Ad Reinhardts Printsby Jennifer Field
Ad Reinhardt did not make his first print until 1964, when he contributed a silkscreen to the group portfolio, Ten Works by Ten Painters, published by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and printed by the commercial printing house Ives-Sillman in New Haven. Reinhardt was intrigued by the medium; over the next three years, until his death in August 1967, he engaged in at least four additional print projects. As a body of work, Reinhardt’s prints raise issues of authorship, authenticity, and politics in ways that appear neither in his painting nor in his satirical cartoons and written work. In printmaking, Reinhardt distanced himself from the final process of execution, embraced collaboration and, in the case of a screenprint for an anti-Vietnam War portfolio (1967), integrated readymade material with the artistic and political content of the work. In painting, Reinhardt stressed the importance of authorship, even when he was pressed by Bruce Glaser in 1966 on the notion that the artist’s identity might be a corruptive element to the neutral quality Reinhardt sought in that medium. “Someone else can’t do [my paintings] for me,” Reinhardt stated. “They have to do their own for themselves. But I’m not quite sure why.”1 In printmaking, Reinhardt supplied original imagery, made color studies, worked with printers to achieve the desired tonalities in ink, and was involved in the proofing process. However, he appears to have been content to leave the final execution of the prints to the printers.
In other aspects of his career, Reinhardt had consistently engaged with issues of mechanical reproduction that are inherent to printmaking. He trained in graphic design and typography, a skill he applied in his numerous cartoons and other projects, including a broadside for a protest in 1940 by the American Abstract Artists group against the exhibition policies of The Museum of Modern Art. He provided graphic illustrations and cartoons for Columbia University’s Jester magazine while a student in the 1930s and for PM magazine in the 1940s. In the 1930s-early ’40s he composed collages from pre-printed papers, and in his cartoons and greeting cards he appropriated popular illustrations as well as reproductions of masterworks. In his famous black paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, Reinhardt’s process of flatly applying dark, inky pigments to the surface of a horizontally-positioned, 5 by 5 foot canvas using careful, repetitive strokes bears similarity to the mechanical aspects of flatbed printing.
Ten Works by Ten Painters was spearheaded by Sam Wagstaff, who had joined the Wadsworth as curator of contemporary art in 1961. Reinhardt probably met Wagstaff when Wagstaff included him in the groundbreaking exhibition of Minimalist art, Black, White, and Gray, which opened in January 1964.2 For his first silkscreen, Reinhardt selected a pre-existing work as a maquette—a small black painting from 1955 measuring 15 by 15 inches and done in casein on illustration board. When Wagstaff convinced Reinhardt to produce a monographic portfolio the following year, Reinhardt created a new series of studies. The result was 10 Screenprints by Ad Reinhardt, a portfolio published in 1966, also printed by Ives-Sillman. This group of prints predominantly features rectangular or square compositions of blue, purple, indigo, and dark gray organized in checkerboard, I-beam, or T-beam arrangements. The first and last silkscreens in this portfolio directly relate to Reinhardt’s black square paintings, but the chromatic and compositional variety found in the remaining silkscreens expanded the format and the palette of the black square motif, while at the same time they speak to his paintings of the early 1950s that were done in brighter hues.
The idea for the monographic portfolio was enthusiastically supported both by ARTnews editor Thomas B. Hess and by artist Robert Rauschenberg, who in the early 1950s had created his own series of black paintings. Hess envisioned it as a kind of “retrospective” project, while Rauschenberg saw it as the opportunity to engage with issues of replication—a theme he explored in his own work—exclaiming to Wagstaff, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could screen print six black Reinhardts almost all exactly alike!”3 Wagstaff proposed Reinhardt create prints of “multi-color, red, blue, and black.”4 The portfolio incorporates each suggestion to some degree. The brighter silkscreens are bracketed by black square silkscreens, with the penultimate silkscreen exhibiting the same subtlety of hue as the black paintings, but in a rectangular format. The sequence implies a visual account of the evolution of the black square paintings—a narrative element that Reinhardt rejected in his painting practice. And while the portfolio does not consist of “six black Reinhardts almost all exactly alike,” they are chromatically related in cool, dark hues, with an occasional bright blue and perhaps enough variation to satisfy Wagstaff’s call for multi-color prints.
Around this same time, Reinhardt partnered with artist Bridget Riley on an issue of Scottish concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s journal,
Poor.Old.Tired.Horse (P.O.T.H.) [see reproductions on pages 33 – 40.]. While not a silkscreen project like Reinhardt’s other endeavors in printmaking, it nevertheless involved collaboration and the production of multiples in a print medium. Reinhardt had met Riley in New York City in early 1965 when she arrived for her American debut in exhibitions at Richard Feigen Gallery and the group exhibition The Responsive Eye, organized by William Seitz for the Museum of Modern Art, which also included Reinhardt. Reinhardt assumed a role as Riley’s guardian in the aggressive commercial climate of New York City, where the design industry seized upon the graphic qualities of Riley’s work and co-opted it without her permission. When Finlay, who had discovered Reinhardt’s work the previous year, asked Reinhardt to contribute to an issue of P.O.T.H., Reinhardt reconstituted his well-known “art-as-art” dogma into a textual accompaniment to Riley’s imagery. Riley, who also designed the layout of the issue, positioned slightly differentiated black ovals throughout the pages. This visual vocabulary fits with the illusionistic, geometric aspects of her black-and-white painting of that period. It also honors Finlay’s intention of integrating text and imagery in that the ovals resemble typescript symbols for both zeros and capital O’s as well as abstract visual elements. Her use of repeating forms and measured spacing throughout the pages complements the rhythmic repetition of Reinhardt’s language. (“There is just one art. There is just one Museum of Fine Art. There is just one art history, one art evolution, one art progress.”) Simultaneously, Reinhardt’s text approaches the realm of visual form in that it is divided into units laid out in unconventional orientations and geometric arrangements, thus bearing spatial and ideological connections with Riley’s graphic contributions.
