Attention: Fragile

Ad Reinhardt would willingly agree: it is easier to talk about his paintings in negatives than in positives. Easier to say what it is not than to say what it is. Easier and, perhaps, more appropriate, more pertinent. In fact, Reinhardt never hid the fact that the power of negation that inhabits art and gives it its resilience was highly important to him, and exclusively so (“Negative and positive aren’t good terms. I would stay with the negative all the time.”).

In the Anxious Object, Harold Rosenberg reports that during the exhibition Americans 1963 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, it was necessary to rope off Reinhardt’s monochrome paintings to keep visitors at a distance and prevent any attacks. But “attack” in what sense? An attack against him or against what, an attack from where, by whom, with what? An attack by the public on the paintings, of which the extreme material fragility could only exasperate, make even more unacceptable the intentions that they seem to obey, and which this same public could only perceive as a provocation susceptible to arouse in it a resistance that could go as far as physical rejection? Or, as Rosenberg would have it, an attack devised by the painting itself against a public that had to be prevented from looking too closely to better protect it from the consequences of such a violation and of such rage: a public itself, as well, obviously fragile, despite the repeated shocks to which it had nonetheless been exposed for half a century.

Twenty or 30 years later, Reinhardt’s paintings have scarcely lost their virulence. But this virulence has shifted as the context changed. It is even more remarkable to observe, retrospectively, that Rosenberg’s critique, originally published in the New Yorker, participates with the same violence as that which he denounces in Reinhardt, a violence that he did not hesitate to characterize as political to try to turn it against itself. But he had well understood that Reinhardt’s art targeted in fact less the public than his painter colleagues, and that here it was an art for in-house use, an art—according to Nietzsche’s wish—“for artists” but which was, actually, neither clear nor lighthearted (which is not to say, as Reinhardt’s writings show, that he disallowed humor). What Rosenberg citing Lenin: “the enemy is amongst us” could not forgive Reinhardt for was having shattered the appearance of solidarity, of complicity, that had developed amongst the disciples of Abstract Expressionism in the face of the  public’s indifference or animosity, and to have brought the battle into the field of art itself: as though the artists had no other nor worse enemy than their peers, which everyone knows but which obviously should not be stated.

The “communion”—the word he uses—of which Rosenberg speaks in all seriousness, that communion was itself singularly fragile, so much so that it needed nothing more to put it in danger—or call it into question—than some paintings in which color had turned to black and which Reinhardt, renewing with the common ground of the avant-garde, did not hesitate to qualify as “ultimate.”

There was nothing, if not at first glance at least with the initial impression, particularly new about this operation. Forty years before, Rodchenko had already exhibited three monochrome panels, a red, a blue, and a yellow one, and announced at the same time the end of painting: “Here we have the three primary colors. Every plane is a discrete plane and there will no longer be any representation.” The critic Nikolai Tarabukin quickly took it at its word: “Each time that a painter has wanted to try to cast aside representation, he could only do so at the price of a painting’s destruction and his own suicide as a painter.” Without seeing the contradiction, the same Tarabukin would no less request that the Tretiakov Gallery, presumed to present an exhaustive image of the developments in contemporary art, purchase one of these paintings (in this case the red one, fittingly). A painting that while being the “last” was no less called upon, according to him, to mark a stage in the history of art, to “make history.” But, the terms “ultimate,” or “last,” do not have here the meaning generally given to them in this case.

As Reinhardt would state—to be understood in the Nietzschean perspective of an “eternal return” or that of the “eternal present of art” of which the painter speaks—“it is always the end of art.” Just as there is no first beginning, there is no final end; the end, like the beginning, always precedes itself and if it gives rise to repetition, it is because it is always already here. In this sense, we have some right to maintain that Rodchenko “repeats” Reinhardt as much as Reinhardt “repeats” Rodchenko.

