1991: Dwan and Reinhardt
Even in the early 1960s, when Abstract Expressionism still dominated the concerns of the contemporary art world, Reinhardt was not without partisans. Virginia Dwan, who offered him support at that time, remembers that he had a largely “underground” reputation.1 Dwan recalls first seeing Reinhardt’s nine-foot black paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York and, later, visiting the artist in his studio. Challenged and intrigued by the work, she mounted an exhibition of Reinhardt’s paintings at her Los Angeles gallery in February 1962. The dealer’s commitment to him was such that, when her gallery moved to a new Los Angeles location in 1963, she designed the space to accommodate his nine-foot verticals (she did not yet realized that his new works were limited to the five-foot-square format), and installed a narrow platform of white marble along the baseboard to keep visitors at a distance from the extremely fragile paintings, whose inscrutability seemed especially capable of provoking the public.
Through her interest in Reinhardt, Dwan developed an appreciation of Minimalism, a movement with which she would become identified. In 1966, a year after she opened her New York gallery, she invited Reinhardt to assist her in curating an exhibition of the new art. Reinhardt asked Robert Morris and Dwan asked Robert Smithson to help with the effort. The mix of strong and contentious personalities resulted in an exhibition that was simply titled 10 and a catalogue without text.2
Sol LeWitt confirms Dwan’s sense of Reinhardt’s importance in certain circles, recalling a keen interest in Reinhardt’s art among LeWitt’s friends and associates of the early 1960s. (LeWitt’s circle at the time included Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, Dan Flavin, Michael Kirby, Robert Ryman, and Lucy Lippard.)3
Excerpted from “Ad Reinhardt and the Younger Artists of the 1960s, American Art in the 1960s, Edited by John Elderfield (1991)
2013: Reinhardt’s Legacy
There is no major U.S. artist of the post-war era with a more complex legacy than Ad Reinhardt’s. In the 1950s he was seen by some as old-fashioned,5 but in the 1960s, others considered him highly advanced.6 He was the only one of the famed New York School painters to trace his lineage to Piet Mondrian, whom many vanguard U.S. artists of the time deemed passé.7 Yet, in the 1960s, because of his formal rigor, systematic approach to art making, and emphasis on the experience of the physical art work over its extra-art associations, Reinhardt was seen by some as a precursor of Minimalism. His influence on Conceptual art, which followed Minimalism, is clearer, despite his preoccupation with visual experience embodied in his red, blue, and black paintings, which require extended viewing to be fully seen and understood. The Conceptualists, in contrast, privileged the idea behind the work over the object itself.
For Sol LeWitt, a father of Conceptualism, Reinhardt was “the important figure of the time” because he was making “the most radical art.”8 There are significant parallels between LeWitt’s work and Reinhardt’s, among them the use of geometric form, systems for art making, and the practice of writing about art. Reinhardt’s dictum, “Everything, where to begin and where to end, should be worked out in the mind beforehand,” anticipates LeWitt’s, “Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly.”9 LeWitt believed that, either consciously or not, he got the idea of making his first graphite wall drawings difficult to see from Reinhardt’s black paintings.10 Reinhardt’s impact on Conceptualism came largely through his writing. He wrote prodigiously. In addition to cartoons parodying the art world, he penned essays and shorter statements about art in general and his own work in particular, and authored many, many postcards. William Rubin, who co-organized Reinhardt’s 1991 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, believed that the artist, opinionated to the point of contentiousness, wrote because the volubility of his personality required a release unavailable in his quiet and meditative paintings. Also, as a model artist-intellectual, Reinhardt understood the importance of discourse; where it was lacking, he provided it himself, and his writing helped shape the understanding of his art. As Conceptualist Joseph Kosuth explained, “In the late ’60s, the Greenberg regime might have succeeded in depicting Reinhardt as a minor color painter, but Reinhardt’s own framing, which was as much a part of his activity as an artist as the painting of his paintings, stood in the way.”11
Twenty years ago, Kosuth’s statement engendered an argument with a group of art historians who felt the elevation of Reinhardt’s writing was a distortion of the meaning and intent of his work.12 Clearly, Reinhardt’s central concern was painting, a form in which he deeply believed. He questioned the “End of painting as art? / Working in form near the end of its time / Shot its bolt from the blue.” Painting—his painting—becomes the “Logical last step in rigid process, straight, narrow.” Yet, he finishes with, “Last word must always be secretly the first.” Still, Kosuth’s claim that artists take what they need from previous generations is indisputable and Reinhardt’s impact on younger artists has, in great measure, come from his writing.
