Works from 1935–1945


At one point in this long overdue exhibition of early works by Ad Reinhardt, I was stopped dead in my tracks, arrested by an insignificantly sized gouache of 1939. What stunned me about this 5 1/8 × 12-inch painting was its uncanny relationship to the twin problems of color and form that would occupy Reinhardt most intensely throughout the 1950s until the untimely end of his life in 1967. “Untitled” is a relatively unexceptional example of the way American artists of the interwar period dealt with the legacy of Picasso’s synthetic Cubism. What makes it so compelling is its palette, which is intense and unconventional. The pleasure and surprise is not simply due to the palette. It is the way that this arrangement of blue-violet, ultramarine, and cerulean blues cavort in a harlequin field, punctuated by suggestively biomorphic forms accented in ochre and pink. The hues are various and wild in relation to most of Reinhardt’s previous paintings; they are more related to his very last serigraphs of 1966 because of the way in which values are calibrated. The raucous contrasts of other works of the end of the 1930s are all at once stilled. The widely reproduced painting owned by the Whitney —“Number 30” (1938)— has typically been the “gate-keeper” to Reinhardt’s reputation as an abstract painter to be reckoned with. This work seems to hold the key to the next 15 or so years of his practice. Of course, we know that Reinhardt’s development as an abstract painter did not unfold in a systematic way at all. For every seminal work of the 1930s and 1940s that is pressed into service as a harbinger of greater and darker things to come, one may find in Reinhardt’s bustling body of work of the mid-1930s to the early-1950s a jarring counter-example. But “Untitled” (1939) is something else; a marker of the limit of close-valued color beyond which Reinhardt could not go because he had not yet discovered the grid. Much has been made of Reinhardt’s singular grid painting of 1940, bolstering the artist’s reputation as a true visionary of American abstraction. But even that work did not necessarily synthesize form and color in a way that would be persuasive enough to establish it as the beginning of a long series. Reinhardt the abstract painter, especially during the years 1935–1950, was a restless soul. He drew on many sources and played with them relentlessly. This sense of distraction is all the more poignant in the face of a work like “Untitled” (1939). It demonstrates the power of later works to revise the depth and significance of earlier works which, were it not for the happy ending of Reinhardt’s tightly focused long history of dark paintings, would appear as mere sports; aberrations in an otherwise smoothly rising curve of mastery.

It has been a hallmark of Reinhardt scholarship to excise the pre-1950s works and direct our attention to the so-called “black paintings.” Emerging in force by the mid- to late-1950s, they dominate our mental inventory of Reinhardt’s achievement as an artist. There is more than a little justification for this view; the late dark paintings of 1960–67 are real game-changers for painting and were perceived as such, mainly by artists who had no knowledge of the tortuous route that Reinhardt had navigated from the mid-1930s onwards.

There are other spectacular surprises to be found in this exhibition; among my favorites are the previously unseen collages of 1942 and the completely suppressed ink sketches Reinhardt made towards the end of his service in the Navy during World War II. The collages are important for the way they taught Reinhardt how to orchestrate a visual tension between pictorial and abstract elements. Fragments of photographs—and in one instance, fragments of modernist works of art—function as disembodied forms. Whatever local color is retained is so compromised by the fact of being an image-fragment that it seems to exist in another world, far removed from the job of signification. These teasing glimpses of things in the world are not so much reduced as disoriented. The alienation of form and content—old-fashioned terms, but ones that would have figured importantly in Reinhardt’s aesthetic lexicon of the 1930s and 1940s—yields what we glibly call the “all-over.” But the all-over, as Reinhardt conceived of it, was not so simple and not necessarily an end in itself. “Untitled” (1942), an absolutely tiny work hardly larger than a postcard, shows us Reinhardt showing himself a way out of the dead-end of the push and pull of figure-ground. Some of these collages were pressed into service as studies for paintings; at least one on view has been rendered in black and white. This is telling, because it suggests that Reinhardt was fairly systematic in his search for a formal exit from abstract illusionism. The evidence of this is found, I believe, in the parallel approaches that mark his work done during the decade of 1935–45. During this period, it is difficult to identify a single work in which these two paths converge.

The anecdotal naval sketches are bold and inviting. If you are familiar with the rest of Reinhardt’s graphic work—his cartoons for New Masses, his illustrations for various political groups, and his hand-rendered sections of the more widely reproduced series of “art comics” for PM (1946–47)—the naval sketches will come as no surprise. Yet the presence of these seemingly inconsequential pictures which are but a token of a larger, unseen class of illustration provides a further body of evidence regarding the breadth of Reinhardt’s search for a resolution to the problem of how to make an abstract painting that is about nothing but painting.

This exhibition illuminates much about the artist that Reinhardt wished to become. The nagging question is: Why has it taken so long for this work to be made public? It has been argued forcefully that Reinhardt’s art was always “art as art.” His late works, we are told, exemplify this credo. After all, the late, dark paintings offer no image, no explicit reference to concepts exterior to the form and must be looked at for an extended period of time in order to be fully seen. Yet it is this insistent charge of “stop! look!” that belies the work’s political meaning. Produced during the height of American post-war economic expansion, the late paintings are a disaffirmation of the culture of consumption. A culture, which Reinhardt reminded us repeatedly in his writings and in his public talks, had penetrated the highest reaches of art. If the early work on view at Pace can be said to have a causal relation to Reinhardt’s later work, then such a claim must be tempered by the knowledge that during the period 1935–1945 Reinhardt’s painting was made in a different world than that of the 1950s and 1960s. Both worlds demanded of art to be something other than pure and disinterested; Reinhardt’s gift is to show this using the highly refined means of abstract painting. It is a demonstration of sorts that has thus far eluded most artists and historians. 


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.