Ad Reinhardts Black Paintings, the Void, and Chinese Paintingby Jack Flam
Ad Reinhardt’s writings are rife with contradictions and paradoxes. So much so, that he has been described as a master of “the aesthetics of negation,”1 and what he set out to accomplish has been related to the via negativa, or “negative theology,” which tries to express knowledge of God by describing what God is not.2 The dialectical quality of Reinhardt’s thought—his desire to keep opposites in an unresolved equilibrium—was the most important dynamic behind his art. It is expressed in a powerful way in his Black paintings, his greatest achievement—which seem to be a kind of negative realization of the concept of the Void in Chinese ink paintings.
Reinhardt looked long and hard at Asian art, and he also had a deep knowledge of its history and theory, which he studied with the influential scholar Alfred Salmony between 1946 and 1952, and which he taught for many years at Brooklyn College. His understanding of Asian art, and particularly of Chinese landscape painting, with its elusive conception of emptiness, found a special resonance in his own work, which he characterized as “a logical development of personal art history and the historic traditions of Eastern and Western pure painting.”
At first, his interest in Chinese and Japanese painting affected his artistic practice in a fairly direct and obvious way, starting in the late 1940s, when he developed a calligraphic style that owed a clear debt to Asian painting (as did the paintings of other American artists of the period, such as Mark Tobey). In addition to Reinhardt’s specialist knowledge about Asian art, during the post-war years he shared with many American artists and writers an enthusiasm for Taoism and for Zen Buddhism, as spread by the translations and writings of Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, D. T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts.
An especially significant experience for Reinhardt was the “Chinese Landscape Painting” exhibition he saw at the Cleveland Museum of Art in November 1954 and which he reviewed for Art News that December. By his own account, it was the largest exhibition ever devoted to the subject in the West, and he wrote about it with great enthusiasm, calling classic Chinese landscape painting “one of the greatest achievements in art and human history.”3 In his review, he also described Chinese paintings in a way that well describes the ambition of his own black paintings. “Classic Chinese paintings,” he wrote, are at once “organized, organic, atmospheric and airless, immanent and transcendent, ideal, unreal, and most real. They are complete, self-contained, absolute, rational, perfect, serene, silent, monumental, and universal . . . Some are formless, lightless, spaceless, timeless, a ‘weighted nothingness’ with no explanations, no meanings, nothing to point out or pin down.”4 It was around this time, during the mid-1950s, that Reinhardt began to devote himself exclusively to the black paintings, which encompassed the contradictions inherent in plenitude, which is a kind of emptiness, and negation, which is a kind of affirmation.5 Underlying the black paintings is the idea of the Void, the field in which action and inaction are one, and which holds in perfect equilibrium these apparent opposites.6
Reinhardt’s notion of emptiness that is fullness, and of darkness that is light, was informed by his readings in both Asian and European mysticism, which left traces in his notebooks that ranged from Lao Tzu’s “The Tao is dim and dark” to Meister Eckhart’s “The divine dark.” Reinhardt was deeply engaged by how it might be possible to give hidden forces a kind of visible form, that was—like the forces themselves—both present and not quite visible: “Awareness of hidden things, look toward what is hidden . . . Intangible, invisible, illimitable.” Chinese painting offered such a way. And it did so not simply in terms of the surface marks that had drawn Reinhardt’s attention during the late 1940s, but in terms of a different kind of thought-structure, as he came to understand after he saw the exhibition in Cleveland. “Void,” he wrote, “diluted by matter, disturbed by light split-up / sucks time, space, identity into absolute of nothingness.”
Two technical features of Chinese painting that especially fascinated Reinhardt were the subtle ways in which the ink was laid down on the silk or paper support, and the way that the representational elements, such as mountains and water, became what he called “standard, abstract pre-fixed forms” that were built into “towering systems that grow boundless and infinite, and seem to ‘correspond’ to the vastness and majesty of nature and the universe.” Both of these elements make themselves felt in the black paintings, in which Reinhardt transformed the particularities of subject matter and brushwork in Chinese painting into something that was very much his own. In a remarkable act of synthesis that was inspired by the way Chinese artists sought to create painting “that must be sought for beyond the shapes,” Reinhardt developed a new format for his own art, which, though it bore little direct physical resemblance to Chinese painting, drew upon its aesthetics and world view. The underlying grids composed of nine squares that give a geometric anchor to the later black paintings are an equivalent of the repetition of the “abstract pre-fixed forms” that so struck him in Chinese paintings, and performed the paradoxical but necessary task of giving structure to the incipient Void. (“The infinite is a square without angles,” Reinhardt wrote, citing an “Old Chinese” source for the idea.) For unlike Chinese paintings, which are executed in semi-transparent inks on a support of silk or paper, and which reveal large areas of that support, Reinhardt worked with oil on canvas and entirely covered his support with a nearly-opaque film of paint. This made it necessary for him to articulate some kind of underlying perceived structure in the void. It seems hardly coincidental that the formal structure he chose was built of nine symmetrical square units which obliquely evoke both the Christian cross and the form of the mandala, which was used in Asian art as an aid to precisely the kind of extended meditation that he hoped his own paintings would induce in their viewers. In fact, although Reinhardt liked to deny that his paintings were mystical or symbolic or religious, he was intensely engaged with all of these domains and was obsessed by the idea of communion with the sacred. And even though he professed no interest in religion, and denied that the cruciform compositional format of the Black paintings had anything to do with a Christian cross, he nonetheless made a small “black cross” painting for his friend, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton to use as a devotional picture.7
The “imagery” of the black paintings also involved a transposition of Chinese practice into Western terms. Chinese paintings, which Reinhardt described as ranging “from rich complexes of brushstrokes to formless washes and dissolved spaces,” often contained vast areas of empty space, articulated only by subtle touches of ink, and can be seen as nuanced, organic effulgences of light. Reinhardt’s black paintings, which at first seem to offer the viewer unmitigated fields of darkness, do something like the direct opposite of Chinese paintings—as if he had to negate the physical appearance of Chinese art in order to articulate his understanding of the kinds of thought that it contained (and to escape the banality of the more obviously Chinese-inspired marking system he had used during the late 1940s). In the black paintings, the geometrical units are so charged with color that the net effect is the oxymoronic one of creating effulgences of obscurity: darkness becomes a form of light, the fleeting glimmers of color the “last vestige of brightness.”
