From Abstract Expressionism to Minimal Art: The Legacy of Ad Reinhardt and Tony Smith
Art historians often speak of the phenomenon where one artist, or possibly two, moves the fragmentary residue of one formidable movement in the direction of another. In the case of Arshile Gorky, it was about the transition from Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism; and in the case of Ad Reinhardt and Tony Smith, it was an equally subtle passage from Abstract Expressionism to Minimal Art. In a fastidiously mounted exhibition at the midtown Pace Wildenstein in December, gallery entrepreneur Arne Glimcher paired Ad Reinhardt and Tony Smith with the intent of revealing this important art historical transition. The exhibition was an argument in favor of the complexity of reductivist aesthetics, an argument initially made by the art theorist Richard Wolheim, who in 1965 acknowledged the “black paintings” of Reinhardt as a seminal influence on the evolution of Minimal art.
Three years earlier, the architect/painter Tony Smith had transformed himself into a sculptor in making a case for three-dimensional reductivism using primary shapes, specifically in his 72” painted steel cube, entitled Die. In fact, Smith’s Die was fabricated in a machine shop before it was delivered to the garden behind the Xavier/Fourcade Gallery, an important Upper East Side gallery during the ’60s. Smith appropriated this mode of production from the Bauhaus painter and photographer, Moholy-Nagy, who in 1928 telephoned a fabricator who made precise geometric patterns enameled on metal plates. The distance of the artist’s hand (and sight) from the actual work was compelling in both cases. Smith had his sculpture fabricated using the same method, sight unseen. While this does not appear extraordinary in comparison with today’s advanced media communications, it was in the ’60s as it had been previously in the ’20s: something that made people reflect on the future direction of art.
I have always understood Smith’s attitude toward three-dimensional objecthood as a cubic extension of the late, all-black, cruciform-patterned square paintings of Ad Reinhardt. While Reinhardt’s paintings measured 60” square, Smith simply added another foot and transformed the frontality of the black square into a three-dimensional cube. This was all that was required to make the transition complete from Abstract Expressionism—where both Reinhardt and Smith began—to a sign of Minimal art. I refer to a “sign” in the sense of a representation of something that had not quite come to fruition as an identifiable movement, as later revealed in the works of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt (who, incidentally, was never comfortable with the term “Minimal Art,” preferring instead “Conceptual Art.”) While Reinhardt may have been the more methodically reductive in taking monochrome painting into a dark cruciform (which appears all black to most viewers), it was Tony Smith who blatantly implied that Minimal art could not remain in a state of pictorial angst and still make the grade to another level. Indeed, to make the grade, the passage was not only through reductivist strategies but also through the process of getting the object off the wall and putting it in real space—and, by inference, giving the viewer a sense of being in real time and engaged in active phenomenological viewing.
The exhibition “Ad Reinhardt and Tony Smith: A Dialogue” employs a formal comparison that Glimcher has used in preceding years to juxtapose, for example, representations of women by DeKooning and the French painter/sculptor Jean Dubuffet. In the past, some of the comparisons appeared tenuous, less a matter of influences than affinities; the Reinhardt/Smith counterpoise seems more cohesive and direct with regard to influence. After Smith’s Die, Reinhardt continued the “Black Paintings” in uniform scale and color until the end of his life (1967). By this time, Minimalism was in full swing, actively collected and sold to major museums throughout Europe. Never being one to follow trends, Reinhardt persisted with the medium of painting, doing the work himself. He never moved into three-dimensionality, nor did he delegate works to an army of assistants. This self-conscious involvement with the medium of painting, relative to Reinhardt, is something that Smith and the Minimalists collectively rejected. This was an important issue implicitly advocated by Reinhardt, a way of being that should not be underestimated. It was almost as if the act of painting was the motivation for why painting should exist, even in its most reductive state. This might also reveal a kind of “closet romanticism” lingering from the early years of his career that he chose to conceal gradually as his work matured. This quality may relate to the three sumptuous monochrome blue paintings included in the Pace exhibition.
On the other hand, after Smith had made his statement with the black cube, he quickly moved on to the tetrahedrons and parallelepipeds, thus challenging himself with a rigorous complexity, as seen in Duck (1962) and Amaryllis (1965), and later with ever greater rigor in works such as Smoke (1967) and One – Two – Three (1976). Of the latter two, which are included in the exhibition, Smoke is a study for a much larger version that was shown in the atrium of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., and eventually became part of a triology of large-scale public sculptures that included Smog (1969-70), and Smug (1973)—three of the most profound and alluring works of public sculpture made in the history of twentieth century art.
There is little doubt that the premise of this exhibition carries an instinctive accuracy in relation to the works themselves, as they are historically founded. A striking feature of the exhibition is its profound silence, a quietude without any trace of underlying anxiety. The resolution and self-assuredness of each work is so immensely clear that it is difficult to deny the visual and conceptual premises that stood behind each artist. This kind of strength of intention represents a positive tendency of art, namely, that the knowledge embedded in great art always moves ahead, and does not lag behind. The ideas are rich and worthy of close examination, through which the visuality of the forms becomes all the more stunning. I left the gallery wanting to hear a thunder of applause somewhere in the distance, somewhere in the recent historical past, before the marketing and speculation of art smothered our ability to “honor insight with silence,” as once proclaimed by the Medieval Scholastic, Nicholas of Cusa.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.