Ad Reinhardt: Slidesby Prudence Peiffer
During the last two decades of his life, Ad Reinhardt compiled a collection of over 12,000 slides that he projected in lectures at his apartment, friends’ homes, and the Artists’ Club—where he and his colleagues often met to debate the state of art—and teaching international surveys of art history at Brooklyn and Hunter College in New York. Most of these slides were made from photographs he took with his 35 mm Leica camera on world travels beginning in 1952 until the year of his death, 1967; other images were culled from magazines and museum collections. He put together many of the slides himself, with the help of his daughter, Anna, sometimes cropping images with tape. Slides were kept in 56 metal and plastic boxes in his studio, labeled under such broad classifications as “Ancient China” or “Mexico”; a number of these boxes remain in the order of Reinhardt’s last use of them during one of his serial talks, enthusiastically mixing geographic locations and periods.
While Reinhardt is best known as a painter of reductive, dark abstract canvases, he had a life-long interest in photography. He served as a naval photographer during the Second World War, and throughout his career explored the formal and theoretical relationship between the mechanical capacity of “pictures” (cartoons, photographs, film) and the pure fulfillment of “painting” (the apotheosis of his praxis, abstraction). In 1952, Reinhardt first went to Europe with the critic Martin James to see art; he traveled to Spain, Greece, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Glasgow, Rome, Munich, and Nuremberg; India, Asia, Japan, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt; throughout Europe; to Turkey, Syria, and Jordan; the Yucatan; and London, Tokyo, Rome, and Montreal—to give a partial chronological list of the trips he managed to take while having a family, making art, and teaching.1 He took photos all along the way, including around his hometown, New York City, juxtaposing masterpieces and sidewalks, ship rails and pyramids. “I needed more time to find more things to point my camera at,” he wrote to Thomas Merton when he went to visit his Trappist monk friend in Kentucky. Reinhardt’s archival activity and comments suggest an unrequited appetite for pictures taken with what he called his “magic box.”2 He wanted to share what was at stake: “Next time I come I’ll bring a projector, and project for you the wonders of the world,” Reinhardt once wrote to Merton.3
As with every aspect of Reinhardt’s art practice, his engagement with photography was technically, intellectually, and aesthetically rigorous, helping him—and us—see more. Former student and art historian Dale McConathy remembered, “Expeditions to stalk the slides were mounted with all the care and research of a 19th-century scientific foray. Ad chose his destination and then he studied up. No ruin or fragment of ruin, no scrap of vellum was too small to escape his notice. Style was everywhere.”4 The result was a series of unexpected images rhyming shared features found in famous artwork and landmarks with brick walls, windmills, fire hydrants, and skyscrapers, from Oregon to Asia. Many slides share compelling affinities to the composition of his paintings: a centered view with strong light contrast, devoid of figures but subtlety diagrammatic. If the figure was banished from Reinhardt’s paintings after 1939, and rarely present in his photographs, Reinhardt played with corporeal and erotic significations in banal objects and patterns and cropped views that he snapped with his camera, using the very idea of accumulated associations to humorous ends. (One such slide series manages to rhyme the buttocks of various statues with curved sculptures and city block features, including rounded fire hydrants.)
Reinhardt focused the shot to create a very specific perspective vision, such that the artist Robert Morris envisioned Reinhardt as the camera itself. “It was his eye through the camera and his use of the camera. Although he never really emphasized that. Or even spoke about it…art history was very personal through the eyes of Ad Reinhardt.”5 This is also evident in shots of Reinhardt “in the field,” as it were, around the world, where his poses also act as witty iterations of form and focused vision: standing straight and narrow in front of an obelisk, or in the same s-curve as a statue in Paris.
Seeing an artwork as part of a continuum dates to the invention of art history. Slides were first used to teach about paintings and sculpture in university settings in the 1880s; by the 1920s most institutions had established slide libraries. Riffing on this legacy, and reflecting a rise in personal photography in the US following the war, Reinhardt made the slideshow all his own. He referred to his lectures as “non-happenings”—they were often send-ups of both the avant-garde “happenings” also taking place in New York at the time, and the traditional university art history lecture, affectionately known as “darkness at noon.” Reinhardt staged his presentations to thwart expectation and even exhaust his audience. (He once showed over 2,000 slides in one sitting at the Artists’ Club, in a talk that began at 10 pm.) “He’d sit with the tray in his lap, feeding the slides into the projector, improvising as he went along,” Dale McConathy described. “His commentary ranged between art history and a devilish parody of the travelogue.”6 Reinhardt’s seemingly infinite catalogue mirrored his interest in two influential postwar theories of art classification: André Malraux’s conception of a museum without walls, and George Kubler’s framing of objects and history in The Shape of Time.
The slides suggest a far more protean body of work than we might first imagine, one in which important formal and theoretical affinities might be traced among Reinhardt’s iconic paintings and his more peripheral if prolific projects, including the slide lectures, collage cartoons, and writing. The slides’ presentation format was a productive foil for his paintings. Reinhardt’s lectures cast the viewer into a darkened space where light appears and disappears, not unlike descriptions of his black paintings that imagine the works’ “promise of a speck of light,” provocatively likened to both “seeing in the dark” and having the lights turned off.7 But while Reinhardt’s black paintings hold their light in to possessive dimness, requiring time to see them at all, the slide photographs boldly proclaim their images in quick succession through light. His slides lecture was most prominent at exactly the moment that he turned to painting only black canvases, demonstrating the “ultimate” purity of those canvases, which were purposefully “invisible”—impossible to reproduce well in photographic or slide reproduction. For someone working in such a reductive and prescribed palette during this coincidental period, his photographic archive stands as an equally extreme position of collective and colorful excess.
To consider Reinhardt’s slides is also to rethink the resonances of his practice into our present moment. Even if Reinhardt himself underplayed photography in official accounts, his extensive travel and the thousands of meticulous slides it produced, as well as photography’s unofficial presence across multiple texts, suggest a different story. The slides are not just important as an insular interpretation of a particular cut of Modernism, but also a personal articulation of how that Modernism might be continuously adopted and reworked.
Reinhardt’s world art photographic archive and its unique deployment proved an indelible influence on the next generation of artists, including Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson, and a prescient engagement with issues of image saturation and the historical canon found throughout some of the most ambitious art projects today.
1. See “Chronology” in Lucy Lippard, Ad Reinhardt (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1981), 198 – 203.
2. As quoted in Roger Lipsey, “Do I Want a Small Painting?: The Correspondence of Thomas Merton and Ad Reinhardt: An Introduction and Commentary,” The Merton Annual 18 (November 2005): 279.
3. Lipsey, 276.
4. Dale McConathy, “Ad Reinhardt: ‘He Loved to Confuse and Confound,’” in ArtNews Vol. 79, #4, (April 1980): 58.
5. Oral History Interview with Robert Morris, 1968 Mar 10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
6. McConathy, 58.
7. Yve-Alain Bois, “The Limit of Almost,” 28. And David Sylvester, “Blackish,” The New Statesman, (June 12, 1964): 924.
PRUDENCE PEIFFER is an editor of Artforum magazine.