Reading Ad Reinhardt in Poland

I came to Ad Reinhardt’s art via his writings, not his paintings. In 2000 I was working as an English teacher at various local language schools in Lublin when I was offered a position at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. Once a week I drove with Jerzy (Jurek) Kutnik, my former teacher, to a college some 70 miles from Lublin where we both had our second jobs, a financial necessity for most Polish academics. During those rides he told me about his work as a professor of American studies. I knew he had written a book on the fiction of two American experimental novelists, Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman (published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1986) and two books, both in Polish, on John Cage—one a short introduction to his life and career (1993), the other on Cage as a writer (1997). It was the latter that intrigued me. A study of the writings of a composer who did not distinguish between musical sounds and noise and who was the personification of anarchy? What two things could be more distant than communicating thought in writing using a rigorous system of rules that constitute language, on the one hand, and making music from accidental sounds and silence, on the other? Intention vs. random chance. Well, I was about to start my education. Reading Jurek’s books I discovered that, especially in art, black is not the opposite of white, silence is not absence of sound, chance is not chaos. There is food for the eye, the ear, and the mind in everything an artist does—there is order where none can be seen.

In London in the early 1990s I became an avid museum and gallery goer and reader/peruser of art books. I consciously chose the visual arts over literature. But then I learned from Jurek, a literary scholar, that it was not necessary to chose one or the other—because they were essentially one. Cage, a composer and musician, wrote essays, lectures, and poetry that he meant as music, just as Sukenick and Federman wrote novels which they considered as performances more akin to Jackson Pollock’s “action” painting than stories “about.” Writing, I read in Jurek’s The Novel as Performance, is an experience that does not need external justification because it is an autonomous act in which the artist declares a thought into being not just by referring, with/in words to something that exists beyond and independently of them but by giving it a “verbivocovisual” (Joyce’s term) form that establishes itself as a reality in its own right, as something that can be experienced and responded to by others. But how universally true is that? Wasn’t Cage, a writing composer, an exception? After all, how many writers paint or compose music and how many painters write poetry or fiction? A legitimate question, we decided, one worth probing.

That’s how I myself became an academic. Under my mentor’s direction I wrote a doctoral dissertation about three very different painters who more than dabbled in ink. Thomas Hart Benton (a realist), Marsden Hartley (a modernist), and Ad Reinhardt (a maverick) were serious, compulsive writers. I instantly (read: easily) fell in love with Benton’s flamboyant storytelling and Hartley’s neurotic intensity, but the apparent black coldness of Reinhardt, I knew from the start, was my real challenge. Minimalist was more than just a term describing his expression. It was also descriptive of my own situation. My resources on Reinhardt were just two books: Rizzoli’s 1991 exhibition catalogue and Barbara Rose’s anthology of his writings, both excavated from Jurek’s collection of unlikely classics and oddities. In time I would add Lucy Lippard’s book to my bibliography, but that did not change the fact that my experience of Reinhardt’s art remained purely intellectual, and not retinal, not because of my disposition but because I could not look at his paintings. In fact, I would only see my (I mean his) first black square during the recent opening of the centennial anniversary exhibition at David Zwirner. Relying on Lippard’s marvelously accurate description of the experience of being confronted with a black Reinhardt, I wondered how that experience, which I could only access through language but which the painter himself had lived with and pondered daily, must have been somehow inscribed by him in his beautifully calligraphed and poetic art-as-art manifestoes. I soon came to appreciate the fact that there was nothing between myself and his writing. Just as, working in my Lublin home some 4,500 miles from New York City, I had to make do with no memory of actually looking at Reinhardt’s paintings, there was little interference from other people’s readings of his texts, either. After all, the scarcity of critical literature about artists’ writings was the rationale behind my project. Unburdened, I delved into the painter’s art-as-art dogma. One by one, I would find in between and underneath his words equivalents and traces of his reductionist visual grammar and imagery.

