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Ad Reinhardt: Painting as Ultimatum

If one wishes to exhibit Ad Reinhardt, there are many obstacles to overcome before one can present the artist adequately. His only sizable exhibition to date in Germany, held in 1972 at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, was a retrospective. Here, the late work in black monochrome as well as the silkscreen series, comprising 10 prints, and a number of the cartoons made between 1946 and 1951, were shown. But all these were peripheral. More attention was given to the abstract paintings with bright colors produced between 1937 and 1953. Because of this, the exhibition did not elicit the response that had been hoped for. Even the enthusiastic critic Georg Jappe felt that, “the early Reinhardt is average, with a feeling for saturated, warm colors.”

People have become accustomed to accepting this work as the standard formula of the “Black Monk.” Reinhardt’s much quoted comment on this is: “I am merely making the last painting which anyone can make.” Statements of this sort may have persuaded critics like Jappe to form judgments such as “Ad Reinhardt puts his American colleagues, the abstract field painters, back into the shade.”

Since Harold Rosenberg’s aphorism, “Newman shut the door, Rothko drew the shade, and Reinhardt turned out the lights,” which John Crosby published in 1963 with outline drawings, the famous painting method of the “great demurrer in the time of the great enthusiasms” has usually been credited with too much or nothing at all.

Briefly, the method consisted of ridding his work after 1953 of asymmetrical forms, bright colors, texture, and finally even shape, and for Reinhardt this was the equivalent of removing space and line from painting. On Belgian linen canvas number 66, made at the firm of Rosenthal, with white, Reinhardt applied Bocour pigments that he had previously thinned considerably with turpentine. The interior squares, painted in several glazes, were eventually given a final coat, usually containing size, which intensified the desired matte effect and, more especially, a velvety transparency on the painting’s surface. If the surface layer is removed, the paintings appear smooth and sterile. Minor damage to the paint surface can supposedly be “washed off.” As a rule, restored paintings are recognizable because, even after a prolonged study, they still have a monochrome appearance, as if covered by a curtain. Depending on the material used, this can contribute to their mystification or to disillusionment. The relative transparency of Reinhardt’s painting is lost. Hence, in 1957 Reinhardt quoted (without giving its source) James McNeill Whistler’s Rule No. 2 as a “supplementary regulation” for his “New Academy”: “A picture is finished when all traces of the means used to bring about the end have disappeared.”

Although here Reinhardt fundamentally aligns himself against forms of process art, the passing of time still plays a crucial role in the viewing of his paintings. The various aspects of his mode of painting never disclose themselves simultaneously, only as a process—a process of perception that may culminate in the mental reconstruction of the product. However, from 1953 on, the surface of his paintings tells us less and less about how they were made.

So-called Marxist art historical writing has also up to now only touched on Reinhardt. The critical eye that has been turned for the last decade on the “Triumph of American Art,” on the art theory of Clement Greenberg, for instance, and on the success of a New York concept of the modern has only considered in passing the man who all his life wanted to see the New York School rubbed the wrong way. T.J. Clark cited him as a late successor to the almost unanimous artist’s attitude of resistance since Baudelaire, and his pupil Serge Guilbaut unhesitatingly used a Reinhardt cartoon of 1946 as an example of how abstract art’s conception of itself after the World War must have seemed. In a careful study, Annette Cox has demonstrated Reinhardt’s loss of Utopia and his isolation from his fellow painters. She then draws the contestable conclusion that for him these were both linked to the simple abandonment of the problem of meaning in art. In all the research, there is the hint of a close connection between the world-wide power in art wielded by New York and the politics of the Cold War. This has led to an interpretation of the black paintings of this life-long socialist as the price paid for his flight as an artist into an enclave mentality. It may be evaluated positively or negatively, but what is found in most Reinhardt scholarship has been expressed by Theodor W. Adorno as being applicable to the whole modern era: “Radical art today means gloomy art; its dominant color is black.”

Besides this dead-end vision of Reinhardt, recent events in art are also an inducement to mount a Reinhardt exhibition. For a decade now, artists have been the same or similar. A total change in the art world has emerged out of the stylistic pluralism of the ’70s, now shunned as the “anything goes” period. Stubbornly defended positions like that of Conceptual Art are now seen as bygone styles and given up as a loss of values. The world economic crisis, the atomic threat, and anxiety about the future have been supplanted by an almost happy, pantheistic relationship with space, with painting in three dimensions, and an expressionistic style. Just the rise to fame of Joseph Beuys indicated a temporary end to any non-organic form of abstraction. The last decade of stasis, impoverishment, and world-wide political conservatism produced an artistic deluge of movement, rhythm, and elasticity. As if making apocalyptic dance-of-death panoramas for mass production, the new sea of images seemed to create an unwanted stylistic homogeneity which demanded one’s surrender, immersion, and objective self indulgence.

