In the more than dozen years that Ad Reinhardt and I were friends, he said to me a number of times that “Art is art and everything else is everything else”—and never the twain shall meet.1 The “everything else” meant anything having to do with “life.” Ad was not against life, of course; he was actively engaged with his wife and daughter, friends and students as well as art world and political events, but he spurned references to such extra-aesthetic matters in art.
Ad’s “black” paintings clearly embody his purist intentions. In them he rigorously negated pictorial elements that painting no longer needed to be art-as-art. To be sure, other interpretations are plausible, but in my opinion, that of Michael Corris is off base. He apparently wants to make Ad’s abstractions stand for most of the “everything else.” He writes that, “to look at Reinhardt solely as a ‘painter’ through his paintings” would have been rejected by Ad. True, however, Ad would have insisted that his painting be perceived solely as painting and not as evidence of his Self.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Ad did test various ideas about the relation between art and life, much influenced by Modrian, and it is significant that as early as 1937, he wrote that he had “the greatest concern about art, its purity, its identity, its fate.”2 Even so, a great deal of what he thought about in the early decades of his career was not necessarily applicable to his later beliefs. By 1954, his idea that art should be art and only art had coalesced. Let’s say that at one point he had an aesthetic conversion. Ad’s passionate conviction that art should be pure led him to rail against its “corruption” by the art world and the aesthetic immorality of the “impure” Abstract Expressionists and their supporters, myself included, in whose company he was always to be found. “Who was I supposed to hang out with?” he said ruefully, “Ben Shahn?”
Ad once said to me that he sent his pure paintings out into the world where they were sullied by “life” and returned to his studio where he purified them again. In a related manner, Corris has sullied Ad’s absolutely clear and often proclaimed art-as-art aspirations, but it’s too bad that he’s no longer around to speak for them.
IRVING SANDLER was an art critic, art historian, and writer. The second volume of his memoirs, Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era, was published by Rail Editions in 2015.