The Sense of a Beginning
In Reinhardt’s black paintings a slow process of realization follows a first, quick impression of blankness: form emerges out of vacancy, mysterious presence from manifest absence. Squares are seen to nestle within the overall pictorial rectangle like drastically flattened two-dimensional Chinese boxes, thereby gradually turning our experiential observations into apperception. Crudely put, these images force us to take our time. By implication, they instantiate a distinction between clock-time and the different temporal order that art inhabits.
On a conceptual plane, time as chronology also permeated Reinhardt’s cartoons, since the majority of them conform to a layered structure. Typically, one set of (old) premises—whether about “looking,” “modern art,” “abstraction,” and so forth—turns into a parade of subsequent (new) ones. For example, in “How to Look at a Good Idea” (PM, August 4, 1946), Reinhardt tagged a clipping from the art critic Howard Devree’s Sunday column in the New York Times titled “Looking Back on Modernism” with the caption, “Looking Forward to Looking Backwards Dept.”Here and throughout the artist’s writings, linear progressions and recurrent cycles wax ubiquitous because they exemplify contesting notions of time.
In turn, Reinhardt’s personal “Chronology,” written for the catalogue to his show at the Jewish Museum in 1966, thrust existential timing and its antitheses to the fore. At its crux was the juxtaposition between world-historical events and personal or artistic ones. The former tend towards recurrent although ultimately monotonous expressions of change, the latter towards stasis. To cite two quintessential examples, the Liberation of Paris in 1944 is preceded the previous year by Reinhardt’s self-reflection: “Continues making paintings about nothing.” Secondly, in 1964 “ten [Reinhardt] paintings in London get marked up,” whereas the next year “China explodes atomic bomb.” The message is that while human affairs entail perennial crises and absurdities (“1946: Attacks E.E. Cummings for comments on Krazy Kat”), the aesthetic realm conforms instead to the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun. That Reinhardt held such beliefs—drawn from his wide reading—for many years prior to his death on August 30, 1967 is indisputable. That he found them confirmed and amplified in a book published shortly before then has never been suggested.
A hitherto undated yet crucial note by Reinhardt provides a clear clue as to the identity of the book in question. In this fragmentary text the artist wrote two phrases—himself placing them inside quotation marks: “‘Sense of an Ending,’ ‘paradigm of apocalypse.’” His allusion must have been to a title published by Oxford University Press in 1966 written by the British literary critic, Frank Kermode. Why? Because Kermode’s dazzlingly erudite yet accessible study was indeed titled The Sense of an Ending and, at its center, described “the tension or dissonance between paradigmatic form and contingent reality.” But the link between Reinhardt’s thinking and Kermode’s was more than a mere coincidental phrase or two.
On the contrary, Kermode’s account explored a knot of ideas critical to Reinhardt’s own. Tying this nexus together was The Sense of An Ending’s thesis that human beings organize a chaotic, contingent universe by creating fictions, according to which the incessant flux of the world’s passing time (chronos) is shaped into the more manageable structuring of a beginning, a middle, and an end—artificial concords prompting an awareness of our personal, lived time (kairos).
In fact, Reinhardt almost literally paraphrased Kermode in the aforementioned notes: “Structure mere successiveness into patterns / make life endurable against the drear perspectives of ongoing time? / Make sense of their span / fictive concords with origins and ends.” Above all, what Reinhardt would have found in Kermode was the confirmation that art represented such a supreme fiction. The Sense of an Ending illustrated this with the knowingly banal song that featured in Sartre’s Nausea, “Some Of These Days.” In Kermode’s reading, “this frail piece is human, creates a human duration, destroys the disorder and the dead time of the world. [Yet] it contains nothing.” In its stress upon redemptive negation, the mention of “nothing” is pure Reinhardt. Yet finally the largest message of Kermode’s book was identical to Reinhardt’s mature ethos. Namely, that every sense of an ending presupposes new beginnings. This is why Reinhardt could go on “making the last painting which anyone could make” while also declaring in another late jotting, tellingly titled “End,” that “last word must always be secretly the first.” Without acknowledging Kermode’s revelatory view of how art dances to its own music outside of passing time, we miss a vital layer to Reinhardt’s eschatological vision.
© Art Ex Ltd 2013
David Anfam is an art historian and critic based in London, whose latest publication is Brice Marden: Ru Ware, Marbles, Polke (Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2013). Anfam is Senior Consulting Curator of the Clyfford Still Museum, Director of its Research Center, and Commissioning Editor-at-Large for Art, Phaidon Press.