When, after 1975, the former apologists for modern art reported on their encounters with new groups of artists they suddenly abandoned that historical determinism which was expressed in such an extreme form by Reinhardt. The “Modern” vision of an endlessly perfectible commercial society has probably been shattered for a long time to come by stagnation and crisis. But this is more of an excuse than a reason for making history out of the young generation of painters.

The destruction of the post-war metaphysics of the Abstract Expressionist by Pop Art, which had a lasting effect was easily accepted by Reinhardt, while his colleague Rothko regarded the Pop artists as the murderers of his generation of painters. Personalities like Andy Warhol made the theosophical art rhetoric of the ’40s and ’50s obsolete. Long before this Reinhardt had identified their latent source: corruption and prostitution for increased turnover:

But finally it was Andy Warhol. He has become the most famous. He’s a household word. He ran together all the desires of artists to become celebrities, to make money, to have a good time, all the Surrealist ideas, so Andy Warhol has made it easy. He runs discotheques. He does absolutely everything and he’s in the fashion and gossip columns every day, or most, you know. So it’s freer now.

Presently it is impossible to think of any painter who more strongly confronted the need for order and peace, for abstraction and absoluteness, than Reinhardt. The tendency toward abstraction that Worringer used to counter Theodor Lipps’s doctrine of empathy certainly reached its most dynamic form in Reinhardt. It is doubtful whether Reinhardt’s complete casting off of the self as artist can ever be surpassed. He systematically endeavored to eradicate all facets of his personality and surroundings. Without considering a black painting, a grammatical slip may clarify the subjective extent of this: “I never go anywhere except as an artist.”

Another reason why Worringer’s concept can be used to describe Reinhardt is that Reinhardt had a low opinion of the history of art after Goya compared to the art of early Oriental and Asiatic cultures or of the middle ages. As opposed to any “empathy” he considered life itself to be important although, in the final analysis, disruptive. “Better dead than the kiss of death of the love of life,” he asked the director of the Jewish Museum in 1966 on the occasion of his first museum exhibition, after which, he did ironically die. In fact, to kiss one of his paintings, even to touch it with a finger, is to destroy it. Reinhardt knew this and was strangely, very didactically, economical with it. He took to the opening of an exhibition a valuable old Chinese vase that his cleaning woman had broken in a wooden box, which he would open when showing the case to people, and he would say: “Look, that’s what life has done to it.”

It was not only for aesthetic reasons that he extracted the oil from his paints so thoroughly that the slightest disturbance, whether out of curiosity or evil intent, would inevitably become evidence of “Expressionism” standing out as a shameful blot on the abstract work. Reinhardt’s urge to abstraction led to a sensibility that is hardly believable and that can be studied only on the original. This is revealed not only in the physical vulnerability of the surface of his paintings, but also in the virginal receptivity with which they open out. It is the eye that penetrates the paintings, after being momentarily blinded by the black square in its black frame, from then on a cross will become visible on the monochrome velvety surface, the result of the superimposition of a horizontal band on a vertical band. At the same time, the opaque black gradually reveals a spectrum of colors. What becomes apparent, as first faintly and then irreversibly, is the painting as a negative apotheosis of color and form, which Reinhardt defended himself against. He feared being restricted in any way. Yet he did allow and encourage the interpretation of his art as an abrogation of space and time and, above all, history. So that the unity of all art could be experienced without having to visualize any “image.”

“A sensitive organization of lines and colors on a canvas must have ultimate social value,” wrote Ad Reinhardt in the early ’40s. It is symptomatic that these words reflect his reading of Mondrian’s book Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art published in 1937. Mondrian had demanded a consistent balance of the relationships within a painting to create a dynamic equilibrium.

During the last years of the Second World War, Reinhardt saw in Mondrian’s paintings an archetypal challenge to “disorder and insensitivity.” There was, he thought, no “greater propaganda for integration” than Mondrian’s “emotionally intense, dramatic division of space.”

In 1944, he expressed the hope nourished by Mondrian and the “American Abstract Artists Group,” for a “growing body of imaginative plastic learning besides being a personal expression.” The following year, he quoted the view, already held by Stuart Davis in the ’30s, that the present-day abstract artists were the “realists,” capable of contradiction. Their works could give a convincing retort to stereotyped questions about meaning and representation in painting. He embellished nearly all examples from his cartoon series “an explanation of modern art” published in PM in 1946, with a caricature on this theme. This is paired with numerous comments, the last and clearest of which is a statement by Picasso: “No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war… (against) brutality and darkness.” In 1948, on the occasion of an exhibition of his worn work at the Betty Parsons Gallery, he wrote in rather more detail. “Perhaps pure painting is a direct experience and an honest communication. Perhaps it is a creative completeness and total sensitivity related to personal wholeness and social order because it is clear and without extra esthetic elements.”

