Once upon a time, Ad Reinhardt Made Some Paintings That Just Might Be Pictures
In 1943 Ad Reinhardt began one of his soon-to-be infamous lectures like a fairytale. In “Paintings and Pictures” he spun a story (in nine terse paragraphs), arguing that, from the moment abstract painting emerged at the close of the 19th century, arriving on the horizon as anything but tentative in either intention or form, painting has been able to be nothing but painting. Well-trained in art history, and nowhere near as resistant to it as, for example Barnett Newman, Reinhardt started his ideological timeline in the Renaissance and swept everything between it and Modernism into one overarching proclamation: “Painting which functioned as a picture prevented people from seeing its basic meanings and reduced painting eventually to a wall decoration.” With the arrival of abstract painting, painting “became a new object…made by a researcher, an ‘artist’s artist’…[who] studied what the elements of painting ‘meant’ by themselves, what they did once in pictures, what they could say out of pictures.” Therefore, if painting could just be painting, then pictures also could now be free to be nothing more than pictures, hence, “illustration, poster-making, applied art, free from ‘fine-art’ elaborations, fulfilled their functions more clearly and honestly.” If there were any two things that Reinhardt wanted art to be (including his own work), it was clear and honest.
With the advantage of hindsight, supported by the sometimes convoluted ways in which we are now able to think about paintings as pictures (not to mention abstraction as a certain type of representation), we can use Reinhardt’s words to help us conclude that even in the early 1940s he was well on his way to establishing his antagonistic art-as-art doctrine. This manifesto, of course, would catapult him headfirst into the powerful “wall” of his iconic—and to this day still challenging—black square paintings, paintings that claim more than their share of territory in the aesthetic and ideological minefield strewn with all of the so-called last paintings that have been—or are yet to be—made.
Perhaps the question that was on my mind while rereading Reinhardt’s early lecture was in the air when it was written: did Reinhardt really have the courage of his convictions in his work at that time? After all, it’s clear that his work in the 1940s is much different than his work in the 1950s, much less his iconic output in the 1960s. And while it’s also evident that his rhetoric steadily intensified over the space of 21 some years (quickly establishing a consistent, if not defensive, “attack” mode) his early work demonstrates an almost stubborn lagging behind—a delay, if you will—that has not been treated kindly, as will be shown below. I’ve pinpointed Reinhardt’s 1943 lecture primarily because it was given in the same year that the earliest—and possibly the strangest—painting in the exhibition Ad Reinhardt Paintings 1943–1959 at Aurel Scheibler in Berlin was made. Even with the selection of only six canvases from 1943 to 1950 we are provided ample evidence of how emphatically transitional this period was for Reinhardt; a span of seven years in which Reinhardt started to combat what Hubert Damisch has identified as the “trickery of the picture.”
Green-Violet Center (1943) seems unlike every other painting of Reinhardt’s that I’ve ever seen, so much so that a small part of me wonders if there are (or ever were) any others like it from the same period. (I didn’t find any in my reasonably thorough yet far from comprehensive search.) Keeping Damisch in mind, maybe this particular artwork is a trick of some kind: an attempt on the part of Reinhardt to put the “Is it a painting or a picture?” question literally on display, front and center. It’s so much the star of the painting that the rest of the canvas can do little more than function as a backdrop. In today’s visual parlance, it’s like an unobtrusive desktop pattern on the computer screen that’s completely user-friendly because almost any “window” opened on it will stand out. (On the other hand, even the subtlety of the remainder of the painting doesn’t completely undo its ability to function—again, like a computer screen—as a stable and purposeful territory, a situation doubly reinforced by the literal frame that Reinhardt painted around the center.)
