Reinhardt, Mondrian, and Color

Ad Reinhardt’s tongue in cheek statement that he went “beyond Mondrian” is rarely taken at face value. In fact, unlike a number of abstract American artists whose debt to Mondrian is clear and despite Reinhardt’s extreme lucidity, it is doubtful that he could have had the necessary perspective to understand the profound truth of his assertion. One might venture that these two men were cast in the same mold. From their backgrounds (Protestant) to their spiritual and philosophical affinities (in both Eastern and Western thought); in their idealism, which became increasingly dogmatic; even in their pictorial evolutions these two artists traveled parallel paths.

For Reinhardt painting in New York between 1940 and 1967, the technical possibilities, the theoretical framework, and the formal alternatives were broader than those available to his Dutch counterpart. Yet Reinhardt’s work, even after close examination, proves difficult to situate within a historical moment. In terms of image, format, and conception, the mature canvases are virtually un-datable. They are as pure and classical as any early 20th-century European avant-garde painting. They show few stylistic parallels with simultaneous production of the ’50s and ’60s in America. They are as “post-modernist” as any art of the ’70s.

Mondrian’s presence was felt in New York long before he actually arrived in the United States in October of 1940. His paintings were known in magazine illustrations, and from the early 1930s could be seen at the Museum of Living Art. Some were shown in the 1926 exhibition of the Société Anonyme in Brooklyn; others in Alfred Barr’s Cubism and Abstract Art at The Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Carl Holty and Harry Holtzman knew Mondrian in Paris in the early 1930s. Upon their return to New York they worked to found the American Abstract Artists, a group of painters and sculptors who banded together to defend the cause of abstraction in a milieu which was a priori unreceptive to it. Priscilla Colt has confirmed Mondrian’s importance to Reinhardt in the 1940s, recalling that on one occasion he had a key to Mondrian’s studio and took her there “as though it were a sanctuary.”

Reinhardt’s development between 1938 and 1966 reveals so many similarities to Mondrian’s evolution that it is useful to examine it in the present context. Reinhardt’s early paintings of 1938 to 1940 consist of closed shapes—either organic or geometric—of saturated and contrasting hues which, even though flattened, exist on a clearly defined ground. By 1943 these forms have been loosened and fragmented into a gestural calligraphy combined with spots of darkened color that integrate figure and ground. The Persian Rug series of 1947 to 1949 shows more uniform patterns of smaller, lighter gestural strokes on muted, almost monochrome but luminous fields. And significantly, as the artist pulverizes his forms, he adopts a narrow vertical format. A further analogy to Mondrian’s practices in 1912–13 is seen in Reinhardt’s dissolution of the image around the edges, emphasizing the dynamism and weightlessness of the disembodied surface activity. In Reinhardt’s paintings of 1948 to 1950 the calligraphy becomes more imposing, regular, architectonic, and the formats more consistently vertical, a progression comparable to Mondrian’s evolution towards the Paris facades. Some canvases are reduced to black and white or bichromatic calligraphies, evoking Mondrian’s smaller scale paintings. Again like Mondrian, Reinhardt began experimenting with autonomous color planes freed from contour, some floating, some overlapping, some adjusted in a tightly interlocked pattern.

During this period Reinhardt’s drawing and painting fused. The broad gestures or disembodied floating squares and rectangles in the works of 1948 to 1950, sometimes closely knit, sometimes open or apart, were at once stroke and plane. They were also value, as the artist compressed his palette toward a single key. Here Reinhardt began to intuit what would be his personal solution. Yet even the unfolding of his next phase runs parallel to Mondrian’s development. In 1950 Reinhardt executed a series of dark paintings, using black as the diapason to which he tuned a low-pitched chromatic scale. For Reinhardt, as for Mondrian, the penultimate experiment with non-color incited a return to vibrant primary hues. But Mondrian combined the primaries within a single composition, while Reinhardt restricted himself in each painting to chromatic variations on a single hue.

The return to limited color brought with it an increased and explicit attention to light. Mondrian trapped light on his surface through the textural fabric of his brushwork. However, texture and brush-stroke carried connotations of the “handwriting” of Abstract Expressionism for Reinhardt. Thus he thinned his paint radically, superimposing layer upon layer of color, until not a trace of hand or brush remained. Still, an incandescent glow emerges from the depths of the resulting color haze. “Not colored light,” as Reinhardt wrote in 1966 to Sam Hunter, “but color that gives off light.”