I would also finally understand why, given the obvious affinity between Reinhardt’s idea of purity and Cage’s concepts of silence, emptiness, and nothingness, the former was skeptical about the latter’s approach to art. Like so many others, Reinhardt dismissed Cage’s dedication to chance operations as a means of cleansing music of one’s “likes and dislikes” because he identified chance with lack of discipline. For Reinhardt, craftsmanship, precision, and refinement were absolutely crucial in doing away with all that contaminated or diluted the essence of painting, all foreign and superfluous matter that had accrued as painting developed through the ages. The irony is that the mistrust was mutual, or reciprocal, and equally unfounded at both ends, which Cage almost perversely acknowledged in an interview, stating, “[Reinhardt’s] work was so appealing that I tended to resist its appeal.” This reminds me of Pollock’s observation that he needed Benton as someone to resist in order to develop as an artist. But when I think of Reinhardt’s impact on artists in my country, where he has never been exhibited or studied extensively (one notable exception being Leszek Brogowski), I see a different type of interaction. I am surprised to see how many contemporary Polish painters are familiar with and acknowledge being influenced by Reinhardt, this in a country where the thought of, say, Malevich, is a much more natural legacy to draw from. Among recent Polish abstractionists one could mention Roman Opałka, Ryszard Wasko, Aleksandra Jachtoma, and Stefan Gierowski. Michał Rybiński recently adopted as the motto of his exhibition at the City Gallery in Lodz this statement by Reinhardt: “The one meaning in art comes from art working and the more an artist works, the more there is to do. Artists come from artists, art forms come from art forms, painting comes from painting.” Where Reinhardt’s writing came from is the underlying question of my study.

Inquisitive, determined, and uncompromising, Reinhardt made a significant contribution to the art of his time not only as a painter, but also as a conceptual thinker. Of course, he was not the only one of his generation who both painted and wrote, though the majority of the Abstract Expressionists were so bewildered, maybe even shocked, by their own art that they remained inarticulate, speechless in the face of its raw newness (the most notorious examples of such speechlessness are Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning). Among the more vocal members of the group, several regularly wrote about their own painting and about art in general. The critical disposition of Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, or Mark Rothko manifested itself in the theoretical and speculative essays, exhibition reviews, and commentaries they wrote. What makes Reinhardt stand out, however, is that unlike them he consistently and emphatically treated writing as an integral and inseparable part of art as he envisioned and practiced it as a painter, and not as an additional, functionally different activity. Importantly, too, many of his texts, even when they were intended as utilitarian, content-oriented expositions of his aesthetics, display characteristics of visual or hybrid (mixed media) art, sharing with his paintings the artist’s unique and utterly idiosyncratic sense of unity of form and content.

Reinhardt dedicated himself to the study of abstract form’s inherent meaningfulness. Working on the “reality of the painted surface,” he consciously explored the picture plane as “the concentrated, personal area of space, a color language and thinking,” revealing his natural inclination to develop and work with systems governed by logic. The square appealed to him because of the minimalist concreteness of its most obvious conceptual connotations—structure and order. In a grid structure based upon the square, he found what he admired so much in Oriental art, about which he wrote: “Everything is prescribed and proscribed. Only in this way is there no grasping or clinging to anything. Only a standard form can be imageless, only a stereotyped image can be formless, only a formularized art can be formulaless. There is no other way of getting rid of all qualities and substances.” He also wrote: “There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control.” To neutralize the expressivity and symbolism of particular colors, he made voluminous notes in which he tried to exhaust all associative connotations and clear the ground to enable experiencing color for what it is and not for what it means. By resorting to writing to explicate and justify what he did, he seemed to contradict, or at least weaken, his dogmatist dismissal of anything that might dilute or contaminate the purity he was striving to achieve in painting. But this dismissive impulse was irresistible and in the end it effectively served his purpose. Even though every one of Reinhardt’s squares seems to announce “the end of painting,” each in fact opens a new window through which a unique configuration of shapes can be perceived and perused. Each of his black squares is different precisely because his “black” is not really black. What is important, of course, is that the purely sensual experience is internalized by consciousness as thoughts triggered by purely optical stimuli. The mind “reads” blackness as a figure of speech—an abstract concept like “nothingness,” “emptiness,” and “silence,” all suggestive of a certain elusive condition—and not as the medium’s concrete, physical attribute relevant to the senses alone. Even though Reinhardt idealistically wished his paintings to be able to generate pure aesthetic experience, realistically he accepted that there is no escaping ratiocination, both in the process of the work’s creation and its perception by the viewer. We can try to imagine the experience of seeing a black painting as non-verbal perception reserved entirely for the senses, but words inevitably come to mind, and they certainly did to Reinhardt’s.

Many writings by artists represent a level of craft on par with literary masterpieces of writers and even those works of lesser literary value are important because all testify to the special nature of artistic sensibility. It may uniquely manifest itself when an artist resorts to verbal expression to reveal the intricate and paradoxical nature of cognition and articulates his insights in a language that is fresh and yet accurate. Language-based self-awareness, today identified as the defining trait of postmodern consciousness, is the hallmark of great literature irrespective of time and place, and Reinhardt’s texts are among the most outstanding and exceptional examples of that.


Edyta Frelik

EDYTA FRELIK, a Polish citizen, is an Americanist at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, in Lublin, Poland.