Fall of 1987—I just moved from Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, to start my graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the required courses was “Research and Writing Art History and Criticism,” and the first class assignment was to write a 20-page paper on a single work of art from the museum’s collection. I chose Ad Reinhardt’s Abstraction No. 11 (1961 – 66): a black, 60 by 60 inch imageless square. I do not recall why I chose that particular work but I still remember an overwhelming impact it had on me. It was a painting of seemingly nothing: a horizontal band of black over a vertical band of different black creating a subtle pictorial grid. With no object, no subject, no expression or symbol, no brushwork, no direction, and no reflection, it was a black tabula rasa. Yet it had a luminous and immersive quality that drew me in. I got lost looking at it for the reasons I could not explain at the time. Here, 25 years later, and in honor of the artist’s centennial, I reflect back on Reinhardt’s work and my initial response to it.
I became acquainted with Reinhardt’s work during my undergraduate studies of art history at Belgrade’s College of Philosophy in the mid-1980s and then through preparing and writing my bachelor thesis on Abstract Expressionism and the New York School of painting. At that time, practically no primary sources were available for researching the subject: no original books and journals to buy or borrow, difficult inter-library loans to obtain, and only sporadic translations from English to Serbo-Croatian (such as texts by Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Thomas Hess), appearing in specialized magazines and journals. In these circumstances, a guiding source for my admittedly very limited research was Irving Sandler’s classic, The Triumph of American Panting (1970), along with all citations I could trace from the book. Occasionally, there were some U.S. periodicals available, such as ARTNews and Artforum, as well as interpretative writings by national critics and art historians.
In brief, there was little knowledge about this American movement (interestingly enough, there was more information on Pop Art and Minimalism), and the whole perspective of looking at Abstract Expressionism was in the light of European postwar abstraction—Paris School, Lyrical Abstraction, New Realism, and L’informel—building on the tradition, vocabulary, and ideals of these trends that were naturally more accessible and familiar to many Europeans. It is from this art historical context that I came to the U.S. and encountered Abstract Expressionists and Reinhardt’s work in person, realizing that many Americans, much like many Europeans, were barely acquainted with their cross-Atlantic counterparts.
My initial connection to Reinhardt’s black Abstraction No. 11 was purely visual and intuitive. As mentioned earlier, I was taken by the work for reasons I could not rationalize or verbalize. I was mesmerized by a beautiful surface: soft and smooth as velvet, non-glossy but glowing, and tangible yet ethereal like moonlight. This impression was only reinforced by my frequent visits to the gallery where the painting was hung and prolonged my looking. But looking at what? A flat black square that was aloof, stand-offish, unwelcoming, and even arrogant, staring at me “eye to eye” and revealing nothing, except a subtle grid of low-light black shadows that felt like a mirage. It must have been this ambiguous and daring aspect of the painting that tickled my curiosity, probing me to go further. I delved into the artist’s writings and became immersed in his word-play, turning and twisting sense and non-sense, logic and absurdity, humor and paradox. I shared his leftist convictions and admired his non-conformist attitude towards commodification of the art world. I loved his satirical cartoons and accepted his separation of art and politics, and learned to appreciate his pathways from cubism to pure abstraction. From there it became evident that the black painting was not the ultimate end—which went against his claim that, “My paintings are the last paintings one can make”—nor was it a void or total emptiness, or a negation of the past tradition. Quite contrary, for Reinhardt the black painting meant a new beginning, a state of potency, and fullness of light instead of colors.
Clearly, Reinhardt was a philosopher at heart akin to Kant and Hegel’s idealism, striving for the disinterested contemplation of the former and the absolute spirit of the latter. Pushing color into light, shape into space, material into immaterial, and the visible into invisible, he arrived at his black paintings as the state of mind separated from the realities of life. For Reinhardt, politics offered a possibility of social change, and art created a place for peacefulness but also selfness. While this view somewhat echoes eastern thought—which he was familiar with from Hindu, Buddhist, Tao, and Zen scripts but also his travels to Asia and the Middle East—it also stands by some Marxist theories, especially those of Theodor Adorno, who witnessed the dangers of the ideological manipulation of art from the 1930s through the cold war.
For this purist and separatist attitude of art and life that was inherently non-subjective, non-expressionist, non-narrative, non-ideological, and non-symbolic, Reinhardt went under fire not only from his own contemporaries but also from the succeeding generations of artists and critics. Today, in our globally connected world ruled by social media and digital technologies, Reinhardt’s position is even more at odds with current advocacies of socially engaged art, and strategies of civic engagement and public interaction. Nevertheless, his view offers an important alternative.
For Reinhardt, the purpose of art—his black paintings specifically—is to elicit a serene, introspective experience, and to communicate indirectly via allusive language of silence rather than an explicit meaning. This view resonates strongly with that of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a contemporary of Reinhardt who stated that, “the voices of painting are the voices of silence.” This is something I did not know at the time, and have arrived to through writings by Merleau-Ponty, with whom, I find, Reinhardt shared a common philosophical ground. During the years of studying Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy I have realized that his indirect ontology, operating via ongoing questioning rather than providing answers, is related to Reinhardt’s approach to art, applying questions and negation, not in an antagonistic or nihilistic way (as it was perceived by many artists and critics of his time), but rather in a thought-provoking and challenging manner. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of a hyper-dialectic, or a dialectic without synthesis of opposites, supports Reinhardt’s art as a co-existence of opposites, especially that of art and life. The artist and the philosopher’s positions converge here, as they both argue that politics functions through concrete social actions while art exists in the realm of contemplation. Both were attacked for this position; their views were criticized as apolitical and ahistorical. Art for Reinhardt and Merleau-Ponty held the power to transport viewers from an immediate, visible reality to a deeper, invisible space. It is this affective power of knowing beyond intellectualization, articulated by Merleau-Ponty, which may now, 25 years later, explain my initial speechless reaction to Reinhardt’s Abstraction No. 11.
VESELA SRETENOVIC is Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.