In 1961, Asia House Gallery published Khmer Sculpture, the catalogue for an exhibition of Khmer sculpture from American museum and private collections. Small (20 by 20 centimeters), slender (64 pages), illustrated with more than 30 full page black-and-white photographs, the book was one of the first on the subject to be published in English. Texts included a brief introduction by George Montgomery, the director of the the Gallery, an extract of the famous 13th-century journey narrative by Chou Ta-kuan (Zhou Daguan) describing his “recollections on the customs of Cambodia,” and a text by Ad Reinhardt called “An Assemblage of Comments on the Mystery and Charity of Khmer Art.”
At mid-century, few American scholars or journalists traveled to Cambodia, even though foreign visitors were increasingly welcome in Norodom Sihanouk’s kingdom since the French granted it independence in 1953. The first American to write about Cambodia was a U.S. consular official, Lawrence Palmer Briggs. Upon his retirement he set to work synthesizing the findings of the mainly French archeologists and paleographers who reconstructed Cambodia’s past glory and published The Ancient Khmer Empire in 1951.
Reinhardt quotes Briggs with and without citation in his six pages of comments. But perhaps the voice that resonates most from Reinhardt’s assemblage is that of André Malraux, whose overview of world art masterpieces was republished by Doubleday in 1953 as The Voices of Silence. Without going into a detailed comparison between Reinhardt and Malraux, let us mention one of Malraux’s most celebrated bon mots in this book: L’art est un anti-destin. In the Doubleday edition Malraux writes “Art is a revolt against fate.” However, the sentence sounds even more in the tone of Reinhardt if we translate it literally: art is anti-destiny.
But none of this explains how Ad Reinhardt came to contribute to one of the first American books about Khmer art. On May 29, 1958, Ad Reinhardt takes a Pan American flight to Los Angeles where he stops to visit Richard Neutra’s Lovell House (1927) before taking off at midnight for Honolulu, with a stopover at Wake Island. He arrives in Tokyo on the 1st of June and jots in his notebook: “Saturday May 31? (Lost) Wonder what kind of day it might have been?” June 6th he’s in Hong Kong, the 7th in Bangkok, and the 10th he stays in the Grand Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He has $1800 in travelers checks in his wallet, for his two days in Cambodia are merely a leg in a tour through Asia and the Near East which concludes July 6, 1958, when he will meet his wife Rita and daughter Anna in Tel Aviv.
Before they meet up, Ad writes to Rita:
Actually I’m becoming a connoisseur, not a scholar, and its amazing what one day of sightseeing can do to pull one’s book notes into a comprehensive feel for a particular style or area or culture, and dates, periods, facts all fall into place even if I don’t remember them exactly now. But now, after, I will. I not only got a terrific idea of Japanese art, that took almost a week, but now a terrific idea of Siamese art, the idea of the art, and tomorrow, start planning to bring Cambodian art into some system, mine.
RACHEL STELLA is an independent scholar based in Paris, France. She is currently working on a book about the French art movement Supports/Surfaces, to be published by Editions Ceysson in 2014.