Existententialist Negation

There is a formula in Jean-Paul Sartre’s unwieldy masterpiece Being and Nothingness that is so precisely true of the late paintings of Ad Reinhardt that if it is also true of human beings, as Sartre supposed it was, then human beings and works of art must be far closer philosophical kin than is commonly realized. “We are what we are not,” Sartre writes, “and we are not what we are.” The main task of this paradoxical characterization was to establish the deep distinction between human beings and mere things, which, in contrast with us, “are what they are and are not what they are not.” Mere things are defined by the Law of Identity, but we have no identity beyond our unremitting negations: We are only what we are not.

“Art is not what is not art,” Reinhardt wrote in one of his many manifestos. Most art, including the art of his contemporaries, contained, in his view, a great deal that he impugned as not art. So his canvases survive by philosophical subtractions. They are, in his words, “Art-as-art… as a concentration of art’s essential nature.” But anyone who then goes on to say that Reinhardt’s paintings just are what they are—monochrome squares of black paint—is going to have a hard time accounting for the power that his works have by contrast with mere square of black painted canvas, which have no power at all. And part of that power may derive from the fact that Reinhardt’s austere works hold the entire remainder of art at bay by active negation—by what Sartre calls “nihilation”—which mere painted canvas cannot do. Thus, a black painting by him is not merely black, the absence of color: It negates color. “Color as anti-art,” he wrote in another of his exercises in the aesthetics of negation.

Reinhardt’s paintings do not stand apart from the history of art by the fact of their nihilations but only by the sheer quantity of those. After all, a great many paintings are internally defined by their repudiations. There are countless things a Cubist painting is not interestingly not—it is not a cat, a thistle, a ham sandwich, a motorbike. What a Cubist painting interestingly is not is the kind of painting of which it is in fact a criticism. In Sartrean terms, it is the sum of its nihilations, and thus is internally related to what it Just Says No to.

Sir Ernst Gombrich once raised the profound question of why painting has a history, and then why it has the specific history it does. Gombrich’s view, in Art and Illusion, is that the history of painting has a parallel in the history of science, construed in terms of progress. The history of art is the history of the conquest of visual appearances, of “making and matching” the world’s visual arrays, at which artists got better and better. This covers a great deal, to be sure, but it cannot easily account for the history of modernism, where the matching of perceptual appearances has lost most of its energy. My own sense is that the history of modernism is driven by philosophical theories regarding the nature of art, and negation plays a central role in this history since so much of it consists in refutations. In fact, in the West at least, the history of art has been the history of philosophical nihilations, perhaps none more massive than the one that distanced early Renaissance painting from medieval art, and that started painting on the course Gombrich’s narrative partly captures.

But if the history of art is essentially philosophical, and to that degree dialectical, then negation is the very substance of art, as it is our very substance—again if Sartre is right. But that means that we cannot but experience art historically, and hence in terms of its successive rejectings. Just imagine that the history of painting had begun with works which in fact look very much the way Cubist paintings look. We certainly could not understand them as rejecting perspective and adopting shallow depths to that end, for perspective would not as yet have been invented. (We might characterize them as “nonperspectival,” for just this reason, but that would be an external rather than an internal negative fact about them, as it would be an external negative fact about Chinese painting, which existed in a culture in which pictorial perspective had not been discovered.) So this internal “notness” is what makes possible the sort of history that paintings have. Mere pieces of painted canvas are outside this history altogether, and have no internal negative relationships with works of art. Even if Reinhardt’s canvases were completely monochrome, they would have as their substance the immense number of nihilations of everything Reinhardt was convinced was not essential to art. Their richness would be a function of the totality of those denials, and to experience them as art would require grasping this as an objective fact.

 The period and place of Reinhardt’s critico-pictorial enterprise—New York from the late ’30s until the mid-’60s—was an arena of critical strife so fierce, dogmatic, and intolerant as to bear comparison with Byzantium in the years of the Iconoclasm strife, or Alexandria in the era in which anyone who fell of the high wire of Christological truth plunged into the dark abyss of heresy. The bickering was over the essential nature of art, understood almost without question as the essential nature of painting, with which art was spontaneously identified.

Reinhardt, as personality, as writer, and as painter, emblemized that period of artistic strife, which he did not survive. He died in 1967, just after the triumph of a major retrospective of his work at the Jewish Museum, at that time the New York institution most committed to the display of advanced art. His art, however, survived its historical moment. In the final analysis, his paintings at their greatest negate their own negations and seem to rise above their historical station, into a realm of what one feels to be timeless, spare, beauty. The final paradox of Reinhardt’s works is that they negate the context of historical negations that explain their very well being, and seem to turn into trans-historical presences of great spiritual power. They seem to belong less to their immediate historical moment than any paintings I know. If less is more, then least is most and nothingness is everything.

Reinhardt’s high spirited comic drawings are full of sparring intelligence and an acerbic wit, and are dense with stylistic references to the history of art. For archeologists of the art world of those years, they are indispensable guides to the ruins and invaluable as well for identifying Reinhardt’s own nihilations. More than that, they are alive with a kind of graphic energy altogether lacking in the jaunty, syncopated abstraction to be glimpsed through the entryway into the painting galleries. One feels that he more surely belongs to the history of art through these cartoons than through the abstractions, though I daresay there would have been no way of treating the cartoons as art in those years. And indeed, it is not until Reinhardt achieves in the paintings themselves some of the negativity these cartoons exhibit in their roughneck way that the former take on a proportional vitality. This happens when he more or less drops everything from that first abstraction, Number 30 of 1938, replacing its eccentric bars and off-squares with heavy and symmetrical forms, and sacrifices the harlequinade or colors for brooding monotones. Except for being abstract, to which he remained ideaologically committed through his entire career, Number 30, done a few years after he graduated from Columbia College, is a demonstration piece of what he came to believe was not a part of art. The early abstractions have an astonishing diversity, as if so many short pathways cut and then abandoned. They testify to the probing of an artist who recognized that he was on the wrong path without as yet knowing which was the true one.

Perhaps the ideal way to see Reinhardt’s works is one at a time, in a room given over entirely to it, which the work then might transform into a kind of meditative chapel. The interesting truth is that however much the history and theory of painting went into their formation, it is not painting to which the mind goes in contemplating them but something a good bit more mysterious and powerful.

Excerpt from The Nation, August 26/September 2, 1991.


Arthur Danto

ARTHUR DANTO (1924 - 2013) was Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University.