Ad Reinhardt, Sixties Painterby Matthew L. Levy
One of the most well-worn themes in the Reinhardt literature is the artist’s unique, if problematic, pertinence to the art of the sixties. Writing late in that decade, Lucy Lippard commented on his peculiar asynchronicity, describing him as a “‘thirties painter’ in the forties and a ‘sixties painter’ in the fifties.” More facile interpretations of the latter half of this characterization have positioned Reinhardt as a proto-Minimalist, citing his pioneering use of many of the movement’s shibboleths: modularity, seriality, monochromy, impersonal facture, etc. Reinhardt’s more sensitive commentators, such as Yve-Alain Bois, Michael Corris, and Lippard herself, have more subtly parsed the uses and abuses of Reinhardt’s black paintings, noting the selective borrowings and misprisions that proved generative to a number of sixties artists. The cast of characters in these discussions of Reinhardt’s legacy has been largely consistent—with Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Joseph Kosuth being the most frequently mentioned—and neatly tracks the prevailing historical narrative of the sixties, progressing from (or out of) painting to object- and conceptually-based practices.
However, few have taken Lippard’s statement literally, which is to say viewing Reinhardt as a “sixties painter” rather than as a “sixties artist.” Indeed discussions of Reinhardt’s bequest to sixties painting overwhelmingly focus on a single painter—i.e. Stella (the historiographic problem of taking Stella to be representative of the entirety of sixties painting is the subject of another essay). Of course Reinhardt’s significance to Stella is indisputable. The older painter’s black paintings (of which Stella owned one) were instrumental to the first stripe paintings’ monochromy and refusal of the gestural mark. And yet if Reinhardt offered Stella certain key permissions, one would be hard pressed to identify the latter as a member of the former’s “New Academy.” The stripe paintings’ rote process and tautological, “what you see is what you see” empiricism have little truck with the perceptual vagaries of the “ultimate” paintings (has any painter made one question if what one sees is, in fact, what one sees more than Reinhardt?). Perhaps Reinhardt’s valences within sixties painting culture might be better understood by broadening what that culture connotes.
Lippard would likely agree. In her sixties criticism, she described Robert Mangold—not Stella—in terms closest to those she used for Reinhardt. Her exhibition announcement for Mangold’s 1965 “Walls and Areas” exhibition at Fischbach Gallery explicitly related the artist’s “‘purism’ and ‘poetry’” to Reinhardt’s paintings, and in her 1967 essay, “The Silent Art,” her description of the aesthetic encounter with a Mangold could easily be mistaken for a black painting:
The experience…usually progresses through boredom. The spectator may find the work dull, then impossibly dull; then, surprisingly, he breaks out on the other side of boredom into an area that can be called contemplation or simply esthetic enjoyment, and the work becomes increasingly interesting.
Like the black paintings, Mangold’s early Areas were an art of chromatic nuance. Painted with broad expanses of flatly sprayed, banal commercial colors (e.g. manila envelope tan, file cabinet grey), they featured nearly imperceptible, atomized tonal gradations along their bottom edge—an unexpected intrusion of the transcendent into the profane, not dissimilar to that revelatory moment when a Reinhardt black painting begins to yield to an attuned and patient eye.
In terms of painterly technique, Reinhardt arguably shared the most with Jo Baer, whose work hung adjacent to a black painting in Dwan Gallery’s 10 exhibition of 1966. Neither artist abandoned oil paint for faster drying acrylic, and they both refused to tape their edges, preferring to retain the irregularities of the hand in pictorial idioms otherwise predicated on calculated precision. Moreover, both worked with their canvases laid horizontally on a table or pair of sawhorses, painstakingly working towards an exquisitely refined perceptual effect based on value contrast (Baer) or its suppression (Reinhardt). Their kinship is perhaps best captured by their own wry comments on their process, which Reinhardt described as “boring, drudging,” and Baer as “idiot work.”
Speaking with Bruce Glaser in 1966 about younger contemporary painters, Reinhardt identified an affinity with their use of scale, stating, “They may be making large paintings, too large for museums. My making a painting that can’t be seen may be like making a work too large to move in and out of places.” Reinhardt viewed paintings that resisted relocation as analogous to his own infinitesimally differentiated surfaces, in that both aspired to thwart the easy consumption of mass culture. A similar impetus motivated David Novros to work in fresco, creating a physical unity between painting and site that negated the work of art’s exchange value. Reinhardt died two years before Novros completed his first fresco in Donald Judd’s Spring Street studio and residence (where it fills a wall just feet from one of his red paintings), so one can only speculate as to what he would have thought of this radical response to art’s commodification—an issue that troubled his own artistic production through the fifties and sixties.
There are undoubtedly other through lines that could be traced from Reinhardt’s work through the firmament of sixties painting (Robert Irwin and Brice Marden spring most immediately to mind). I do not propose these connections to be proof of the artist’s “influence.” Instead, placing Reinhardt in this context helps us see the plenitude of sixties painting more clearly and allows us at last to view him as an artist who concluded his career working in a painting culture he might have recognized as his own.
ContributorMatthew L. Levy
MATTHEW L. LEVY is an assistant professor of art history at Penn State, Erie. He recently completed his doctoral dissertation, entitled "Abstract Painting and the Minimalist Critiques: Robert Mangold, David Novros, Jo Baer." His forthcoming essay "David Novros's Painted Places" will be published in the catalogue for Novros's current exhibition organized by the Museum Wiesbaden and Museum Kurhaus Kleve.