Reply to Irving Sandler

That Ad Reinhardt took a hard line on the art-life divide has never been in question. What has been at issue is what, precisely, such a position meant and what significance such a position could possibly have for artists today.

The art-life divide is something of a specious dichotomy anyway. Its most vigorous proponents have been the artists of the avant-garde, both prior to and after the World Wars of the 20th Century. It is now little more than a cliché. Since the postmodern settlement, the shock of crossing the imagined art-life boundary has lost its luster. Presented as an absolute, the distinction is both antique and pointless.

Mr. Sandler asserts that Reinhardt’s “ ‘black’ paintings clearly embody his [Reinhardt’s] purist intentions.” Since my research and thinking on Reinhardt’s practices have led me to view such a statement as highly problematic, it is important that I respond to Mr. Sandler’s accusation that my interpretation of Reinhardt’s practice as a painter is “off base.” To support his claim, Mr. Sandler hypothesizes that “Ad would have insisted that his painting be perceived solely as painting and not as evidence of his Self.”

I could not agree more with the claim that Reinhardt’s paintings have nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. But is “self-expression” the only kind of expression of which art is capable? That Reinhardt’s paintings are not implicated in a wider dialectic of art and social life as understood by the artist is another matter altogether. Reinhardt’s notion of “purity” in painting was always a highly inflected one. For the sake of this argument, one might say with some assurance that “purity” for the artist had a great deal to do with the notion of autonomy of art. But the real issue is to show how autonomy functioned across Reinhardt’s career, and in the context of the New York School.

Reinhardt embraced autonomy for many reasons, not the least being the desire to place the responsibility for art squarely back into the hands of the artist. Mr. Sandler’s claim that it was a question of “passionate conviction” which led Reinhardt to launch a campaign (during the 1950s and1960s) against art world corruption certainly reflects the enthusiasm of the man; yet it was more than passion that drove the critique forward.

Reinhardt’s criticism is entirely in keeping with the critique of museums, the art market, and the use of art to advance the ideological objectives of the State that had been issuing from the Left since the end of the 1940s.

On the issue of Reinhardt’s alleged “conversion” of the late-1950s, this certainly begs the question. Firstly, if such a conversion did occur, it was not accompanied by a formal rupture that irrevocably separates earlier work of the late-1940s/early-1950s with the remainder of his output as a painter. The decision to darken the paintings, to abandon red and blue monochromatic works was a refinement explainable by reference to the developments of the late-1940s/early-1950s. The real break occurs around 1960, when Reinhardt decides to paint one schema, one size, and near-black monochromes. (But even this pledge is broken; the 1966 retrospective contained a quadriptych that consists of four 60 × 60 inches near-black canvases.)

If by “conversion” Mr. Sandler means an ideological conversion, then what was rejected and how is one to explain it? Certainly, the Cold War climate had a strong effect on Reinhardt’s practices. In the highly charged climate of Red baiting, any reference to the social dimension of art would be considered suspect; a position that Ben Shahn and other social realists aligned to the American Communist Party would be proud to endorse. (That Reinhardt chose to associate exclusively with abstract painters rather than social realists is not at all true, but Mr. Sandler’s picture of the New York art scene of the 1950s doesn’t seem to allow for such fraternization with the (political and aesthetic) enemy.) As I point out in my book, the utter destruction and intimidation of the radical left of which Reinhardt was a part, and with which he strongly identified, would certainly involve a reconsideration of the feasibility of a practice that took versatility and totalization for granted. The issue was very much on Reinhardt’s mind during the 1950s, particularly when he was chosen to participate in the exhibition of US artists at Expo ’58 (the first major world’s fair to be mounted after World War II, also called the Brussels World’s Fair) and came under unwelcome scrutiny by the State Department. In his papers, Mr. Sandler reports on a conversation that took place between Reinhardt and himself on October 15, 1958 in the artist’s studio. At that meeting, Reinhardt said, “[T]he Communist issue was very complicated and very important.” (Irving Sandler papers, box 27, folder 4, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.)

The meaning of autonomy, of course, is not categorical but dimensional; one even speaks of “semi-autonomy” to acknowledge the many connections a practice has with other practices and other social worlds. Certainly, one needs to take into account the context within which these allegedly “absolute” terms have been uttered.

Reinhardt understood that how a painting is made is as ethically consequent as what a painting is of. Abstract art, for Reinhardt and others of his generation, is not a meaningless pattern even if it is not a picture of anything. But we must go further when we speak about Reinhardt’s late paintings: the orientation and attitude demanded of the spectator is also part of the several virtues of abstraction the artist aimed to encompass through his practice.

As for Mr. Sandler’s indignation at my “sullying” of Reinhardt’s “absolutely clear” art-as-art aspirations, I can only reply that they are not “absolutely clear” nor as rigid in their meaning as he takes them to be. I commend Mr. Sandler to read my book where this issue is treated in some detail, as it was during my public lecture where he was in attendance but chose to remain mute.

Rather than sullying Reinhardt’s reputation, one imagines the job of the critic and historian of art to make what is commonplace and comfortable strange. Sometimes, historically-informed explanations (or interpretations, as Mr. Sandler calls them) appear counter-intuitive and, to those who were confidants of the subject in question, just plain wrong-headed. I hope that Mr. Sandler is not suggesting that we all defer to the truths that fall from the mouths of artists. Of course, this is not to say that there is nothing to be gained from taking account of artist’s statements; the point is that critical work demands more of the critic than simply parroting the artist or her epigones.

Finally, I would be cautious about raising the ghost of Reinhardt. I ask Mr. Sandler what would anger such a specter more: a detailed historical analysis of his art-as-art dogma, or the continued silence of the custodians of his work on the matter of their attempted censorship of an author’s text?

Contributor

Michael Corris

MICHAEL CORRIS is Professor of Art and Chair of the Division of Art of the Meadows School of the Arts/SMU. Recent publications include Ad Reinhardt (Reaktion Books, 2008) and Art, Word and Image: 2,000 Years of Visual/Textual Interaction (with John Dixon Hunt and David Lomas, Reaktion Books, 2010). He is currently working on a study of the curious relation between contemporary art and philosophy.

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