Ad Reinhardt, Untitled, c. 1966by Christine Mehring
This gouache on photographic paper roughly matches the artist’s program for his black paintings. However, its small size, its materials, and its awkward pattern of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes immediately distinguish it from Reinhardt’s oil paintings. These peculiarities can be explained as follows: preparing for his 1966 Jewish Museum retrospective catalogue, Reinhardt painted over a photograph of one of his 1955 black paintings to correct the reproduction’s surface quality.1 Reinhardt was certain his black paintings could not be successfully photographed or otherwise reproduced, and this gouache supports his case.2 As can be inferred from its white frame, from the spots in the upper left corner where the paint has peeled, and from some of the edges of the black areas, the photograph under the layer of matte gouache has a highly glossy surface. Though this gouache is not itself a black painting, then, it forcefully demonstrates the centrality of one aspect of Reinhardt’s late work—its utter matteness.
In rule number 7 of his “Twelve Rules for a New Academy,” Reinhardt insists, “[N]o light. No bright or direct light in or over the painting. Dim, late afternoon absorbent twilight is best outside.” And here is why: “There should be no shine in the finish. Gloss reflects and relates to changing surroundings.” Reflections also presumably impair, if not destroy, our perception of the pattern of blacks. Creating minute shifts among deflated values was Reinhardt’s way of avoiding either making a three-dimensional object of a monochrome canvas or setting up a relational, dynamic composition through strong color contrasts. Compare rule number 4: “[N]o forms…no figure or fore- or background.”3
The blacks in this gouache are just different enough to break up the rectangular expanse and just similar enough to hold it together. The lighter gray area at the center of each side is clearly distinguished from the dark horizontal bar adjacent to it. Yet these areas are also integrated into the whole by the small squares, one in each corner, whose middle tone bridges the gouache’s light and dark. In the reproduction underneath the gouache, by contrast, flickering reflections must have blurred the borders between the different blacks. These reflections would have given precisely the impression of the black painting that Reinhardt was trying to avoid: that it was either a monochrome object or a dynamic composition.
From “Drawing is another kind of language”: Recent American Drawings from a New York Private Collection (Harvard University Art Museums, in association with Daco-Verlag Gunter Bläse, 1997; reprinted 1998). ©1997 President and Fellows of Harvard College.
1. Reinhardt’s inscription on the verso reads: “Reinhardt, ‘Abstract Painting, 1955’ 40 × 60.” The Museum of Modern Art in New York owns a similar gouache on photographic paper by Reinhardt. According to MoMA’s files, the account of its origin is confirmed by several reliable sources, including Reinhardt’s widow, Rita Reinhardt. My thanks to Laura Hoptman for her help in researching this work.
2. Reinhardt, “Autocritique,” 83.
3. Ibid., 206. See also Yve-Alain Bois, “The Limit of Almost,” in Ad Reinhardt, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1991), 25 – 26.
CHRISTINE MEHRING is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago.