“We can’t do your thinking and looking for you (the way a Hearst-paper does) but we’ll try to help you know what you’re looking at and for and so represent something yourself.”
—Ad Reinhardt (1946)1
An acknowledged pioneer in American abstract painting, in the mid-1940s Ad Reinhardt was also a journalist. A highly-valued staffer on Ralph Ingersoll’s progressive New York tabloid PM from February 1943 until March 1947, Reinhardt was PM's self-described “artist-reporter.” During these years, Reinhardt produced upwards of a thousand unique cartoons, comics, and essays for the paper, with work appearing—but for a quieter stretch during his service as a Navy Photographer’s Mate—at a rate of about a dozen per week. In the decade before he was to settle into his career as a professor at Brooklyn College, Reinhardt developed an enigmatic visual pedagogy on the antinomies of pictorial description for some 200,000 daily readers in the pages of this surprisingly amenable tabloid newspaper. Indeed, Reinhardt was famous as a newspaperman long before he enjoyed any widespread celebrity as a fine artist.
Reinhardt is of course now best known in his connection with PM for those collaged tutorials on modern art and visuality of 1946-47. But for a fuller understanding of Reinhardt’s complex involvement with the world of journalism, we turn here to the small, topical illustrations Reinhardt made for James T. Howard’s irreverently edited daily news digest, “It Happened in the U.S.A.,” beginning in 1943. Like those later cartoons, these more expressly journalistic illustrations were as popular with his editors and readers as they were ambivalent about the viability of any art of pictorial description.
As early as October 1943, editor John P. Lewis was compelled to offer curious readers explanation of Reinhardt’s challenging images. In his brief essay, “Meet Our Collager,” Lewis introduced Reinhardt and what “he was doing in his little one-column sketches he makes for the paper.” Reinhardt, Lewis discovered, was “not drawing most of his stuff at all. He has adapted the collage technique to cartooning, the only artist in the country doing it for newspaper reproduction,” explained Lewis. “Collage is the art of pasting up paper, pictures, drawings, or what have you to create an effect.” He went on to explain:
Ad spends some of his off hours poking around bookstores and digging up such things as last-century illustrated French primers for a nickel, or old German technical magazines for a dime, or books of any kind, just so they are 19th century and have illustrations—steel engravings are preferred. In the office Ad goes to work on them with a pair of scissors and clips out the illustrations. Then when he has call for a sketch or cartoon, he figures out his idea, goes into his file...and puts them together to make up the job. Ideally, his work would be made entirely of these old illustrations, but it is not a perfect enough world to permit that...so he fills in with a few figures that he draws himself.
Lewis offers a view of Reinhardt’s practice that not only pulls back the curtain on the ordinarily opaque operations of newsmaking, but that also asserts the limits of an available iconographic tradition in the way current events are depicted. These limits constituted Reinhardt’s subject, and his cartoons for It Happened in the U.S.A. offer today’s viewer a glimpse of the artist’s own increasingly complex and inquisitive relationship with his own role as a maker of news pictures.
In Reinhardt’s earliest work for the paper readers might have fairly expected some reasonably straightforward pictorial description of the events related in the wire reports he was assigned to illustrate. One 1943 story was concerned with the peculiar disciplinary measures taken by superiors against an Air Force cadet stationed in Greenville, Mississippi—the pilot had taxied his plane too quickly on the runway, and in penalty was required to write in chalk “‘I will not taxi faster [than a man can walk]’ on every cement block in the mile-long flight line.” Reinhardt simply embellished an old engraving of a pupil set to the schoolmarm’s task of rote chalkboard busywork, outfitting the pupil, in gouache and ink, in the trappings of a young conscript and punctuating his humiliation with a drawn-in dunce cap. However, such pictorial correspondence suffered a marked breakdown and Reinhardt’s drawings start to confound the fundamental premises of journalistic illustration, as if he was refusing the terms of the newsroom expectation that a picture might offer some efficient and legible explanation of events. For example, a representative September 1946 report on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to New York and his pleasure in his NYPD escort’s eagerness to “go through red lights,” finds it’s pictorial counterpart in Reinhardt’s depiction of the bishop quite literally stuffed through the light box. To whatever extent the cartoon fails as a news illustration, it succeeds in granting the conventions of journalistic illustration an enigmatic visibility.