The square format adopted by Reinhardt in the black paintings poses compositional problems. Mondrian, when he did use a perfectly square canvas, often acknowledged this difficulty by turning it 90 degrees and orienting it as a lozenge. Unless he turned the square on the diagonal, he could not achieve the tensions within the painting and in relation to the edge as successfully as in his more common slightly off-square formats. But Reinhardt sought to eliminate all inner and outer tensions. To do so, he emphasized his equilateral square format by “getting rid of” asymmetry, rhythm, and contrast. Thus he eliminated “composition” in the conventional hierarchical sense. The complete symmetry of Reinhardt’s mature works (the late red and blue canvases as well as the black paintings), where the areas, although hazy, are defined and bonded evenly to the frame, negates any visual interplay or excitement and even precludes an analysis of the constituent parts. Paradoxically the subdivisions of the surface create the unity of the field and of the perceptual experience.

Reinhardt’s classic paintings, like Mondrian’s, are articulated along parallel and perpendicular (or horizontal and vertical) axes. They cannot be measured in musical or temporal terms. Any attempt to assimilate his vertical and horizontal bands to a reading of harmony and melody, or more generally of simultaneity and succession, synchronic and diachronic time, brings us to the same conclusion: Reinhardt’s axes, neutral and equal, cancel each other out. The effect of the equilateral cruciform, creating a trisected square, is far removed from the vital, dynamic equilibrium Mondrian sought. On the contrary it expresses inertia, or a timeless, static balance. Reinhardt understood that the only way to abolish time was through repetition of the same unique solution. And thus one may say he painted the same painting from 1954 to 1967, the year of his death.

Someone once asked me about color and I used the occasion to mention the number of times and places in art where color was excluded: Chinese monochrome painting, analytic Cubism, Picasso’s Guernica, etc. There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of any morality.” Reinhardt’s own references to color reflect his understanding of its function and possibilities. A born colorist, if he chose to eliminate red and blue from his final paintings (having discarded all other hues many years before), it was apparently because he found them too seductive and evocative of experiences he wanted to abolish from his art: contrast and tension, illusions of advancing and receding space; sensation, emotion, affectivity, expressivity; color symbolism, and art­historical references of all kinds. Color, like drawing, was divisive and expressive and thus antithetical to his aims: formally, a unified field; theoretically, a rigorous art-as-art experience.

Reinhardt did not believe in symbolic references; yet he acknowledged their wide acceptance and was determined to avoid any possibility that such connotations might be read into his art. Perhaps this is the reason he kept his color ambiguous. In the early “red” pictures of about 1951, his reds are rarely true red, rather they are hot pinks, oranges, apricots, even golden hues. Still, within the context of the unified visual field, they announce themselves as “red.” Even in the later red paintings, when Reinhardt did use something bordering on a frank bright red, he juxtaposed it so subtly to other tones of extremely close value, that the chromatic distinctions become blurred.

The blue paintings evolve similarly, from contrasting values assimilated with blue (a broad range of greens, blues, grays, and purples) and an initially complex surface articulation, to ever-closer hues and a simple trisected square. The final works of the blue series anticipate the black paintings; first perceived as a uniform color surface, they slowly yield to the eye’s insistence, revealing a subtly inflected chromatic pattern.

The images of the black paintings first move into focus, then out of focus. Initially we see nothing but a unified, formless field. Then gradually an area defines itself, then a trisection whose origin is somewhat mysterious since there is neither drawing nor color contrast to define its contours. Finally, as our eyes adjust to the twilight haze, we accommodate a pattern of barely visible nuances of color within the blacks—usually blues, reds, and browns in the later paintings. Once deciphered, the chromatic differences blur and are swallowed back into the uniform field. Reinhardt enjoyed confusing the issue by describing these works as monochromatic, whereas they are monochrome only on the most superficial level. He argued that black was a non-color, only to disprove it in his paintings. The color or non-color in these works is as contradictory and elusive as that of the red and blue paintings. The pictorial context is in fact dark, but technically the pigment is not black. The surface is mat, refusing reflection, yet it produces a velvety iridescent radiance. So the eye questions where the color is held. Is it suspended above the surface, is it embedded in the pigment or is it a perceptual illusion?

In going “beyond” Mondrian and pushing form to the absolute limits of perception, “form and content being one,” Reinhardt aspired to rid painting once and for all of non-art content. A younger generation of American artists understood this, and it was of crucial significance to them. Upon Reinhardt’s death, Frank Stella commented: “If you don’t know what [Ad’s paintings are] about you don’t know what painting is about.”

Excerpted from Ad Reinhardt and Color (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1980).


Margit Rowell

Margit Rowell is a scholar and curator who lives in Paris, France.