Ad Reinhardt / Sol Lewitt
“If less is more, then least is most and nothingness is everything.”
—Arthur C. Danto,
“Ad Reinhardt” Embodied Meanings
As early as 1963, Ad Reinhardt had been flagged as “the intellectual pivot of the new art” that did, in fact, follow.1 Reinhardt’s influence extended beyond the core group of younger artists to whom it was direct and personal, such as Robert Morris and Joseph Kosuth. For instance, Carl Andre credits the visually demanding experience of living at close quarters in a small downtown apartment with a Reinhardt black painting as giving him tools with which to look at all art. Robert Irwin (an artist oddly overlooked in most discussions of Reinhardt) cites Reinhardt as an important guide along his own version of the via negativa of phenomenological reduction, an influence channeled through Reinhardt’s late paintings as well as through his apophatic means of defining in writings and lectures what art is by defining what it is not—“I took his lead,” Irwin says of Reinhardt, not least in Irwin’s own remarkable lectures.2 This ‘pivotal’ inter-generational role of Reinhardt would find acknowledgement in the 10 show at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in late 1966, a group show that included Sol LeWitt, whose work has been at best irregularly associated with Reinhardt’s, despite the decisive influence of the latter on the former. As LeWitt himself told an interviewer:
Ad Reinhardt was an artist of ideas, and he was very influential. His writings were of great interest, as was his art. In fact, his example provided another direction: not Pop art and Fluxus but a more vital and productive way. His art really became the key to my thinking.3
The parallels and proximities between Reinhardt and LeWitt occur on various planes of their lives and work. Born 15 years apart, both saw wartime military service, and during their service both were trained in vocational skills—Reinhardt in photography, LeWitt in graphic design—that they would later utilize for the rest of their lives. Early in their careers both supported themselves preparing layouts for newspapers and magazines, and even once established as artists both would continue to employ their design skills within their larger artistic practice—Reinhardt most notably in his cartoons, and LeWitt in his extensive book layout and design. LeWitt’s modular pronouncements on Conceptual art clearly owe a stylistic debt to Reinhardt’s aphoristic litanies on art-as-art. LeWitt’s earliest wall drawings, executed in hard, sharp graphite, consisted of faint yet complex webs of lines that, like Reinhardt’s black paintings, were visually elusive when viewed directly and all-but-impossible to capture photographically—a parallel which LeWitt himself acknowledged as not coincidental.4 And while lesser-known in each case, both LeWitt and Reinhardt developed notably similar methods of utilizing photography as means to convey key components of their artistic thought.
Although it is often overshadowed by his work in other media, LeWitt used photography throughout his career, from the early box sculptures into which photography was physically incorporated, to the photo books of the ’70s and ’80s, to the later photographic studies of cubes and spheres. In his use of photography, LeWitt relied on a kind of synedoche, framing and cropping details, and then accumulating and sequencing those photographic details as modular units that, when taken together, served to narrate a different subject matter altogether. LeWitt’s photo-book Autobiography of 1980 contains over 1,100 photographic partial-views of LeWitt’s home and studio, yielding an exhaustive, almost taxonomic photographic self-portrait in which its ostensible subject matter (LeWitt himself) never appears—other than in the reader’s understanding. And beyond the thousands of photographs that he himself took and assembled as and within artworks, LeWitt’s overarching approach to art-making, regardless of the form and material in which it is made manifest, is deeply indebted to the photographic and relentlessly serial sensibility that drove Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century studies of locomotion.5
Reinhardt’s photography is known today through the vestiges of the slide-shows he prepared for friends, colleagues and students in the late ’50s and ’60s.6 Like LeWitt’s, Reinhardt’s photographs isolate and often decontextualize details—details of sculptures, of buildings, of paintings, of urban elements; while his use of photography (again, like LeWitt’s) is structured around the sequencing and accumulation of those details in such a way as to lead the viewer to a type of understanding related to but in fact independent of the content of any given slide. Reinhardt presented his slides in rapid-fire barrages (sometimes as many as 2,000 over the course of several hours) that would inevitably overwhelm a viewer’s capacity to identify content. In so doing they lull that same viewer’s eye into a capacity for a kind of recognition beyond identification, a kind of heightened visual sensibility that can only be achieved through time. Although formally so at odds with so much of the rest of his work, the structure of the slide-shows performed an abstracting function that places them squarely within Reinhardt’s larger “How to Look” program.
It should be remembered, however, that Reinhardt did not publish his photographs, nor did he present them in the fixed, mosaic-like grids (lovely as they may be) of the posthumous publications we know today—grids that inevitably recall LeWitt’s signature grid-based photographic layouts, thus raising the important question of how far we may be at risk of tailoring our understanding of Reinhardt so as to fit our own, later interpretive models. Or in LeWitt’s own Sentences on Conceptual Art: “One usually understands the art of the past by applying the conventions of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.” In life, Reinhardt restricted the presentation of his photographs to live events, “non-happenings” as he called them, accompanied by running commentaries that—given the sharpness of his mind and tongue, and given his experience as lecturer and teacher, and given above all his wicked sense of humor—must have been nothing short of delicious.
1. Harold Rosenberg, “Black and Pistachio,” in The Anxious Objects,” quoted in Lynn Zelevansky, “Ad Reinhardt and the Younger Artists of the 1960s,” American Art of the 1960’s, 1991, John Elderfield, editor, Museum of Modern Art.
2. Robert Irwin, telephone conversation with the author, October 2013. Irwin cites in particular a lecture at the Pasadena Museum of Art in the early ’60s in which Reinhardt, in systematically dismembering and discarding various forms of art, likewise systematically offended nearly the entire art-world audience in attendance until, at the lecture’s end, the lecture-hall was nearly empty. See also James Turrell’s account of Reinhardt’s Pasadena lecture in an interview with Alex Bacon.
4. Sol LeWitt, interviewed by Sol Ostrow, Bomb 85, Fall, 2003.
5. Zelevansky, p. 23.
6. For a fuller discussion of LeWitt use of photography see Stolz, George, “Clues from the Known: Sol LeWitt and Photography” in Sol LeWitt Fotografia, exhibition catalogue, curated by George Stolz, Museo ICO, Madrid, 2003.
7. See Peiffer, Prudence, “Ad Reinhardt’s Projected Non-Happenings.” Exhibition brochure, David Zwirner Gallery, New York 2013.
GEORGE STOLZ is an independent critic and curator.