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How to Ride a Spiral

If Ad Reinhardt had not made the black paintings would we be here today?
If Ad Reinhardt had not created his art cartoons and satires, and produced a body of writing that is as relevant as ever some 50, 60, 70 years later, would I be here today?

Isn’t the question mark itself forever implicit in the spiral?

Reinhardt was ultimately a moralist who was both of and ahead of his time.

We can apply his observations and criticism of art, the role of the artist, art schools, museums, ethics, politics, class conflict, aesthetic responsibility, corruption, artist’s crimes, and “religious strength through market-place joy!” to this non-world of our own.

If he reappeared before us now, would he find a landscape that was horribly familiar? Would he register the least surprise?

What goes around… comes around.

In the art satire “How To Look At A Spiral” (1946), Reinhardt writes:

The spiral is ‘a rolling of a curve on itself infinitely’ and ‘a coning of the cube.’ Its inward drive sucks and retreats and closes (escapism) and its outward unfolding spews and opens and discovers (hope). A microcosmic sign, a symbol for History and Evolution, a psycho-physical structure.

Thinking elastically and diametrically as always, and in this sense influential for artist/writers in the ‘60s, most prominently Robert Smithson, Reinhardt pictures the spiral at different speeds—as a snail and a merry-go-round; in terms of freedom and capture—a somersault and a lasso; with attendant dangers and rewards—a coiled snake and endless ecstasy.

In search of this transcendent state, artists in our time have become increasingly adept at taking what they want and making it suit their own purpose and needs. Reinhardt himself and the products of his mind are thus endangered.

He can be used to defend their positions, however unmoored.

(In the depths of ever shallow waters.) He can illuminate their willful obscurantism. (The smokescreen clears to reveal… another layer of smoke.) At a time when mal-appropriation is in every way routine, Reinhardt can be whatever they want him to be.

When the very notion of influence is no longer part of the equation, and is rendered meaningless, what more is left to say?

As Reinhardt once wrote, “Let no man undervalue the implications of this work, or its power for cash, or for bad credit, if it is misused.”

More than any artist of his time, and certainly of our own flatlands, Reinhardt represents a totality of thought and expression that remains unparalleled.

While it would be easy to say that today artists are more concerned with career than with conscience, than with consciousness, it should be said just the same. For those who have been brainwashed, rinse and repeat as necessary.

To give someone the benefit of doubt, there must be doubt first of all.

Maybe, as Reinhardt would have it:

Careers in art are not careers.

This may serve one day as a sad awakening for some of the lazier shooting stars, and even if “Not working in art is working.”Because even though “The corruption of art is corruption,” “Business in art is business.”

Considering the benefits of doubt…

What does a younger generation make of Reinhardt’s painting—if they have no more than a surface engagement with what used to be called a painting practice?

What do they make of his writing—if they don’t know what it means to sign their names to and stand by what they have written, to formulate and occupy a position? To bite the hand that may or may not feed them?

What do they make of his cartoons—a generation that can’t even see itself as a Yhung Mandala?

How would Reinhardt react to the professionalization of art today?

(and on the parts of so many well-organized amateurs.)

To the sad fact that money makes the art go ‘round?

(in a market that has spiraled out of control.)

To those promiscuously favored by the term conceptual?

(whose one and only real idea was to become an artist.)

To the unbridled praise of mediocrity?


How do you satire a cartoonish world?

One that isn’t a world at all?

Even if “the cosmology of art is not cosmology,”

polemicism is its own reward.

In Reinhardt’s most iconic illustration, a man points to an abstract painting and mockingly laughs, “Ha Ha What does this represent?” Then a face appears on the canvas, and an accusatory arm lunges out to knock the man off his feet as the painting demands, “What do you represent?”

The year was 1946. One war had ended, and another had begun. Nearly 70 years later, would Reinhardt be pleased to see just how accepted abstraction and the monochrome have become? Or would he remind us that comprehension and acceptance are not one in the same? Would he see any victory in the spoils of war that amount to appeasement at best?

Let’s not forget that the designation itself, “artist,” comes with a certain status, and that art, once a vocation, and now used as a means to an end, affords a lifestyle. The lifestyle artist, sharing none of Reinhardt’s ambivalence, is only too eager to belong to the club that would have him as a member. And not only. Once happily on the inside, he feigns indifference.

As safe as everyone plays it today, you can’t help but wonder how an art that was at one time so resistant became so irresistible. Does it have anything to do with how painting, especially the most hackneyed, has become a form of currency? With how art serves as a tasteful backdrop, and the more neutral the better, since so many collectors prefer to pose in front of rather than regard the painting? This is an about-face that affords us with a wholly new figure-ground relationship, where the owner’s back is to the painting, while the painting’s back is to the wall.

All art, it’s been said, must hang.

But will the pseudo-history of the monochrome be reduced to:

the artist who made the black paintings,

the artist who made the white paintings,

the artist who made the blue paintings,

the artists who made the silver and gold,

and the artist who wasn’t there at all?

“The invisibility of art is visible,”

and black isn’t as black as all that.


Bob Nickas

Bob Nickas has worked as a critic and curator in New York since 1984.


The Brooklyn Rail


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