Reading Ad Reinhardt
The text you will read requests a certain indulgence as it was written originally when I was a 24-year-old junior curator. The announcement of a major exhibition of Ad Reinhardt in Europe, organized by Karl Ruhrberg, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, together with Katharina Schmidt, and the remarkable Jan Leering of the van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven prompted me to convince the director of the Centre National d’art Contemporain, where I was working at the time, that it should come to Paris. The show traveled after Paris to Zurich (Kunsthaus), and Vienna (Museum of the 20th Century). At this time the Jewish Museum was the only U.S. museum in his native country to have held a Reinhardt retrospective.
The text was written for the Paris edition of the catalogue. It expresses that attention to Reinhardt in Europe coincided with his growing reputation in certain artistic circles—Minimal and Conceptual especially. The show concluded with a room of the black paintings in a U-shape: three identical walls with two black paintings of identical size on each wall—Reinhardt appeared as the last of the painters. The artist who paved the way to contemporary art theory. Catherine Millet who had just founded the magazine Art Press in which she published texts on Conceptual artists wrote in one of the first issues of Chroniques de l’Art Vivant a long essay on Reinhardt. She wrote, “Reinhardt’s approach inaugurates this method of the objectification of anglo-saxon art, the last manifestations of which are those of Conceptual art (notably Art & Language and Joseph Kosuth).” Reinhardt’s formulas such as art-as-art or my paintings are the last paintings that anyone can paint. resounded in the early ’70s with an explosive actuality. Free of the old formulas of Abstract Expressionism or informal art, leaving behind the repetition of geometric art, young artists and critics saw in Reinhardt the affirmation of an ultimate painting. He opened the way to forms liberated from painting and thus from the constraints of the field of white canvas.
Naturally this reading—and the title of my essay emphasizes this overly theoretical vision of a painter who also expressed himself in texts and illustrated manifestos—seems today too simplified. Thus, it must be resituated in the context of that period.
The exhibition contained 65 works and was presented in Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, a prestigious space that was slowly becoming receptive to contemporary art. The Reinhardt retrospective, which was followed by a major Barnett Newman exhibition, had few visitors because of the indifference of the time to exhibitions that did not obey the desires of the public. But a new generation of artists and art critics gave it the attention it deserved. This was what was essential.
Paris, November 2013
In the last years of his life, Ad Reinhardt ceaselessly repainted the same painting, adopting the same structure and applying shades of the same color on the same surface. From 1960, the black paintings were square format, measuring five feet in length and five feet in height identically divided into nine equal squares and coated in shades of black in values that varied only imperceptibly.
Yet while he chose a serial repetition, Reinhardt also chose to paint these canvases by hand, and not to use the industrial techniques provided by mechanical reproduction. He painted, as he himself said, “the last painting that can be painted.”
Reading a black painting is not to stop at a simple formal description but to gain awareness that while persisting in the practice of painting by hand, Reinhardt projects this individualistic practice into a serial system and thus toward replication. His art is not made by controlled chance as in “action painting,”—in which each work reflects a moment of creation— nor is it reduced to a geometric code that helps to diversify the interior composition of a given system. Mondrian never painted the same painting but rather sought to renew the distribution of lines and colors to show the infinite variations made possible by the rigorous laws of Neoplasticism. If Reinhardt adopted a geometric, cruciform schema—as did Malevich at the beginning of the century—no doubt because it acted as a structure simple and reduced enough not to lend to the confusion of interpretation; but also because its symmetry permits a limitless repetition. Likewise, in effacing gesture and avoiding the trace of the brush, Reinhardt deviates from Abstract Expressionism and de-sentimentalizes painting.
To only see, then, an obsessive repetition in this last series of black paintings, a refusal to push the formal reading further, would be to forget their plastic outcome. Reinhardt’s paintings tend toward extreme bareness of the surface, approaching a totally monochromatic state as the last relations of color gradually fade, without ever covering the canvas in a uniform color. Toward this end, similar works in an uninterrupted sequence suggest that only the death of painting will stop the repetition.