Is the green-violet center by itself a picture or a painting? Maybe it’s a picture of a painting, or vice versa, or a smaller picture in a larger painting or picture. (Because the painting is new to me, I’m still left thinking that it should be included in any future discussions of the conceptual gamesmanship of Jasper Johns’ Flag.) Since Reinhardt was striving at the time to be the kind of impassive researcher/painter he identified in his lecture, it wouldn’t be completely inappropriate to consider this painting as a failure, a temporary roadblock in his quest to make paintings that were just painting. The small untitled painting from 1946 effectively represents where Reinhardt moved just a few years later: its accumulations of relatively low-key (yet painterly enough) gestures more than adequately demonstrate his principled if not petulant unwillingness to join in the dramatic moves of many of his peers. Nevertheless, after 65 years, Green-Violet Center adds tremendously to the conceptual complexities of Reinhardt’s early work, even if it were ever possible to classify it as a glitch in Reinhardt’s pristine operating system.
Even though the striking and surprising features of Green-Violet Center listed above relate to aspects of its composition not necessarily beholden to its obvious verticality, it is in fact one of Reinhardt’s earliest “tall” paintings. The remaining four tall paintings presented in this exhibition support the conclusion that an upright orientation remained useful for him until the end. It dominates his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he continued to use it even after he started making his square black paintings. It’s likely that such an emphatic tallness allowed the painting to function as the type of “new object” that he identified in his 1943 lecture. Such a painting was able to have “a more direct and positive statement of forms, colors, rhythms, and movements.” Therefore, while the alternating jabs of yellow and white that fill the surface of Yellow Painting (1948) read as a symbolic language, one that is almost primeval (there are other works, in particular Calligraphic Painting from 1949 – 50, that make clear that language was a concern at the time), it is less “direct” than the far more regulated formal geometry of the paintings still to come.
The paintings from 1950 can be seen as more “honest” examples of the type of new object that Reinhardt was after: No. 18 and two untitled canvases of varying hues, if not moods. Sharing a straightforward, almost quantifiable presentation of rectangular, even architectural, brushstrokes of color—muted and overlapping in No. 18; more vibrant (of all things, pink and green) and somehow slightly floating in the first Untitled; and graphic, symbolic, if not primeval, in the second—their status as objects is reinforced by the consistency of their dimensions (50 by 20 inches), which also suggests that the stability of their format necessarily adds to the ability of these abstract paintings to be “a challenge to disorder and insensitivity everywhere.” By 1950, Reinhardt was finally moving towards a desired place in abstract painting where, as he put it, “Precise and integrated color-space relationship left little place for a signature.” However, it would still be some time before his object paintings would be able to completely resist being misread as the dreaded wall decorations that painting before abstract painting had (for him) become.
In “The Limit of Almost,” Yve-Alain Bois’ provocatively titled catalogue essay for the Reinhardt retrospective exhibition that was held in New York and Los Angles in 1991 – 92, he calls upon Dore Ashton to support his own reservations. Writing in 1960, on the occasion of a Reinhardt retrospective at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Ashton was anything but forgiving about Reinhardt’s overall career: “Twenty years of questions and answers in which the questions were never quite right, and five years of the right question and the absolutely right answer.” Bois, at least, seems forgiving enough, provocatively yet keenly suggesting at one point that “Reinhardt’s program, in many ways, was against greatness.” In opposition to, in particular, Clement Greenberg’s demand for major, if not self-indulgent, art, Reinhardt’s self-imposed limitations, for Bois at least, are not so easily dismissed when we return to the still-contentious label of the “decorative.” Bois’ summation is on point: “Reinhardt’s ambivalence toward the decorative is genuine and typical. His art is not decorative, but almost. Its problem, in the ’40s, was that Reinhardt had not yet found the way to make this almostness seen: he proposed an understatement to a beholder equipped only for an overstatement; he murmered in ears trained to hear only shouts.” Of course, it didn’t take long for Reinhardt to start shouting. (Budd Hopkins has acknowledged that, in the 1950s, “one went to his talks in those days with guilty expectations. It was like attending a corrida where, admit it or not, we were there hoping for a goring. With Ad we were rarely disappointed.”) However, it didn’t take Reinhardt very long to start making paintings that had no need to shout, much less speak. Keeping that in mind, without the early paintings (even with—or precisely because of—the extent to which they did not escape their picture-ness), Reinhardt likely would have never been able to tell the story about painting as paining that he was so clearly made to tell.
Originally published in Ad Reinhardt: Paintings 1943–1950, (Berlin: Aurel Scheibler, 2007)
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.