Ad Locum: Reinhardt’s Negative Politics of Place

Ad Reinhardt’s proposed leaflet for an art-strike in 1961 showcases the painter’s Rabelaisian affection for lists, as well as a vivid sample of the artist’s disaffection with the art world. The leaflet, which ventriloquizes commands offered by a fictional “International Truck(l)er’s Union,” is exhaustive in its inventory of art world villains, hailing them with a string of categorical vocatives: Fauve-finks and Futurist scabs are beckoned, as well as turncoats and loan-sharks, fences and curator-pushers, not to mention critic-boosters, arsonists, art history hustlers, moonlighters, informers, parrots, toadies, tax evaders, axe grinders, landlord-lovers, ward heelers, politicos, romantics, architects, speculators, and sponges. All are encouraged to break the strike by crossing picket lines, going to museums, buying art. All are dared to join the growing Liberalist propaganda wing of New York’s museums by, among other things, entering the Steichenesque “New-Images-of-Man-Civil-Defense-Shelter-Mural-Prize-Competition” and contributing money to “nature-in-abstraction-fall-out-experiments” (the latter referring to the Whitney’s 1958 Nature in Abstraction exhibition, which ethos of pastoral contentment Reinhardt likened to Cold War complicity).

Reinhardt papers. Archives of American Art. Image courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

This bit of negative interpellation (to invert Althusser’s term) is a neat trick. It’s funny, but it’s also instrumental. Reinhardt’s leaflet lures the attention and allegiance of readers by dangling in front of them those categories with which they would not wish to identify (call it Category A: sell-outs, knuckleheads) in order to ensure that they will also want to avoid identification with other, less intuitively suspect folks (Category B: architects, speculators—more on those in a minute) and opt instead for an unspecified political position discernible primarily by virtue of its negative relation to the other categories (Category C: that which is not equal to options A and B). This last option thus assumes that within the heart of the reader is a moral core that, in its purity, shrinks from direct view and works primarily by not being The Wrong. Such a core needs no instruction other than the presentation of negative examples that it should reliably decline. Upon this regimen of dis-identification the leaflet then layers another negation, as its reverse psychology instructs the moral reader on the importance of non-action. For, in the estimation Reinhardt and many others, it was through the not-doing of things—not selling, not buying, not looking at art—that one could best help artists at that moment.

Remarkably, of all those listed on the leaflet, it was the landlords, architects, speculators, politicians, and ward-heelers that were the biggest culprits of the day, and it was because of them that the strike was looming. Since the 1950s, many artists had been subjected to all manner of real estate shenanigans, with developers and zoning officials kicking them out of their Greenwich Village studios so as to clear the way for more profitable alternatives. But in 1960, after three firemen died in a blaze at Broadway and Grand, the fire commissioner initiated “the most intensive and active fire inspection ever conducted in any part of the country,” which entailed rousting those living illegally in the loft district of southwest Manhattan—that area which would soon be named SoHo.1 Many of those evicted were artists, who objected that the zoning laws they ostensibly violated had originally been written to prevent crowded sweatshops, not the occupancy of vast, high ceilinged places by an artist or two and their canvases.2 As the schedule of evictions intensified, it began to look less like a safety policy and more like a concerted plan among city planners to raze, modernize, and gentrify yet another zone of the city. Hence Reinhardt’s inclusion of “arsonists” among the categorical ad hominems of his leaflet, by which he was suggesting that the “danger of fire” as a motivating force for the evictions was in itself verging on a criminal act by which the city planned to burn the art world to the ground.

In protest, Reinhardt joined scores (possibly hundreds) of artists who would fortify the ranks of a preexisting downtown organization known as the Artist Tenants Association.3 Some of the protesters were famous as well as vocal: both Reinhardt and Willem de Kooning appeared on every list of those associated with the movement, the latter suggesting in Newsweek that the evictions were part of the city’s years-long plan to root out bohemian culture through repressive ordinances: “First, people couldn’t [sing in the park], then no coffee houses. Now this. I think I smell a rat!”4 As the resistance movement solidified over the summer, Reinhardt would put his name first on a list of 70 names circulated to news sources as a “random choice of names from among the hundreds of artists who are participating in the boycott of September 11, 1961.” The roster included a motley team of artists unlikely to be unified under any other circumstances. Along with Reinhardt and de Kooning, Richard Stankiewicz, James Gahagan, Sidney Geist, Israel Levitan, Jasper Johns, Philip Pearlstein, Robert Gwathmey, Boris Lurie, Alex Katz, George L. K. Morris, Fairfield Porter, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark di Suvero, and others, all declaring that if the city did not stop the evictions and declare an official policy in support of artists’ rights as renters and residents of Manhattan, they would boycott every public iteration of art in the public sphere.5 They would neither show their work in galleries nor would they lend works to museums for exhibition. They would give no interviews or lectures, nor would they appear at gallery openings.6 They would, in the wording of one report, affect a “total withdrawal from community life by artists.”7