By choosing abstraction at the end of the ’30s, Ad Reinhardt made paintings and collages in which the rather liberal geometric composition evoked Cubist abstraction. We must remember that even though abstract art was already fashionable in Europe, it was more rare among American artists. Pollock, Rothko, and Newman did not definitively take up abstraction until after 1945. Reinhardt was one of the only painters of his generation never to have passed through a surrealist phase of automatism, who from the beginning chose non-representational forms. Through the ’40s, Reinhardt’s paintings distinguished themselves from European abstraction through a total occupation with surface rather than readable formal structure, without compositional elements that outweigh one another. The paintings were organized by signs, either of a geometric order, of small rectangles of color fitting into one another, or of a blurred and less clearly delimited order, creating together the characteristics of “all-over” painting.
From 1950 onwards, Ad Reinhardt simultaneously decided to adopt a symmetrical spatial division and cruciform schema, and move toward a quasi-monochrome surface. The laws that governed his pictorial system are perfectly defined by Reinhardt and he never renounced these fundamental propositions. Nevertheless, even if at that time he painted extremely somber works, the cruciform inscribed into a perfect square, they suggest long contemplation. The colors of these paintings, as well as the manner in which they are distributed among the squares, are definitively matters of choice. It would take until the 1960s, with the final works of this series, for each painting to “appear” rigorously identical. Before he utilized black, Reinhardt painted works in red and blue in a rectangular format, most often to be hung vertically. Here, the arrangement of the squares is relatively complex: the crossing of lines, the absolute law of formal composition in Reinhardt, can occur in different places, or even at a single point that is not necessarily located at the center of the canvas.
As the colors darkened into extremely subtle tones, and as the lines found themselves less hidden, the compositions of the paintings were gradually simplified. The austerity of the paintings speaks to the rigor of their structure. This schema of nine equal squares inscribed in one square, which characterizes the final black paintings where composition is reduced to a minimum, is totally symmetrical, even disappearing under the monochrome look of the surface. This is the outcome of ongoing research with regard to the distribution of color and the partitioning of the squares.
One series of studies, presenting diverse formal elaborations of a central cross, proves just how undecided Reinhardt could remain about the definitive structure of these works. Though some of these last black paintings are titled “Ultimate Painting,” this is not to suggest the end of painting—contrary to what Reinhardt believed—but the culminating point of an oeuvre, the ultimate paintings of an artist who thought he had completed his run of aesthetic investigation.
To read a black painting is to situate it in the historical context of Reinhardt’s oeuvre. It is also to ignore a whole critical commentary by the painter wherein the work of art is not comprehensible. “No symbol, No image, No sign,” says Reinhardt. Thus he abolishes the narrative function of painting. It is the return of a performance or moment of creation; in going through formal reduction, Reinhardt no longer allows the viewer to use the painting as a kind of signifier to be interpreted. There is nothing to see in a painting by Ad Reinhardt other than the painting. One could of course ascribe to all artwork the objective to invent and reinvent art. But to achieve a series of intermediary strategic phases are nessesary: the presence of a religious scene for example in a painting of the 14th century, like that of an object in an assemblage or even the gestural trace in an abstract painting, would ultimately serve as pretexts for purely visual data.
Panofsky distinguishes three levels of signification in the work of art: first, the immediately legible (formal perception), then that which is identified in representation (expressive signification), and finally the meaning of this representation (intrinsic meaning or content). The painting of Ad Reinhardt bypasses these intermediaries: it expresses and shows the painting directly. It radically eliminates all that which could be associated with interpretations. It does not privilege any part of the painting but rather seeks to render its structure and color invisible. Finally it is indescribable; or rather its description, as accurate as it is, leads only to a dead end, always repeating the same findings without bringing—contrary to the theory of Panofsky—all elements to their equal signification.
It is through this absence of references to the external world, this withdrawal into the self, and thus the reflexive character that the paintings of Reinhardt, particularly the black paintings, opened up a new type of art in the United States as in Europe.