What has been called the modern effort involved a sort of going back to the source, the bases themselves of art, to its origin if not its essence, and not the addition of a new branch to an old, already well-endowed tree, but—drawing on the words of Walter Gropius—“a new shoot growing from the root”: an offshoot. Rodchenko triptych (triptych, I emphasize, because there cannot be a “last” painting. The “last” painting is necessarily several, and at least three, like the colors called “primary,” or multiple, as was Rodcheko’s triptych. Uniformly black, at least upon first glance, Reinhardt’s first 1960 black painting cannot be called the “last” painting either. Rodchenko’s triptych demonstrates that going back to the primary components of painting (the colors, but just as much the support) coincides with the end of the historic cycle of the form called “picture,” to the extent that it supposes the putting into brackets of any circumstantial determination or a reduction, in the phenomenological sense of the term, and which being pushed to its conclusion, amounts to putting it out of play.

The first word in painting, for as much as it is truly radical, will also be the last. And “offshoot” should be understood here with a double meaning: that of positive, of a new departure, from the roots, and that of negative, of a rejection of any extended match (“No chess-playing”). But a double negative makes a positive. The mistake would be to want to judge in terms of history a process that, all said and done, falls into the realm of the subconscious: the compulsion for repetition, Freud’s Wiederholungszwang, as it finds its illustration in the field of art, and—a fortiori—in that of modern art, modernity caught in its trap and reduced to undermining, through the denial mode, its own end.

In 1923, art could dream of abandoning itself in the production circuit. Forty years later, after having been able to consider at leisure to what would have led the watchword of a politicization of art that Walter Benjamin thought could challenge the fascist one of estheticization of politics, Reinhardt will repeat the operation, but from an exactly opposite perspective and in order to affirm on the contrary the absolute autonomy of art, through the itself repetitive tautology art as art as art... (“The only revolution in art, eternal and permanent, is still the refusal to use art for any ends except its own.”)

All this would be nothing without Reinhardt’s painting. Lawrence Alloway and others have shown what art called minimal or art called conceptual could both owe to Reinhardt’s “example.” However, it is possible that, here again, we are taken in by a retrospective illusion—a moreover inevitable illusion, even a necessary one if the word “history” is to have a meaning and something like “history of art” proves to be thinkable. Indeed, paradox would have it that, those paintings that have nothing to do with either automatism or chance, those paintings that we call monochromes, based on a schema as simple and methodical as that of a cross marked into and dividing a square into nine equal squares can obey an explicit program that just comes down to the hand to execute without changing anything a schema, nonetheless still originate from the material organization that is part of painting. There is no doubt that here art no longer accords anything to representation in way: the shift to black aimed at nothing other for Reinhardt, than denying the canvas its quality as a screen, and forestalling any idea of projection as much as any possibility of distinguishing between any forms (not even that of the cross) and the background on which they figure (“Black is negation”). In the all black canvas nothing can happen that results from painting itself in the physical sense of the term. Starting with the braided effect that, in the absence of any contrast of colors, is engendered only by the juxtaposition of squares of the same color (or the same absence of color) but pushed to different degrees of intensity—rather than value—and not without their relative brilliance or matte quality playing their role, excepting any regard for texture or “impasto.”

Such an effect is linked in principle to a type of pictorial work that, as strictly deliberated as it may be, still breaks with modernity’s program on a decisive point: there where modernity would distinguish itself in painting, by a practice based on the flat area of color, the juxtaposition within the plane, the strokes or pictorial units, the simultaneous contrast, a practice without top or bottom.

Reinhardt went back in his manner to the traditional practice of base coats, transparence and glazing. Hence the extreme fragility of his canvases, protected by no varnish. Hence, as well, the near impossibility to reproduce them, which delighted him and which corresponded to one of the articles of his own program. An art that is not dependent on the techniques of reproduction nor in their service, but chooses to “repeat” itself to better escape the obsession with context. Have we ourselves become so fragile and so little reassured about our cultural situation that we have to call upon history and ideological critique to defend us against the possibility of a return amongst us of art of a nature that owes nothing except to itself and has nothing, necessarily, “amicable” (as Hegel understood the word), instead of doing our period of mourning and moving on to something else, or preparing, on the contrary, this return and preparing ourselves for it?

The last word must always be secretly the first.

Translated from the French by Sandra Bieniek. Originally printed in the exhibition catalogue Art Minimal II. De la surface au plan (CAPC Museé d’Art Contemporain Bordeaux, 1987).


Hubert Damisch

HUBERT DAMISCH is a French philosopher.