That Reinhardt should have supported the strike should come as no surprise. Reinhardt was famously progressive in his politics, of course. Indeed, he was so active in political causes that one might have worried that he was too busy with other things in the spring of 1961 to worry about lofts (at the same time that he was advocating the strike, he was agitating for the release of David Alfaro Siqueiros as well as joining forces with the Civil Defense Protest Committee).8

Adding his name to those of other famous artists downtown, Reinhardt helped generate a buzz that would provoke substantial press coverage, with dozens of stories on pages both glossy and newsprint across the country, including an article on the front page of the New York Times.9 Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to support the artists’ cause.10 James Michener penned an essay of unequivocal support in the Saturday Review, in which he shamed the city government by contrasting the woeful real estate predicament of New York artists (to whom the United States then owed its newly central location on the world’s cultural map) to the ways in which France lavished appreciation upon artists like Picasso in the form of gifted castles.11 (Michener’s essay makes explicit reference to the “wild and witty” Ad Reinhardt in his shortlist of most notable agitators for the cause.) Mayor Robert Wagner was especially vulnerable to this bad press since it was an election year, and his opponent was using the issue as a wedge into Wagner’s claim that he supported the arts.12 Scrambling for a solution, the mayor seemed ready to offer relocation as an appeasement when he supported a massive West Side middle-income housing project in which 200 apartments with northern exposure would be reserved for artists displaced from their lofts—“but not Greenwich Village beatniks,” a spokesman assured reporters.13 Neither the housing project nor the relocation plan survived the year.14

One of the strategic advantages of Reinhardt’s rhetoric of negation on his leaflet was that it saved him from having to claim any kind of monolithic consensus among artists during this crisis—which became especially necessary as differences of opinion among the artists about the boycott’s necessity and potential payoff began leaking to the press. The Village Voice published some embarrassing remarks from a letter by Elaine de Kooning in which she suspected that the renters’ situation was not as severe as some claimed; she also anticipated that the strike would have little consequence other than “harassing” their allies at museums and galleries.15 (In spite of her reservations, however, Elaine De Kooning signed the public commitment to strike in a letter published in the September issue of ARTnews.)16 Meanwhile, several founding members of the ATA, including its first chairman Dan Koener, preferred cordial negotiations with city officials to the spectacle of a strike; they resigned from organization and declared the boycott to be the work of opportunistic grandstanders (this would be Reinhardt, et al.) jockeying for publicity.17 “These people act upon the assumption that their withdrawal would be earth-shaking news, exposing before the world a Philistine city,” Koener said, “They fail to see the other side of the artist as Don Quixote. If one wants to follow their kind of logic to the ultimate, the artists, in their last desperate resolve, would gather around the Museum of Modern Art and there commit collective suicide.”18

And yet, despite such predictions of failure, the most remarkable thing happened: Artists won the fight. Just the threat of the strike by those loudmouth Don Quixotes won a four-point compromise from Mayor Wagner allowing artists to stay in their lofts. Years later, Reinhardt would still point to this victory as a defining moment in the history of art and political resistance. In a statement for ARTnews in early 1964, Reinhardt recalled,

For one moment in the early sixties, a group of young artists calling themselves the Artist Tenants Association struck terror into the heart of the art world by proposing an artists’ boycott of New York City’s galleries and museums. The artists were fighting for freedom from harassment by the fire department in their lofts merely, but the threat of an artists’ strike, even by artists who were not in galleries or museums, showed how the foundations could be shaken. The most barefaced, half-assed sham battle in the market place in recent years was the ‘Action Painters’ Protest against the Critic of The New York Times, with the artists listing themselves shamelessly with their customers, mouthpieces, devotees, and agents. […] showed how the foundations could not be shaken.19

The victory was sweet, and it has a great deal to teach us still about the capacity of unified protest to affect change, even in the face of cynical disdain. But in addition, it was an episode that has something to teach us about Reinhardt’s understanding of context for art making. Implicit in Reinhardt’s adamant support for this protest was the artist’s belief about the ways in which the world was allowed to imprint itself upon the work of art. Just note the ways in which Reinhardt’s approach to loft spaces differed from that of other artists in the same movement: in a lengthy article that the New York Times Magazine published about loft culture a year after the ATA strike was cancelled, an unnamed sculptor who worked “with a scraps of metal and an acetylene torch” claimed that lofts were responsible for the look of the art he created there:

Who was it who said “First we shape the building and then the building shapes us?” My loft has turned out the best sculpture I’ve ever done. It’s demanded more of me.20

This artist’s statement is no doubt an exaggeration, but his approach is understandable. Indeed, an artist-activist movement claiming that artists deserve special access to loft spaces might have good, instrumental cause to make such a claim. It flatters fellow citizens (your city’s unique architecture helped make the art that made America famous), just as it ratifies a plan that might reserve loft spaces for artists alone. It also makes it seem as if artists working in industrial materials somehow preserve the history of buildings originally made to house factories and sweatshops. But compare the above statement to one from Ad Reinhardt just a few years later; speaking about the architecture of art schools, Reinhardt said:

The architects who design art schools now tell you how to paint. The way they design an art school is a way of telling you what should go on there. Most students if they get a chance move into old buildings. That’s the loft idea. The artist can move into a loft and then the place becomes what goes on there, or something like that.

In other words, it was not necessarily the case that Reinhardt endorsed loft studios for artists because they promoted the production of big works, or native works, or industrial-looking works. Rather, it was because the boundaries of such open spaces were far enough away from the art proper that they seemed able to withdraw their imprint from the artist’s work. The loft was the space that let art be something else, something other than what the architecture determined. It was the not-space that was not-context and not-art. It was the perfect place, in other words, for an art like Reinhardt’s, for whom artistic purity was a precious singularity always beyond possession, for whom art was approached primarily through the whittling away of everything that art is not (not textured or brushy, not drawn, not containing forms, not designed, not colorful, not reproducible), for whom beauty consisted in the retreat from corruption of the world (“art confused with life, nature, society, politics, religion is ugly,” Reinhardt wrote for an audience of architects a few months after the threatened boycott).21

The loft was that space by which the artist might seek (though not necessarily find) a center away from the institutional moat that surrounds art making. And at the same time, if anything, Reinhardt’s leaflet dramatizes the extent to which the artist understood that there was no crossing over to art except by way of this moat. Reinhardt understood that there is no making art or seeing art without the landlord or the curator, the truck(l)ers, critic-boosters, or art history hustlers. The very category of art as something which is autonomous (such as Reinhardt wanted art to be and knew it could never be except as an asymptote)—this very notion appears as such only through institutional and disciplinary frames. The challenge in 1961, then, was to fight for the idea (this time an architectural one) of something that might open around this yearning for autonomy and against the contamination of context. It was a yearning for a frame. And the only way to make this clear, of course, is through the thoroughly institutionalized and supplementary discourses of manifestos, statements, of course, leaflets—leaflets that would stake the terms of this fight only by challenging the reader to not-fight.



NOTES

1.     The fire was on November 18, 1960. “Firemen to Close Dangerous Lofts,” The New York Times (21 November 1960): 31.

2.     NY Post. Aug 1. “the artists point out that the fire and building codes being enforced are designed to protest workers from sweatshop conditions and make no sense when applied to artists’ uncrowded work areas” p. 10.

3.     The papers of the ATA, including clippings, correspondence, and financial records, are preserved in the Smithsonian, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.

4.     Willem De Kooning quoted in “The Angry Dwellers,” Newsweek, Vol. 54 (29 May 1961): 102.

5.     Publicity Release, Artist Tenants Association, Administrative Records and Memorandum, 1961 – 1968: Box 1, Folder 18. The tally of votes to strike took place the night of July 31, 1961. Among “exhibiting artists whose work is shown in the active galleries,” the vote was 6 to 1 in favor of the strike. [Sally Hammond], “Artists Will Boycott Galleries Here Sept. 11,” New York Post (1 August 1961): 10.

6.     Relatively little has been written about this particular moment in artist activism. Alexandra Lange, however, has recently included a description of the Artist Tenants Association (ATA) in her splendid summary of several different phases of city activism among artists in postwar New York: “Romantic Icons and Urban Pioneers: Artists, Activism and Lower Manhattan in the 1960s,” in Pepe Kermel, ed., New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection (New York: Grey Art Gallery, 2008): 67 – 84. Lange’s remarks about the ATA appear on pages 72 – 73. Publications that discuss different artistic engagements with the changing development of New York City include Sarah K. Rich, “Bridging the Generation Gaps in Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue Paintings,” American Art 19 (Fall 2005): 17 – 39, and Joshua Shannon’s splendid book The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

7.     The quotation comes from coverage that appeared in the Art Students League News, Vol. 14, no. 6 (Summer 1961), contained in the Artist Tenants Association, scrapbook, 1959 – 1967, Archives of American Art, Box 2, Folder 21.