Such a disturbance of the conventions of journalistic illustrating naturally raises the question of whether Reinhardt was actively subverting the intentions of his employer. In fact, he was not. Publisher Ralph Ingersoll, a protégé of Henry Luce and former managing editor at Time-Life, launched PM in June 1940 as a corrective to the increasingly reactionary editorial—and indeed pictorial—agendas of his former employer and of mainstream print media more generally. Ingersoll published PM with many of left journalism’s brightest lights on staff (including I.F. Stone and Max Lerner) with a crusader’s intensity in its pursuit of progressive commitments. PM campaigned, long before Pearl Harbor, for American military intervention against the Axis, championed FDR’s social programs, and endlessly chronicled the abuses of labor by capital. PM was also a champion of social and political equality for women, African-Americans, and New York’s immigrant enclaves. All of this PM did, right up to its final, wretchedly unprofitable year, without selling advertisements.
Further, Reinhardt’s platform was a paper with an unprecedented commitment to news illustration. Under the editorial stewardship of the photographer and filmmaker Ralph Steiner, PM published the work of Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, and Lisette Model, and counted among its staff and regular contributors Weegee, Morris Engel, and Margaret Bourke-White. PM observed an equally impressive commitment to more autographic modes of news-picturing, including among its staffers—many of whom came to PM, as Reinhardt had, from the New Masses—Dr. Seuss, Saul Steinberg, Crockett Johnson, and William Gropper. But just as the abstract painter Reinhardt harbored doubts about the viability of pictorial description, PM actively cultivated apprehension toward news pictures and the risks built into the assumptions underlying their use. Where Reinhardt tutored readers on the difficult art of seeing in such cartoons as “How to Look at Things Through a Wine Glass,” elsewhere in PM Steiner counseled readers on “How to Read a Photograph,” a short course on the logic of photographic propaganda. For PM as for Reinhardtit was clear that artifice and construction were everywhere in play in the pictorial description of the world. What PM offered was a form of pictorial journalism that was hesitant in the face of the mass media’s documentary claims and transparently cautious about its own internal illustrational procedures. All of which makes it much easier to identify in Reinhardt’s enigmatic PM work a form of pictorial description marking the fundamental inadequacy of photojournalism as a satisfactory mechanism for coming to terms with a very complex world, published in the context of a newspaper wholly invested in a critical visual ethos in relation to images. This suspicion of the visualized was to be at the center of Reinhardt’s thinking and practice throughout his extraordinary career and one which marks this artist’s wide-ranging and continuing urgency today.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, sometimes has a police escort as a distinguished visitor in this country. Said he: “It thrills me to the marrow every time I have one. It delights me every time we go through a red light.”
“It Happened in the USA”
The man on his hands and knees at Greenville, Miss., Army Air Base is Samuel W. Pariler. He has a piece of chalk in his hand. He is from Claymono, Del. He is an aviation cadet and he is writing, “I will not taxi faster than a man can walk.” He is writing very fast because he is in a hurry. He is in a hurry because he wants to get back in the air and he can’t get back in the air until he has written “I will not taxi faster, “ etc., on every cement block in the mile-long flight line. His superiors are confident that from now on he will not taxi faster than a man can walk.
“It Happened in the USA”
1. Ad Reinhardt, “How to Look at Creation,” PM, December 15, 1946.
ContributorJason E. Hill
Jason E. Hill teaches at UNLV. Getting the Picture: The Visual Culture of the News, co-edited with Vanessa Schwartz, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury. He is now writing a book on Ad Reinhardt, Weegee, and the PM news picture.