Ad Reinhardt is known as an artist of extremes. While committed to abstract painting that became infamous for its austerity, he also had an expansive curiosity about art and the world. He was a vocal critic of the art market and his peers, as well as a proselytizer of art and architecture from disparate regions and periods, which he obsessively photographed for slide lectures. In his paintings, his inclination towards absolutes and comprehensiveness took on a very different temperature than in his writings and satirical cartoons. A 2013 exhibition at David Zwirner brought these branches of Reinhardt’s work together, showing a concise group of the late black paintings, a looped projection of hundreds of the lecture photographs, and an extensive display of graphic work and comics. The thirteen black paintings were all squares of the same size, making their impact especially austere. But the effusive mania of the photographs and cartoons in the adjacent rooms carried through to the paintings, making it difficult to read them as neutral statements rather than positive ones.
On ViewDavid Zwirner
September 12 – October 21, 2017
In the gallery’s current show, organized by the Ad Reinhardt Foundation, the paintings stand on their own. Twenty-eight works filling two galleries make up the largest-ever gathering of the blue paintings, and the first show devoted solely to them since Reinhardt’s 1965 show at the Stable Gallery in New York. Shown together, rather than as isolated examples, the work reveals a range of exploration that could easily be underestimated. Our idea of Reinhardt’s work, whether from reproductions or sporadic viewings, might tend to flatten it, and the in-person effect far exceeds that mental image. Having already been a fan of Reinhardt, I was immediately surprised by these paintings’ richness, both individually and as a group. The color feels like a revelation. The blue paintings predate the black paintings, and Reinhardt had not yet taken his negations (eliminating blue, for example) to their furthest extreme. This work varies widely in scale and format, making each one feel particular as an object, and color moves at varying speeds. Some of the earliest paintings have a quicker impact, perhaps sustaining less prolonged looking. More often, though, the color reveals itself slowly, with flashes of green, purple, black, and slate gray coming in and out of visibility. In the paintings nearest to monochrome, the truest “blue paintings,” the surfaces open with time, seeming to breathe as they move between presence and evasion. The darkest, near-black paintings have an uncanny glow.
Abstract Painting, Blue (1952), Oil on canvas, 18 x 14 inches (45.7 x 35.5 cm) Private Collection © 2017 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
While Reinhardt is closely associated with the square, this group of work demonstrates his engagement with a range of vertical formats. Some of the strongest paintings are also the most extreme rectangles—in Blue Painting (1953) and Abstract Painting, Blue (1953) the specificity of color, format, and scale converge with a mesmerizing solidity. Only two paintings in the show are horizontal, and they are the exceptions that prove the rule—the large-scale Number 88, 1950 (Blue) (1950) has beautifully vibrating color, but feels less individual to Reinhardt, maybe because it evokes landscape in a way that the square and vertical formats avoid.
The show provides a clear narrative of other avenues closing as well. The first room includes paintings made before and up to 1952, while the second includes work from 1952 or later. This was a breakthrough year for Reinhardt. The earlier paintings feel more compositional, with marks or shapes floating in a staggered formation across the canvas, bringing to mind Hans Hofmann’s ideas of push-pull and plasticity. But those associations are radically jettisoned from the work starting in 1952, when the bands of color become more hard-edged and begin to span the full height and width of the surface. The first room contains only one example of this type, and the second is entirely given over to it. Color no longer reads as a compositional entity, but becomes synonymous with the sensations of vertical and horizontal. The slow registering of color merges with an awareness of that horizontal-vertical binary, which feels both inevitable and elusive, almost dissolved.
Reinhardt had a modernist’s affinity for polarities, and a gift for playing two sides against each other, making a viewer or reader hold them both in mind at once. This is a crucial component of his work not only visually, but in tone, keeping the paintings from falling into a stuffy solemnity. He’s a clear example of what painter Angela Dufresne argues for in “Irony, Sincerity…Is There a Third Pill?” Those labels are more particular to our time, but if he’d been writing now, I imagine Reinhardt would have included them on his list of “timeless art-word” polarities, where, under the headings good/bad, right/wrong, true/false, appear pairs like Art/Anti-art, Classic/Romantic, Inert/Frenetic, Cool/Hot, Discipline/Spontaneity. He implicitly sides with the left column, but isn’t there some frenetic romanticism to all his categorizing and information gathering? This kind of “but” arises quickly with Reinhardt. His comically exhaustive 1952 statement, “Abstract Art Refuses,” pokes fun at the artistic enterprise (“no divine inspiration or daily perspiration”) and makes seemingly impossible renouncements (“no structure, no paint qualities, no relationships, no experiments, no rules.”) It’s tempting to take his inconsistencies—don’t his paintings have structure, relationships?—as signs that his absolutism was either overly self-serious or simply tongue-in-cheek. But the truth is in between, and his humor, along with his acknowledgments of impurities (“This painting is unsalable and it is not for sale except to someone who wants to buy it”) breathe air into seriously held beliefs. With his consistent political engagement as a contrasting background, his work makes a clear claim for artistic values as operating within a different kind of morality, in an anti-culture culture where absolutes are compelling and fallible at the same time.
In Zwirner’s 2013 exhibition, and in my own perception of Reinhardt, his paintings and his work in other media seemed to playfully argue with each other. But in the current show we see the paintings alone projecting the same temperamental chiaroscuro that Reinhardt’s work and writings have as a whole. An underlying luxuriousness isn’t tamed by negation and constraint but somehow affirmed by them. And the sense of possibilities in this earlier work gives his later willingness to close doors with the black paintings even more weight. This formative moment invites argument about those last, what he called "ultimate," paintings. In all of his work, Reinhardt repeatedly elicits a decision about whether or not one agrees with him, and about the status of a statement itself as negative or double negative, which he distinguishes from positive—“Limits in art are not limits. No limits in art are limits.”
ELEANOR RAY is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.