In 1966, the Jewish Museum of New York organized an exhibition entitled “Primary Structures” that gathered, for the first time, a new generation of American artists (a few months later, the same museum presented the first Reinhardt retrospective). This new work, which critics called “minimal art,” only continued in three dimensions the pictorial research of Reinhardt. Don Judd, Sol Lewitt, Robert Morris chose the most simple forms possible (cubes, rhomboids) and grouped them in series. Moreover, minimal sculptures were realized in industrial materials so that the artists merely drew up plans but never involved themselves in fabrication. While Reinhardt was still painting his canvases, the practice no longer mattered to the minimalists. Yet the goal stayed the same: to depersonalize form and thus to remove any trace of the hand. That these artists cited Reinhardt matters little. The point is that they participated in the same formal reduction through the refusal of showing their own action. (It is interesting to note that primary structures appeared in the United States between 1960 and 1965, the years of the final black paintings).
One other aspect of Reinhardt’s work of great importance for the trends of more recent art is this principle of systematic repetition. That Reinhardt, as we have said, felt the completion of his painting and the necessity to repeat his process to the point of perfection is, in many ways, exemplary. Without this principle, Reinhardt’s art would have remained a game of forms and colors that could not open into a fundamental interrogation of painting. Instead it puts an end to the work of art, and calls into question the entire artistic proposition of painting. The minimal artists resolved these problems through permutations (Morris), combinations of identical forms (Lewitt), and through variations in material qualities (Judd). But when Daniel Buren tirelessly alternated bands of color and bands of white of the same width, he pushed to the extreme this principle of repetition and, conscious of the “neutrality” of his work, accompanied them with texts that situated his practice.
To move toward an art without images, toward purely conceptual content, the only step left is to question the existence of art. The conceptual artists are certainly those who were most strongly influenced by Reinhardt’s work. From 1966, Joseph Kosuth, one of the principal representatives of this then-nonexistent movement, wrote an important study of Reinhardt for the School of Visual Arts. Conceptual art focuses on the reflexive character of artistic production: it employs many disciplines, such as linguistics and mathematics, to open the field of investigation and to put art on the same level as any science. Primary structures continued the aesthetic analysis of Reinhardt; the conceptual artists retained the theoretical lesson of the black paintings. To Reinhardt’s celebrated formula “Art-as-Art,” Kosuth responded with “Art as Idea as Idea.” By defining itself as a type of auto-analysis, conceptual art could refer to Reinhardt as having already upset the painting-signification relationship.
This influence of Reinhardt on following generations is characterized by a certain type of interpretation. It is certain that one viewing of the black paintings is not exhaustive: it would neglect their specific aesthetic qualities, and the color relations. It is certainly crucial which parts of Reinhardt’s art thus gave rise to these diverse interpretations, which always pointed in the same direction of formal reduction and theoretical speculation. But to read Ad Reinhardt, there is also the problem of the seeming “monochromes” of the black paintings, which appeared like an extremely subtle, somber color game. Ad Reinhardt is located at the junction of two generations: that of abstract American painters who manipulated forms and colors in immense formats and offered new possibilities of paintings—the spectator no longer finds himself faced with an object but literally in the canvas—and those younger artists, for whom he played a greater role, who abandoned the support of canvas in favor of three-dimensional forms and by extension changed the concept of art.
The black paintings cannot be reduced to one idea: they remain a pictorial act that appeals to both intellectual perception and sensory contact which follows from the definition of the “monochromes.” In opposing a completely uniform surface, Reinhardt stresses the purely pictorial significance of his art. This requires an attentive examination of each painting to discern its tonal relations. The refusal of the absolute monochrome also explains Reinhardt’s chosen system: a black painting exists only in the combination of two principles, the reduction of the relations of forms and the reduction of relations. For as simplified and hidden as these relations are, they can never be abolished entirely. A monochrome painting no longer has visible structure, and thus would go against Reinhardt’s fundamental law. Reading Ad Reinhardt in order to realize the signification and importance of his work is initially seeing his painting.
Excerpt from Ad Reinhardt, Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, May-July 1973.
ALFRED PACQUEMENT is Director of the Musee national d'art moderne/Centre de creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France.