Ad Reinhardt was my personal gadfly, and he had much to goad, since I was an avid devotee of Abstract Expressionism and a member in good standing of “the boys,” Philip Pavia’s term for de Kooning’s coterie, condemned by Ad as “impure.” But then he knew that I was a vocal admirer of his painting. He said to me, soft-spoken and with a smile, “If you like the work of those guys,” meaning the Abstract Expressionists, “please stop liking mine.” Ad was at once serious and witty—a most benign ideologue.
Ad posed a question that I am still mulling over. He said to artists, “You may need art to express your identity, ideas, feelings, dreams, hang-ups, whatever, but does art need you?” What was Ad’s message? Simply put, art should be art-as-art, and, as he added, “everything else is everything else.” In 1962, as art critic of the New York Post, I published an interview with Ad to present his ideas to a general public. He stated bluntly, “Any combining, mixing, adding, adulterating, diluting, exploiting, vulgarizing or popularizing of abstract art deprives art of its essence and truth, and is a corruption of the artist’s artistic conscience.” He added, “The one idea of 50 years of abstract art, the single theme in 100 years of ‘modern’ art, is art concerned with itself, its own identity…Art is one thing only—itself. There are no two ways about it.”
How was pure art arrived at? Through the negation of anything that art-as-art no longer needed, such as color, texture, or suggested motion—anything evocative of life-as-art. Negation was the key. I once asked Chuck Close what artist had most influenced him. He said “Reinhardt.” Surprised, I said, “that steadfast abstractionist?” Close responded that Ad had changed his painting by showing him how to make a choice not to do something into a positive decision. Close allowed that Ad would have disowned him because he was a figurative painter. I said, “but then Ad put down every painter who wasn’t pure.” Close smiled and called him “an equal opportunity hater.” “Not quite,” I said, “You did reject Abstract Expressionism. And for that Ad would have disliked you less than Motherwell [his favorite butt].”
Ad’s black painting was not devoid of expression. It elicited a contemplative mood, an oasis in the sturm and angst of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, he painted a kind of visual silence. It did not surprise me that Ad had a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Merton (a fellow student at Columbia University), and visited his Trappist monastery, at which talking was forbidden.
I unearthed the typescript of an interview I did with Ad on October 15, 1958. He said, “I disliked everything the Surrealists stood for, including the artists featured in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. I did show in groups there, but I wasn’t involved with her artists. She invited people like stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. I hung next to her once. My thinking tended towards that of the American Abstract Artists who were deadly enemies of the Surrealists. The organization had a fantastically important membership at one time—Mondrian, Leger, Albers, Feininger.” Ad also spoke of his regard for other abstract painters, such as Carl Holty, Balcomb Greene, and Burgoyne Diller.
If Ad disliked contemporary art on the whole, he was enamored of the great masters of the past. In my interview of 1958, he said, “I don’t believe in originality. I believe in art history.” He took courses at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts for a decade. According to Philip Pearlstein, who sat beside him in a few classes, they included Greek Architecture and Egyptian Architecture (both taught by Karl Lehmann) and Chinese painting.
Ad made thousands of superb slides of works that he photographed on trips to museums, churches, and art monuments throughout the world. He would show them at The Club, the meeting place of the New York School, on April Fool’s Day. The Club’s postcard invitation for 1963 was titled “Annual April First Communion.” It announced that Ad would show 1,000 color slides and talk about “THE KOOTZANDJANIS KIDS” (referring to the art dealers Sam Kootz and Sidney Janis) in a pun on the comic strip of the Katzandjammer Kids), as well as “MOMAISM” and “POP-ABSTRACTION.” Ad showed each slide for five seconds without comment. Grumbles, then shouts, “Slow it down. Who’s the artist?” But Ad would not relent, and occasionally said, “Look at the art, just look at the art!”
Ad liked to retell one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s jokes. A Sunday school teacher asked her class, “Who would like to go the heaven?” All hands were raised but Johnny’s. “Don’t you want to go to heaven, Johnny?” “Yes, teacher but not with them guys.” I said to Ad that “while skewering the Abstract Expressionists, you were often in their company. Why?” He answered, “Who was I supposed to hang out with, Ben Shahn?” He also said with a smile, “They need me to keep reminding them about art-as-art. Besides, they are the lesser of evils; at least their art is alive.” He also said that artists, no matter who, had to meet to talk for themselves. If they didn’t, the art bureaucrats would do it for them.
If Ad stood opposed to life-as-art, he was very much in favor of life-as-life. He was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, but rejected any and all political art except in his own incisive cartoons, which dealt ironically with art world and socio-political issues. In an exchange between Ad and Leon Golub, the latter claimed that art could be “effective as a demonstration of political rage.” As an example, he pointed to Picasso’s Guernica. “It was made to dramatize Picasso’s angry denunciation of fascism.” Reinhardt countered that the mural had no other function than to be art. It never was anything else. Golub retorted that Picasso’s symbols were political. Reinhardt responded, “They’re like cartoons…Those funny eyes [have] nothing to do with suffering.” Golub maintained that art is “an attempt to get at life as a symbolic thing.” Ad countered, “An artist comes from some other artist or some art experience first.”
Ad once asked me if I had seen a painting that struck me as a masterpiece whose subject matter was insignificant or uninteresting. I immediately said, “Yes, Manet’s stalk of asparagus.” I think I passed Ad’s test.
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.