And now there is interest in his teaching. Reinhardt made his living as an art history professor, and recently the French artist Pierre Leguillon has presented Reinhardt’s famously all-but-silent slide lectures as his own performance art. In Leguillon’s rendition, Reinhardt’s lecture starts with pyramids, moving to the peaked rooftops of buildings from many cultures, to the pointed tops of medieval altarpieces; the pyramidal form mutates to an X shape repeated in various contexts, ending on windows of a building slated for demolition; the lecture moves on to windows of all kinds. Leguillon sees each of Reinhardt’s artistic activities as occupying strictly separate arenas: Painting was for the museum wall; cartoons for reproduction only; writing for private correspondence or publication; and slides for screening in great number, with a slide projector, allowing an appropriate amount of darkness between images. The interpretation of his teaching as art may not be what Reinhardt wanted but, almost half a century after his death, it testifies to an enduring contribution.
1. Virginia Dwan, taped interview with the author, November 9, 1990. The characterization of Reinhardt as an “underground” figure, accurate as it may be, is more than a little ironic, considering his many years as a highly vocal and visible member of the art community.
2. The exhibition was held October 4 – 29, 1966, and included Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, Reinhardt, Robert Smithson, and Michael Steiner. A meeting of the artists sparked heated debate; it was impossible for them to agree on a catalogue text. Dwan had wanted an essay that would illuminate their commonalities. Smithson had proposed a text “full of galactic, frozen imagery, but it was met with an icy silence. And so the catalogue remained mute, with no more description than [the brief title].” (Dwan, interview with the author). Reinhardt, who had admired Martin’s work for some time, had recommended her to Dwan. It was during the organization of this exhibition that he had his only personal contact with Andre and LeWitt.
3. Sol Lewitt interview with author, November 9, 1990.
5 Irving Sandler claimed that, in the 1950s, Reinhardt’s “geometric abstractions were widely put down as a throwback to the thirties.” Sandler, “Reinhardt: The Purist Backlash,” Artforum 5 (December 1966): 46.
6. In the introduction to his catalogue for Information, often considered the first exhibition of Conceptual Art at a major museum, curator Kynaston McShine places Reinhardt among those who marked the intellectual climate that produced Conceptualism, along with Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, the I-Ching, the Beatles, Claude Levi-Strauss, John Cage, Yves Klein, Herbert Marcuse, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology ed. Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson (Cambridge, Mass and London: MIT Press, 1999) 213.
7. European “geometric abstraction” was especially unpopular in certain circles. Donald Judd’s 1964 comment “I’m totally uninterested in European art and I think it’s over with” typified the attitude of many in the New York art world at the time. Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 154.
8. Sol LeWitt, interview with the author, November 9, 1990. The interview was done for Zelevansky, “Ad Reinhardt and the Younger Artists of the Sixties,” in Studies in Modern Art: American Art of the 1960s, ed. John Elderfield (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991).
9. LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Art-Language 1 (May 1969) 12.
10 LeWitt, interview with the author, December 17, 1990.
11 Kosuth, “On Ad Reinhardt,” in A Reinhardt, J Kosuth, F Gonzalez-Torres: Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility, Art & Design Magazine, Art & Design Profile no. 34 (1994): 45.
12 A Reinhardt, J Kosuth, F Gonzalez-Torres, 45. Kosuth is critical in this article of Yve Alain Bois’s essay in MoMA’s Ad Reinhardt catalogue. In a footnote, he argues with Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss, as well.
Lynn Zelevansky is the Henry Heinz II Director of the Carnegie Museum of Art.