At Ad Reinhardt’s prodding, in late 1961 his Parisian dealer Iris Clert offered him a solo show in her gallery, but because of expenses and scheduling it did not become a reality until June 1963.1 Reinhardt was elated about how great his painting looked as part of the Guggenheim survey exhibition, Abstract Expressionists and Imagists, which had opened October 13, 1961. He wrote to Clert that “everyone’s jealous of me, because of all the ‘New American Paintings and Expressionists and Imagists’…my square 60 × 60 looks best and [is] the only serious work in the whole show.” Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller purchased this painting out of the show for MoMA’s collection, confirming Reinhardt’s conviction that he should only show the apex of his artistic practice—the five-foot-square black canvases he was, by that point, painting exclusively.
In accepting to have a show at her gallery he asked Clert, “How could it be anything but black? The only other alternative is to get me the Louvre or Modern museum for a gigantic retrospective, 150 paintings, not all black.”2 He further confided to Clert that his vision for this show was that it would be made specifically for her gallery space: “I took measurements of all of your walls, and I’ll start 9:00 A.M., January 1st, 1962, making pictures to fit snugly from corner to corner, pillar to post, floor to ceiling. Except that I’m making only five-foot square paintings, only 60 × 60 inches, nothing larger nothing smaller, as wide as a man stretched out, as tall as a short man, or woman, square, dark.”3
On June 15, 1963 Reinhardt wrote to Miller, who had curated a selection of his five-foot-square black paintings as part of her group show, Americans 1963—which opened a few weeks before the exhibition at Iris Clert—that the posts in Clert’s gallery enabled him to separate out his paintings from each other, “so that each painting has its own niche.” Further, he “erected a [‘]string’ fence,” which Reinhardt’s friend, the artist Saul Steinberg, said “makes them all ‘Mona Lisas.’” To which he replied, “Well?” The painter was pleased with this installation, so much so that he suggested to Miller, in reevaluating his room in the Americans 1963 exhibition, that they “should have done something like this.” To better illustrate what he meant he included a sketch of his room at MoMA, reimagined through the lens of the innovations of the Iris Clert installation—specifically the posts and stanchions he had used there.
Reinhardt had in fact first turned to sketching his installation ideas in a letter to Clert of March 30, 1963, predating both the Clert and MoMA shows. In this sketch he envisioned his seven paintings making use of the architecture of Clert’s gallery in exactly the way he would later write about to Miller, with the paintings placed between the posts such “that each painting has its own niche.” This was possible on the left side of the gallery (when viewed as one enters from the street), while on the right side and back walls there were no built-in columns, so Reinhardt made creative use of three posts that were located just off the walls toward the center of the gallery, these functioned to articulate the separation between the individual canvases so that any viewer would have to move past them in order to access the paintings and, as such, his or her first apprehension of the paintings would be with posts in-between each canvas.
By not manipulating the gallery’s architecture in any way, but using it to his advantage, Reinhardt ensured that neither his paintings, nor their audience, would be overly controlled, nor would their experience be predetermined. Exploiting the way the gallery was laid out, Reinhardt was able to provide his paintings with the degree of autonomy necessary for the viewer to perceive the subtle perceptual experiences they evoked. Insistently drawing the viewer’s potentially distracted attention to the surface of his paintings, rather than letting it drift outwards into the space of the gallery, was the primary point of Reinhardt’s installation designs. Reinhardt makes this explicit in what cannot but be read as a gloss on his painting project, which he published both in the catalog for Americans 1963 as well as in the June 1963 issue of Clert’s newsletter, Iris-Time: “A clearly defined object, independent and separate from all other objects and circumstances, in which we cannot see whatever we choose or make of it anything we want, whose meaning is not detachable or translatable.”4
In contrast to Reinhardt’s more straightforward rendering of space in the case of his Clert installation, one of the more curious aspects of the slightly later MoMA sketch is its explicit indication of the viewer’s movement through the gallery space. In the Clert sketch a single arrow indicates where the viewer enters the gallery, which is, logically enough, through its single street front entrance. However, in the MoMA sketch multiple arrows are present to indicate the viewer’s theoretical passage “in” and “out” of the gallery’s different entryways. Hypothetically such passageways could function dually for the viewer as either entrances or exits, depending on how he or she happens to be moving through the exhibition as a whole. Yet, by labeling certain pathways as entrances, and others as exits, Reinhardt implicitly proposes that there is a particular flow through the space that he would like his audience to follow, as opposed to what they might do, if left to their own devices.
Reinhardt’s fears were realized when certain visitors to both his MoMA and Iris Clert installations were so provoked by the black paintings that they lashed out and vandalized several of them. As Reinhardt recalled in 1966, “two of the galleries and museum rooms [MoMA and Iris Clert] had to be roped off because too many viewers were unable to resist touching the surface of the paintings and leaving their marks.”5 In two cases at MoMA one or more people responded to the works as empty chalkboards (as certain critics characterized them at the time) and marked them up with pencil, adding to the more typical finger marks and bodily abrasions.6 This meant that Reinhardt and Miller had to take emergency action to implement barriers, turning to the roped stanchions that the artist had just introduced for his show at Iris Clert. Guards were also installed more vigilantly, and an explanatory label was written, which conveyed that, “because these paintings are very easily damaged if they are touched, we have had to keep a distance between them and the public. We regret that this has become necessary.”7
1. See Iris Clert, “Letter to Reinhardt,” November 19, 1961. Ad Reinhardt Papers, Archives of American Art.
2. Reinhardt, “Letter to Clert,” December 27, 1961. Fonds Iris Clert, Bibliotheque Kandinsky, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris. As he told Clert in a letter of January 1, 1962: “it’s not only very difficult to work on ‘old style’ paintings and ‘old’ color, like blue, but its not easy to repaint them either. The past is past, old is old, gone is gone, blue is blue. Out with the old, ring in the new, bring in the black!”
4. Reinhardt, “Autocritique de Reinhardt,” Iris-Time (June 1963). As reprinted in Barbara Rose, ed. Art-As-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 83. This was originally published in Lax’s journal, Pax 18 (1962). It is significant that Reinhardt collected these notes—themselves written over a five year span, and the oldest seven years before it was published—and published them in the wake of the Guggenheim show. He felt so strongly about their relevance that he issued them again, with some minor edits, in conjunction with the first two major solo statements of his black painting project: at MoMA and Iris Clert.
5. Reinhardt, “The Black-Square Painting Shows.” Originally part of “Ad Reinhardt: Three Statements,” Artforum (March 1966). As reprinted in Rose, 84.
6. See the MoMA condition report dated January 15, 1965. In “Americans 1963,” Dorothy C. Miller Papers, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
7. Unknown [Miller?], “A Note on these Paintings.” In the Miller Papers, MoMA Archives, New York.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.