8.     Reinhardt’s name appeared with several dozen others on an advertisement in the New York Times demanding the Mexican artist’s release. New York Times (9 August 1961): 31. It was a busy time for the artist: he was in the process of protesting the imprisonment of muralist Siquieros as well as joining forces with the Civil Defense Protest Committee: (CDPC) a group of peace activists including artists, writers, intellectuals, and other public figures, all of whom argued that the rhetoric of fallout shelters mollified the true destructive power of nuclear war and damaging to society because it favored attention to individual survival rather than the survival of humanity. Reinhardt’s personal papers contain many of the CDPC’s publications, and his calendar suggests that he attended the CDPC’s public protest at City Hall on April 28, 1961. See the Reinhardt papers at the AAA, Box 2, folder 31.

9.     McCandlish Phillips, “Artists may Strike to Save Lofts: 1,000 Polled in City to Fight,” New York Times (3 July 1961): 1, 31.

10.   Joe Alex Morris Jr., “Cavanagh to Artists: Don’t Rabble Rouse,” newspaper clipping in the Artist Tenants Association, scrapbook, 1959 – 1967, Archives of American Art, Box 2, Folder 21.

11.   James Michener, “Should Artists Boycott New York?” The Saturday Review (26 August 1961): pp. 12, 48.

12.   State Controller Arthur Levitt, a rival for Wagner’s democratic nomination, said in a public statement that “he would do everything in his power to see that regulations on the occupancy of buildings were changed to permit artists ‘to live and work in any appropriate place.’” See “Lehman Assails Bosses in City / Levitt Urges Establishment of Inspections Department,” The New York Times (11 Aug 1961): 11.

13.   Dennis Duggan, New York Herald Tribune (18 August 1961). The spokesperson was Edward Swayduck, who spoke at a press conference in the presence of Mayor Wagner.

14.   “West Side Housing to Straddle Central Tracks,” New York Times (18 August 1961): 49. The mayor wasn’t the only one looking for ways to satisfy disgruntled artists. Gallerists noticed the struggle too—after all they were the ones to be most directly effects were the strike to go into effect. Betty Parsons, perhaps in an effort to keep Reinhardt, one of the stallions in her stable, from withdrawing from her gallery entirely, hosted a forum on the subject of “What Will Help the Artist Today.” Oddly, the forum may have angered the artist as much as it was meant to appease him: announced in the thick of the loft-crisis, on August 18, 1961, the forum was scheduled for September 27, which might have forced artists to break the strike in order to attend, depending upon the strike’s duration. See the letter from Betty Parsons to Ad Reinhardt, dated August 18, 1961, Correspondence files of the Ad Reinhardt Papers, Archives of American Art.

15.   The Village Voice, Aug 3, 1961, world has seen harder times than this, Mrs. De Kooning wrote. Clipping included in the PAPERS,

16.   “Artists and New York Settle Housing Dispute,” ARTnews, Vol. 60, no. 5 (September 1961): 8, 63.

17.   McCandlish Phillips, “Artists may Strike to Save Lofts,” op. cit., p. 31. Similar remarks were published again in the Times in an article by “J.C.”, “Artists’ Boycott,” New York Times (6 August 1961): 6.

18.   Koener wrote a long letter to the editor arguing that his less public approach had already won attention from the fire commissioner, who had agreed to meet with representatives of the ATA in the late spring; that meeting brought no resolution to the situation, and the strike plan was continued. Koener and his colleagues had wanted to wait for more meetings. Dan Koener, “Letter to the Editor: Artists Boycott,” Manhattan East (July 6, 1961): 2.

19.   Ad Reinhardt, “The Next Revolution in Art (Art-as-Art Dogma, Part II),” ARTnews, (February 1964), reprinted in Rose, pp. 60 – 61. The latter part of Reinhardt’s statement was referring to letters of protest, signed by Barnett Newman, Harold Rosenberg, Thomas Hess, Ben Heller and many others, regarding the conservative art criticism of Times critic John Canaday. Because the public declarations of protest included artists, collectors, and critics who cosigned joint statements, Reinhardt considered the protest simply an opportunistic networking opportunity, rather than a protest movement that entailed any true risk on the part of the participants.

20.   Gilbert Millstein, “Portrait of the Loft Generation,” New York Times Magazine (7 January 1962): 24; quoted in Lange, op. cit.
p. 69.

21.   Ad Reinhardt, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy,” ARTnews, May 1957, and Ad Reinhardt, contribution to the Round Table “Who is Responsible for Ugliness,” Journal of the American Institute of Architects 37 (June 1962): 61.

Contributor

Sarah K. Rich

SARAH K. RICH is an Associate Professor of Art History at Penn State.

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