Ad Reinhardt and the Via Negativaby John Yau
Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) and Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1967), who became lifelong friends, met in 1935 at Columbia University while working for the Jester, the school’s humor magazine. In his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain Merton writes: “Ad Reinhardt was certainly the best artist that had ever drawn for Jester, perhaps for any college magazine.”
In 1939, shortly after Merton received his M.A. in English literature from Columbia he converted from the Anglican Church to Catholicism. On December 13, 1941, six days after Pearl Harbor, Merton was accepted into the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky, as a postulant. This was his first step toward becoming a Trappist monk. In keeping with the order’s ascetic life, he surrendered all his worldly possessions and took a vow of silence. Three months later, in March 1942, Merton was accepted as a novice monk at the monastery. Despite Merton’s isolation from the material world, he and Lax and Reinhardt stayed in touch through letters and occasional meetings. This may not seem all that remarkable, except that between between 1941 and 1948—the year that The Seven Storey Mountain was published to great public and critical acclaim—Merton was allowed to write only four letters a year. The Seven Storey Mountain made Merton a public figure who received piles of fan mail, which the Abbot encouraged him to answer.
Merton’s renunciation of the material world was the first of many denials that both he and his friend, Reinhardt and Lax, would make. It also seems likely that his decision to become a monk in an ascetic order tracing its origins to the 1,000-year-old Cistercian order, set a standard for the level of renunciation the other two men would later make in their lives; it had to be complete and all-encompassing.
Robert Lax, who was born Jewish, became a Catholic five years after Merton. This marked the beginning of his transition toward living an ascetic life. After graduating from Columbia in 1938 with a B.A. in English literature, Lax worked for various mainstream magazines, including The New Yorker and Time, and spent time in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. An expert juggler, he also worked for the Christiani Brothers circus. In 1952, he became the roving editor of Jubilee, a Catholic lay magazine founded by Edward Rice, a college friend who also had been on the staff of the Jester. For the last 35 years of his life Lax lived on the small Greek island of Patmos, where he was essentially a hermit.
Merton and Reinhardt also contributed to Jubilee. Reinhardt contributed a cartoon, which appeared on page 48 of the 1961 issue after he began working on his black paintings. A year earlier, Reinhardt had put together a “Collection of quotations from artists, with satirical take-offs” for Lax’s poetry broadside Pax, and in 1962 he supplied “three short texts” for the same publication to accompany a photograph that Lax had taken of him.
In their letters, which are full of puns, portmanteaus, and typos, the reader senses their love and respect for each other. In one dated October 29, 1957, in a response to Reinhardt’s offer of a painting, Merton writes a long, single-spaced letter that begins:
Do I want a small painting? You inquire if I want a small painting. You wish to know: do I desire a small painting.
Do I desire a small painting? Well, it is clear at least to me that I desire a small painting since I am in point of fact crazy mad for a small painting. They have to keep me chained to the wall day and night and a gag in my mouth because I roar continuously that I am dying for a lack of a small painting. I have already started on a campaign of actively destroying every large painting that I can lay my hands on because I am totally consecrated in life and death to the cause of small paintings, for this reason that I am consumed by an ardent thirst for a small painting.
Near the end of this letter, Merton sends news of their mutual friend: “The sickness of Lax, as I know for certain, was caused by malevolent pixies.”
In another letter, Merton sends a poem, “d’aprés AD/ REIN/HARDT,” which is written in a single vertical column, most likely influenced by Lax’s vertical poems, one word to a line:
In a letter dated March 3, 1962, to Reinhardt, Merton writes:
You are non-objectivist and you are right. Down with object. Down with damn subject. Down with matter
In 1968, a year after Reinhardt died, Merton reprinted the following statement of Reinhardt’s in the first issue of his little magazine, Monk’s Pond, which ran for four issues:
The one work for a fine artist, the one painting, is the painting of the one-size canvas—the single scheme, one formal device, one color-monochrome, one linear division in each direction, one symmetry, one texture, one free-hand-brushing, one rhythm, one working everything into one dissolution and one indivisibility, each painting into one overall uniformity and non-irregularity. No lines or imaginings, no shapes or composings or representings, no visions or sensations or impulses, no symbols or signs or impastos, no decoratings or colorings or picturings, no pleasures or pains, no accidents or ready-mades, no things, no ideas, no relations, no attributes, no qualities—nothing that is not of the essence. Everything into irreducibility, unreproducibility, imperceptibility. Nothing “usable,” “manipulatable,” “salable,” “dealable,” “collectible,” “graspable.” No art as a commodity or a jobbery. Art is not the spiritual side of business.
Merton saw in Reinhardt’s negations a fellow traveler who approached ultimate reality through Via Negativa. Merton and Reinhardt understood that God (or art) is ineffable, beyond our descriptive capacities. Instead, the only way of describing God or, in Reinhardt’s case, art, is by saying what it is not.
In the many books, articles, and poems he wrote after he became a Trappist monk, Merton explored the apophatic tradition in Christian mysticism. He believed that God is not an object in the universe, but an indescribable presence. And if God is indescribable, then all descriptions, however positive, fail because they impose a limitation. In the presence of the unspeakable, any assertion of one’s goodness is both arrogant and a delusion, a way of dividing the self from God. In Chapter 18 of New Seeds of Contemplation (1961), Merton wrote about Faith:
First of all, faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. It is not a blind sub-conscious urge toward something vaguely supernatural. It is simply not an elemental need in man’s spirit. It is not a feeling that God exists. It is not a conviction that one is saved or “justified” for no special reason except that one happens to feel that way. It is not something entirely interior and subjective, with no reference to any exterior motive. It is not just a “soul-force.” It is not something that bubbles up out of the recesses of your soul and fills you with an indefinable “sense” that everything is all right. It is not something so purely yours that its content is incommunicable. It is not some personal myth that you cannot share with anyone else, and the objective validity of which does not matter either to you or God or anybody else.
It strikes me that Reinhardt is an apophatic painter. This conundrum helps explain his self-effacing remark: “Art is too serious to be taken seriously.” At the same time, like Merton, Reinhardt approaches art by listing what it is not, beginning with his oft-quoted, gnomic statement: “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.”
Reinhardt’s black paintings invite the viewer to slow down and become contemplative, to see a clearly defined object, independent and separate from all other objects and circumstances in which we cannot see whatever we choose or make of it anything we want, whose meaning is not detachable or translatable.”
As Merton writing about Faith states:
But it is also not an opinion. It is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know.
To believe, as many continue to do, that Reinhardt was interested in paintings that are empty of content is to misunderstand his renunciation.
This is how Merton might have described Reinhardt’s paintings. Fittingly, it is to be found in Chapter 35 of New Seeds of Contemplation, which is devoted to Renunciation:
It is in this darkness, when there is nothing left in us that can please or comfort our own minds, when we seem to be useless and worthy of all contempt, when we seem to have failed, when we seem to be destroyed and devoured, it is then that the deep and secret selfishness that is too close for us to identify is stripped away from our souls. It is in this darkness that we find true liberty. It is in this abandonment that we are made strong. This is the night which empties us and makes us pure. Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for spiritual JOY. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and spiritual joy you have not yet begun to live.
JOHN YAU has just completed a book of essays, The Wild Children of William Blake.