In a similar way, Reinhardt’s idiosyncratic painting technique appears to be a kind of negative analogue of Chinese ink painting. Reinhardt, who worked with his canvas set before him horizontally—as did the Chinese ink painters—thinned his oil paint with a great deal of medium (mostly turpentine), and then allowed it to settle in jars until the heavier oil paint had sunk to the bottom and only a thinly colored liquid remained on top. It was with this thin, silt-like mixture of pigment suspended in the liquid medium—a kind equivalent in oil paint of Chinese ink—that Reinhardt painted. He softly laid this very thin paint onto his canvas, carefully brushing it out so as to avoid almost all traces of gesture. After the layer of paint had dried, he repeated the process over and over again, until the accretion of very thin layers laid one on top of the other had achieved the right color and consistency. As a result, the surfaces of his paintings are extremely attenuated, which gives them their otherworldly matte surface. (It also makes them notoriously fragile.) One thinks of the way the Taoist artists invested their paintings with chi, or life-force: “When the divine magic is working, the brush-ink attains the Void. Then there is brush beyond brush and ink beyond ink.”8 Reinhardt’s obsessive concern with paint consistency reflects one of the main concerns that runs through writings by Chinese painters. As the painter Ku Ning-yüan remarked: “The mystery of all the Six Principles cannot be found before one knows how to handle the ink.”9
That the black paintings are a negative analogue of Chinese landscape painting should not surprise us. For what Reinhardt—whose whole system of thought was built on negations, and on negations of negations—created by this denial of the specifics of Chinese painting was an original affirmation of its underlying principles, a resonant evocation of the Void. And this with a painting technique that not only produced works that look very much like Nothing, but also look nothing like their main source, the Chinese landscape paintings that served as such a profound inspiration for them.
1. See Arthur C. Danto, “Ad Reinhardt,” The Nation, August 26-September 2, 1991, p. 240.
2. The apophatic tradition is associated not only with Christian mystics whom Reinhardt read in depth, such as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, but also with Asian texts that he knew, such as the Hindu Upanishads and the Tao te ching. Yve-Alain Bois gives an interesting critique of Reinhardt’s relation to negative theology in “The Limit of Almost,” in The Museum of Modern Art, Ad Reinhardt, New York, Rizzoli, 1991, pp. 28 – 29.
3. Ad Reinhardt, “Cycles Through the Chinese Landscape,” Art News, December 1954; reprinted in Art as Art, pp. 212 – 215. The exhibition ran from November 5, 1954 to January 2, 1955; there was also a concurrent exhibition of “Western Landscape Paintings and Drawings.”
4. Ibid, p. 215.
5. The precise date of Reinhardt’s first Black painting remains uncertain. According to Elizabeth Reede (written communication, February 5, 2008), Rita Reinhardt believes that the first vertical black monochrome paintings were begun around 1953, but this is not a firm date, since Reinhardt worked on some of the black paintings over a period of several years, obliterating previous paintings in the process. It is thus impossible at present to say whether Reinhardt painted the first black paintings before or after he had seen the 1954 Cleveland exhibition.
6. See also the discussion of the void in Mark Levy, Void in Art, Bramble Books, 2006, especially pp. 139 – 147, where Levy sees Reinhardt’s black paintings as offering “a good simulacrum of the end stages of samadhi.” Walter Smith, “Ad Reinhardt’s Oriental Aesthetic,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Summer/ Fall 1990, p. 43, sees Reinhardt’s black paintings as imparting “a sense, rather than a depiction, of the Buddhist mystical state known as sunyata, the great void, or emptiness, the direct experience of which is the enlightened state of nirvana.”
7. See Smith 1990, p. 43, who also offers an interesting discussion of mandalas and yantras.
8. The Qing dynasty painter Pu Yen-t’u, as quoted by Levy 2006, p. 53. Reinhardt’s technique was studied at some length by the Guggenheim Museum conservation laboratory when it worked on Black Painting, 1960 – 1966; see David Ebony, “Damaged Reinhardt to Serve as Guinea Pig,” Art in America, June 2001.
9. Cited in Osvald Siren, The Chinese On the Art of Painting, New York, Schocken Books, 1963, p. 162. First published in 1936, this is a book that Reinhardt would have known well, along with the widely read book by Mai-mai Sze, The Way of Chinese Painting: Its Ideas and Techniques, New York, Random House, 1959 (based on The Tao of Chinese Painting, Princeton, Bollingen Series, 1956).
JACK FLAM is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the CEO and President of the Dedalus Foundation.