The rhetorical “perhaps” is a more prominent  feature in these quotations than the idea of an ultimatum. Yet nowhere in his writings can one find a theory like Neo-plasticism explained. Even his earliest contributions to debates are distinguished not only by arguments, conclusions, or even proofs, but also by short, apodictic assertions or questions. The ideas serve as a radical example, about the aims of education, about enlightenment through art and about art as a weapon basically reflecting the hope, widespread among members of the Artists’ Congress, to which Reinhardt briefly belonged since 1935, and of American Abstract Art that in communication could play a socially relevant role. It was John Dewey’s 1934 book Art as Experience that declared the work of art to be a guarantee of education for the fantasy and imagination. Dewey’s social criticism found its greatest response among the artists of the political left. Their spokesman for many years, Stuart Davis, with whom Reinhardt was in close contact around 1938, already in 1935 emphasized the function of the work of art as “experience” in his book, Artist as Experience, warning his fellow painters against isolationism and sectarianism. Dewey is given a chance to speak indirectly in Reinhardt’s cartoon “How to Look at More than Meets the Eye” and to stress that the production of paintings is an intellectual achievement.

Mondrian, Dewey, and Davis approached the question from three different directions—and Reinhardt recognized this. While the first demonstrates the function of art as a ruling power and sees the clear-thinking elite as the highest elevation of the masses, Dewey’s approach is that of the “philosophy of the little man.” He tends to attribute constructive achievements to all artistic efforts. Davis may have acted as theoretical mediator within the trio. His hypostasization of modern art as a stylistic progression to help the investigation of relationships in visual logic places him close to Mondrian.

Reinhardt’s early work as a painter basically oscillates between the positions of Mondrian and Davis, as do his gouaches of around 1939 which are very similar to Davis’s paintings. Particularly in their framing of a picture within the picture. They show an affinity to the cool and colorful “organizations of lines, of colors, spaces (American organizations if you will) which Reinhardt praised in Davis.

The 1946 cartoons for PM epitomize and confirm Reinhardt’s assimilation of his teacher’s ideas with his own. The themes of Cubism, Abstraction, Surrealism, artists, spaces, perception, art history, art criticism, industry, iconography, construction, and creation, which are at the center of his argument, refer to Dewey’s theory of the imagination and to emphasis given by Mondrian to relationships in a painting. An abstract painting, says Reinhardt, is like music, “to be enjoyed as such” and to be understood from the structure of its elements, “You get from it what you bring to it.”

To many readers, the historical, stylistic, and iconographical implications of these ideas were new, and Reinhardt’s Sunday features, therefore, had considerable informative value. However, the basic convictions that he repeatedly illustrates are clearly treated ironically. With the aid of six checker board patterns, Dewey’s philosophy is applied sarcastically to the problem of quality, and Mondrian’s vision of the new structuring of the world is given by Reinhardt a commentary in the form of the “pure CREATION” of a little laughing stick man who holds captive the “Forces of Evil.” Throughout Reinhardt increases interest in his themes. However, in the final analysis the function of the cartoons as information is frustrated by the way he dresses up what he has to say in cartoon form. Even the “How to” motto is an allusion to bestsellers of the ’30s like Dale Carnegie’s How to win Friends and Influence People and to recipes for success appearing in the style of glossy magazines. In keeping with this the reader he finds himself encouraged to join in: he is asked to continue for himself the sequence of “isms” applied to the example of the wine glass or, if he doesn’t like the series, to “lay (his) own eggs.”

Reinhardt, the “artist reporter” shows a preference for heuristic schemata and diagrams, which circle around his position without giving it away. Reinhardt later expanded the “Timeless Political Cartoon,” in which the innocent “art” child is threatened with being run over by the train of sins, into a montage and stuck a photograph of his own head on the figure of “abstract art.” This does not prove his identification with the figure. Indeed, Reinhardt’s patent recipe explicitly admonished the reader: “All you need to make a political cartoon is a picture, some labels, and some paste.”

Perpetually, in black pullovers, Reinhardt always looked “almost like a minister.” The other side of this priestly role, turning Reinhardt of those days into a double agent, is that of the saboteur; Barnett Newman sued him for $100,000. Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell were avoiding him by 1957 at the latest; art critics like Clement Greenberg insulted him; the Museum of Modern Art before 1963 never admitted him to any group exhibition worth mentioning. Looking back on his relationship with Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, Reinhardt remarked, “You know, there was always a little of that feeling of mistrust as if I was up to something. Maybe I was.”

