the paperback publication in 1966 to write a review for ARTnews, titled “Art vs. History,” a text that could also provide an entrance to his retrospective at the Jewish Museum later that season. From all this it is fair to say that Reinhardt was not only sympathetic to Kubler’s “world view” but that he advocated for it as the preferable philosophical framework through which to understand his work.

A straightforward proposition until you start reading, because from the very first line The Shape of Time is seemingly antithetical to the foundations of Reinhardt’s “art dogma.” It begins, “Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world. By this view the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art.” This radical expansion by Kubler, who was an archeologist, could not be further from Reinhardt’s “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.” To understand such a seeming contradiction we must look at what Reinhardt categorized as his “everything else”—because it is only when the paintings are seen alongside the brilliant cartoons, essays, and slide-show lectures that the deep resonances with The Shape of Time begin to sound, finding their harmony.

As adamant as Reinhardt was that life and art are distinct, he loved both. You see this in the performative slide-lectures he would give at the Artists’ Club or in the homes of friends, made of photos he took on his extensive travels around the world. He ultimately accumulated some 12,000 slides that would be shown in quick succession based on playful formal/morphological chains—you follow rhythmic arched windows, to rhymed doorways, to paired figures. Thomas B. Hess recalls “one series was dedicated to mammoth breasts from every angle, age, and culture. Even funnier was the group of main post-offices in all the cities he had visited.” Reinhardt would sit with projector on lap, feeding slides in and talking—blurring the art history lecture with the personal travelogue, with no shortage of perverse humor.

Ad Reinhardt’s annotated copy of George Kubler’s The Shape of Time.

The Shape of Time’s central tenet is seeing every work of art as important in a sequence, but one that is not “linear.” It is a bundle of loops—starts and stops—riddled with unlikely connections. Kubler’s description of these “sequences” could equate with the effect of Reinhardt’s slideshows: “As the linked solutions accumulate, the contours of a quest by several persons are disclosed, a quest in search of forms enlarging the domain of aesthetic discourse. That domain concerns affective states of being, and its true boundaries are rarely if ever disclosed by objects or pictures or buildings taken in isolation. The continuum . . . makes the single work more pleasurable and more intelligible than in isolation.” One can see the slides flipping by, jumping around centuries and geographical locations, recalling a metaphor Kubler uses to describe actuality: “Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes . . . the rupture between past and future.” That instant is all we can ever directly experience.

Kubler talks about art transmitting two types of signals: “self-signals” and “adherent signals,” just as Reinhardt tried to separate them. Viewed as both discursive and formal constructions, the late black paintings aim to be pure “self-signals”—communicating only the specific reality of their surfaces. Inversely, his slide-shows are fully concerned with “adherent signals”—historical and social information that composes an “intricate message in the symbolic order.” Kubler explains these two types of signals must be reconciled in experience: “The self-signals taken alone prove only existence; adherent signals taken in isolation prove only the presence of meaning. But existence without meaning seems terrible in the same degree as meaning without existence seems trivial.”

Thomas B. Hess Papers. Courtesy Archives of American Art.

In positing his black five-foot squares as the ultimate paintings Reinhardt is claiming to conclude a series which he knows full well cannot be closed. As Kubler says plainly: “No formal sequence is ever really closed out by the exhaustion of all its possibilities in a connected series of solutions.” Rather, “all the classes of form are still open sequences, and it is only by an artificial convention that we may call any class a historically closed series.” Reinhardt inhabited the rare social position of “beloved contrarian.” As such, he structured layers of perverse misreading into his provocative rhetoric as a way of challenging the discourse of a specific moment. As the artist who knew more about world art history than any of his peers, and as a close reader of Kubler, I believe Reinhardt knew his dogmas were only incandescent half-truths aimed at inciting further action, and that he would welcome future consideration of his “art” along with his “life.” As he concludes his article on The Shape of Time with these lines: “The first word of an artist is against artists. The first word of an art historian is against art historians.”


Jarrett Earnest

Jarrett Earnest is an artist and writer living in New York. His current projects include a collection of interviews with young artists called After the Doom Generation and a book on aesthetics and intimacy.