In 1967, Reinhardt contributed to the portfolio Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Viet Nam, organized by artist Jack Sonenberg and printed in various workshops by printers Steve Poleskie, Irwin Hollander, and Robert Blackburn, among others. The project included a compilation of poetry printed in a separate booklet. Reinhardt was politically active—he participated in the Civil Rights movement, protested with Elaine de Kooning against the capital sentence of convict Caryl Chessman, and protested the Vietnam War alongside Donald Judd. This silkscreen, called No War after the opening line of his text, is notable for its overt and solemn political message conveyed through an artistic project. It is also unique for Reinhardt’s use of a quotidian, mass-produced object to drive home his message; each impression is printed on two individual, pre-stamped postcards—one mounted to show its plain, verso side, and the other showing the recto, with its striped border and stamp, addressed to “War Chief, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.” Reinhardt’s wife, Rita, recognized the postcard as Reinhardt’s preferred mode of written communication (he sent several to Wagstaff during the making of the 1964 and ’66 portfolios), and suggested he use it as the ground for the silkscreen. It is therefore personal and political, the object itself becoming integral to the meaning of the work. Reinhardt wrote a total of 34 lines which fill the plain side of the postcard, and which extend onto its front:
No credibility gap
Written in Reinhardt’s calligraphic script, the conceptual and visual potency of No War is delivered by repetition to a point where language begins to resemble form—the consistent patterning of “No” begins to imitate design; the “o” even begins to recall Riley’s “o”s in P.O.T.H.
At the time of his death, Reinhardt was in the process of fulfilling another silkscreen project, featuring a black square, with the German painter, printmaker, and editor Rolf-Gunter Dienst. Reinhardt approved the initial test print in a note to Dienst sent by airmail on July 31, 1967, but the letter equally reveals the sense of remove that Reinhardt maintained in the printmaking process. In Reinhardt’s letter to Dienst there is even a sense of relinquished ownership. “The proof looks fine,” he wrote. “It seems you have the same trouble as I have in my painting. Giving one black a different color sometimes makes it look darker or shinier from one side, the opposite from another view. As long as there are no very obvious contrasts so that it looks like ‘horizontal-band’ or ‘vertical-stripe’ or ‘cross-cruciform’ painting! Good luck.”5
Reinhardt honed a precise separation between art and politics, reserving painting for lessons in pure visual experience while assigning social and political commentary to the domain of language and graphics. Printmaking seems to have provided him with an intermediate territory that permitted him to tease these boundaries. His willingness to include museum staff, printers, and other artists in creative decision-making, and to utilize the anonymously designed, mass-produced postcard, indicate a departure from the tenets of his “art-as-art” dogma and the primacy he placed on authenticity in his painting. If the artistic value Reinhardt ascribed to his Black Paintings lay partly in their inability to be reproduced, why did it become acceptable to use the motif in a reproducible medium? Did he perceive of silkscreen primarily as a commercial enterprise, and therefore independent of his normal artistic concerns? In which case, did he regard the black square silkscreens as mere symbols of the Black paintings? Could language become an artistic element after all? The frequency of Reinhardt’s involvement in printmaking at the end of his life begs the question of what other new ways he would have devised to express himself in this medium.
1. Bruce Glaser, “An Interview with Ad Reinhardt,” Art International 10, no. 10 (December 1966): 18.
2. I would like to thank Anna Reinhardt for offering insight into Reinhardt’s and Wagstaff’s relationship and making available to me original works of art for study, and Gene Gaddis and Ann Brandwein at the Wadsworth Atheneum for providing additional documentation on the making of Reinhardt’s 1964 and 1966 screenprints.
3. Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. Letter to Ad Reinhardt, June 19, 1963; Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. Letter to Ad Reinhardt, February 11, 1965. Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927 – 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Wagstaff may be paraphrasing Hess and Rauschenberg.
4. Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. Letter to Ad Reinhardt, July 27, 1965. Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927 – 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
5. Ad Reinhardt, letter to Rolf-Gunter Dienst, n.d. (post-marked July 31, 1967). Ad Reinhardt Foundation archives. Reinhardt’s print was published posthumously in 1969. I thank Alex Bacon for a copy of this letter and information about this silkscreen project.
Jennifer Field is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she is writing her dissertation on New York School printmaking. She is also a researcher at the Willem de Kooning Foundation working on a book of de Kooning’s writings, statements, and interviews.