The model of proletarian suicide, which appears in Baudelaire, was brought to its logical conclusion as an artistic ethic by Reinhardt. He made the lone claim to be the only virtuous authority in the “affluent society.” To him the art world was no longer distinguishable from that, because it, too, increasingly identified happiness with the quantity of possessions. At the same time his solidarity with society made him want to provide it with “ideas” that would make it more virtuous–ideas that, as the popular economist John Kenneth Galbraith emphasized, could be produced only where the constraints of profit in the production process were reduced. In contrast to the painters of Abstract Expressionism, Reinhardt held on to the conviction that art had no future for influencing the masses, in comparison with the visual media of photography and film.

Reinhardt’s first toying with claims of aesthetic absoluteness and historical determinism can be seen in his short seminar paper on Platonic philosophy of art, which he dated to 1933. Plato is presented as the father of rational understanding, which was founded on mathematics, and which separates the general from the particular in order to attain eternal knowledge. Mathematical rules also determine the work of art, which appears to the practiced eye as a unity and, hence, also as a participant in universal beauty. This point of view was upheld by Reinhardt more than by any other artist. He talked about it in a lecture in 1943:

The main current of Surrealism is chaos, confusion, individual anguish, terror, horror—in the decay, aimlessness, discontinuity, unrelatedness, and inexplicableness, in the accidental, unconscious, amorphous, and irrational. In Surrealist painting, man is overwhelmed, lost, unable to dominate his space and time… The theme of Cubism was just the opposite: it stressed the unity, totality, connectedness, an order that implies that man can not only control and create his world, but ultimately free himself completely form a brutal barbaric existence.

In the ’50s, he was playing around with the obsolescence of his urge to abstraction. This contributed in a major way his investigation of exotic cultures, and it returned as a fabulous formula. “It seems to be true,” he wrote about Chinese landscape painting, “that…there is much to say and write on Early, Primitive, and Archaic ‘attempts,’ and even more to say and write on Late, Realist, and Expressionist ‘developments,’ while on ‘high’ Classic ‘climaxes’ there seems to be almost nothing to say, and sometimes nothing much to see.” This is only a short step from Alan Watts’s paraphrase of the Zen attitude of mind:

“Those who know don’t tell. Those you tell don’t know.”

– or to syllogisms like:

“T. Hess says…a) ‘All art is abstract.’
P. Picasso says…b) ‘There is no abstract art.’
Therefore……c) ‘There is no art.’”

The dream of classic painters who are “sage-scholar-hermit-gentlemen” also has its other side. In one and the same person there is also Reinhardt as Lucifer, Sancho Panza or Ignatz Mouse from Georg Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” who wants to bring down the New York School by throwing bricks at it. For the School does not exist, as Reinhardt declared in a letter to a newspaper, with its archetypal member, the “call-artist,” and the pressures to conform, from an “advertising campaign on Tenth Avenue,” it offends against the idea of “a cloister-ivyhall-ivory tower-community of artists.” In his Ignatz Mouse role Reinhardt would arrange fights, for example between Newman and Beelzebub as “Superman” versus “Demigod”—and would see the the situation for what it was. The conflict within himself between virtue on the one hand and satanism on the other was steadily increasing during the ’50s. To be “Krazy Kat” and “Ignatz Mouse” in one was a conscious artistic attitude, based on the 1946 book review in which he elevated the comic strip to the status of a “Timeless Political Cartoon.”

The few concepts that make up a discourse revolve around the axiom he had formulated in 1958: “ART IS ART. EVERYTHING ELSE IS EVERYTHING ELSE.” Again and again, the ideas of “oneness” and “integration” are conjured up by Reinhardt’s art theory and painting. A principal instrument for this is the “square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless).” Even before he marked out the sizeless size, he had looked at Bruno Munari’s little book Il Quadrato. It beings:

The square is as high and as wide as a man with arms outstretched. In the most ancient writings and in the rock inscriptions of early man, it signifies the idea of enclosure, of house, of settlement.

As a dogmatic derivative of art-as-art, made neither on the easel nor on the wall but painted from above on a flat workbench, the black paintings represent Reinhardt’s attempt to put across the integrating idea of a settlement and dwelling, which can be traced from the Apocalypse of St. John to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. He was emphatically concerned with saving art as a creation that encompassed all meanings. That was the aim of his ultimatum. He therefore rejected Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross as corrupt and likewise the works of Louise Nevelson and Larry Rivers with their allusions to the Holocaust or the Russian Revolution. A precondition in his metaphysics of art is the function of art as a simile. Ad Reinhardt was prepared to die for it. His life and work can be understood in terms of the question, how can one manage to “be good and yet stay alive.” He was not able to do the latter. His friends foresaw this. “For to appear in life is too often the cause of death,” wrote Thomas Merton.

Excerpted from Die Schwarzen Bilder, 1985.
Translation by Sebastian Warmell.


Thomas Kellein

THOMAS KELLEIN is a German writer and curator.


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