Ad Reinhardt in Los Angelesby Matthew Simms
In a note to Betty Parsons, Reinhardt mused about his upcoming exhibition at Virginia Dwan’s Westwood gallery, his very first solo show in Los Angeles, while highlighting its seemingly apocalyptic timing:
My show in Hollywood (?) opens on February Fourth and there’s a California cult out there believes that that day is the end of the world (what an item for my autobiography if it’s true!) unless some Hindu star gazers succeed in propitiating Chandi, the naked goddess in these matters. So if you don’t hear from me, say another postcard from Los Angeles after February Fifth, you’ll know.1
The coincidence apparently struck Reinhardt as both comical and fitting. Reinhardt arrived in Los Angeles on the afternoon of January 31, 1962, on a direct flight from New York. The show opened on February 4th to modest fanfare and, above all, to no earthly cataclysm. A few scattered reviews stressed the hard to discern shapes in Reinhardt’s canvases.2 More memorable than his exhibition was the lecture, entitled “The Artist as Artist,” that Reinhardt had delivered at the Pasadena Art Museum two days before the opening. In attendance was a bevy of local artists, critics, gallerists, and curators. “Very shortly after accepting his introduction,” Gerald Nordland recalled, “Reinhardt clarified his purpose by saying that he was not talking about the artist as a man, husband, or good fellow. His concern was for the artist as creator of esthetic objects and primarily as painter.” “Reinhardt,” he continues, “worked deliberately to ridicule the many common concepts of the artist: the artist as naïve genius or as visionary, the artist as a madman or as an ultimately healthy member of the society, the artist as a bohemian or a moral or political activist, the artist as an integrator of the arts or as an amateur.”3 In a letter to Reinhardt written a couple days later, Thomas Leavitt, director of the Pasadena Art Museum, observed: “All who heard your talk here Friday night must have been deeply impressed or at least provoked by your comments, judging by the hours of discussion and argument that followed it.”4 Robert Irwin, who attended the lecture, recalled that Reinhardt alienated whole swaths of his audience with his sequential elimination of non-art and non-artists:
He took the via negativa, he didn’t try to explain what art, or what his art was, he explained what it wasn’t. So he goes through this whole thing and as he goes through it, he slowly challenges a group of artists there, what they’re doing, they get pissed off and walk out. And then another [group] walked out. And another, until half the audience is gone by the time he got to the end. It was a terrific lecture. I mean, a great lecture . . . Kienholz and those guys got up and said “bullshit” and left, which I’m sure he was used to.5
Ed Moses, who was also present, recalled that he was at first irritated by the idea that Reinhardt had somehow painted the last painting. “I kept challenging him on that because I thought: ‘Gee, that’s a pretty arrogant statement to make.’ . . . Everybody was really outraged that he would say that, that these were the last paintings.”6 “What he really meant,” Moses explained, “was they were the last paintings that a painter could do because anything else would be anything else but reducing it to its most fundamental condition.”7
Reinhardt only returned twice to Los Angeles, first in 1963 to exhibit black paintings at the Dwan Gallery and then, in 1965, for the opening of the New York school exhibition at LACMA. But he gave no lectures and seems to have chosen to visit Disneyland over speaking with art students. He did, however, visit Moses in his studio, since the two had become friends in the period since their first meeting in 1962. Reinhardt’s remarks about the artist’s responsibility to remain steadfastly committed to aesthetic concerns had a major impact on Moses. Irwin, for his part, declared himself a Reinhardt partisan in his first published statement, also dating from 1965: “The whole point of modern painting has been the defining of art-as-art and in the creating of an art language, with an art communication.”8 The artist as artist, as Irwin understood him, was firmly focused on the phenomenal interface between the viewer and the work of art, a stance that was confirmed by his experience of Reinhardt’s canvases and that ultimately led him far beyond painting to art in public places.
If Reinhardt had come to Los Angeles with ends in mind, he had, perhaps in spite of himself, encouraged a range of new aesthetic developments far beyond the New York art world. In a letter to Reinhardt, following his last trip to Los Angeles, Irving Blum, director of the Ferus Gallery, underscored his impact on local artists: “I think it might please you to know how very many young artists there are who consider you to be the central and critical influence on their art.”9 Reinhardt was just pleased to be home. “Had a wonderful time in the land of sunshine,” he declared: “One week later, back to our World’s Fair-est City, tired but happy.”10
1. Ad Reinhardt, postcard to Betty Parsons, (Jan. 25, 1962). Betty Parsons Papers, Archives of American Art.
2. Henry J. Seldis, “Reinhardt Canvases Worth a Second Look,” Los Angeles Times (Feb. 9, 1962), C5. Jules Langsner, “Los Angeles Letter,” Art International, vol. 6, no. 3 (April 1962), 65.
3. Gerald Nordland, “The Artist as Reinhardt,” Frontier, vol. 13, no. 5 (March 1962), 23.
4. Thomas Leavitt, letter to Ad Reinhardt (Feb. 5, 1962), Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927 – 1968. Series 2: Correspondence. Box. 2, Folder 3. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
5. Robert Irwin, in conversation with the author, Aug. 12, 2009.
6. Ed Moses, in conversation with the author, Sept. 4, 2013.
8. Robert Irwin, “Statement on Reproductions,” Artforum, vol. 3, no. 9 (June 1965), 23.
9. Irving Blum, letter to Ad Reinhardt (Nov. 10, 1965), Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927 – 1968. Series 2: Correspondence. Box 1, Folder 49. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
10. Ad Reinhardt, unsent letter draft (July 1965), Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927 – 1968. Series 3: Writings and Notes. Box 2, Folder 34. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
MATTHEW SIMMS is a professor of art history at CSU Long Beach. His monograph on Robert Irwin is under advance contract with Yale University Press.