Ad Reinhardt belonged to a generation of artists historically referred to as the New York School or the School of Non-Objective Painters or, alternatively, the Abstract Expressionists. But when a comparison is made between adherents of this group—the “warlords” of this particular tribe—a more profound sense of militant fervor and ardent, academic rigor can be attributed to the paintings of Reinhardt.
Reinhardt’s unique method bristles with ideological proclamation and a tone akin to the last-rite rantings of an evangelical preacher rather than the more toned-down, academic, traditional tenets of high Modernism. An unlikely gang member with little affiliation to the gestural and expessionistic, his binary strategies of practice set his oeuvre apart and testify to his place as the Godfather or ‘el Padrino’—the King of the Manhattan bosses, meaner and more resolute than the rest of the torrid group fighting for their own sacred ground.
Our man in black assumes the role of sheriff: here to serve and to police the ideals and principles of thought that need to be clearly laid down and acted upon with no uncertain duty. The reward of committing to such ideals is to protect the very values of what art is and to reject what art is not. By doing so, a fundamental truth, essential, reductive, and pure is defended.
Ad Reinhardt and his peers arguably remain the most significant group of painters of the post-war period. A long, faint drumroll echoes in the corridors of history, inexorably amplifying their chorus. Menacing and violent, this sound of the past reminds us that the mantle of the last radical acts in painting still remains firmly in the hands of those modern primitives—the last brutal subversives. Reinhardt, however, draws a line in the sand not yet surpassed.
When reflecting on the work of Reinhardt, two very immediate themes spring to mind that isolate his approach and place his contribution in relation to his peers as ultimately stand-alone. First, the matter of fact application of surface and apparently easy execution illustrates the compositional resolve of the “job at hand.” This apparently work-a-day approach spares us any “tricks of the trade” illusion.
There is no mystical intent, at least in the process of making. Employing a house-painter’s skill, there is little revelry in a sense of masterful skill: no cloak-and-dagger-hidden secrets or wonderment of process; no renderings of artifice or traces of hidden virtues evident in the live act; no brushmarks; no mess, no fuss, but rather guileless paint. Not quite monochromatic, these are volumetric color fields: homogenous, elemental, and finite. There is no great mystery here; yet the results are still rich with a seductive sensory power. The vibrating tones create timeless, classic spaces for now and for eternity. We are suspended between literal and virtual space, trapped perennially on the threshold of that abysmal void. A void that holds your breath as the last or the first you may or might have. Painting that shows us how to reach reveries of the sublime.
The second theme is found in the separation of Reinhardt’s personal mythology as a rabble rouser from the more disciplined activities of his studio practice that show the reality of the work as mature, dignified, classic, and imperial. The work that is intact, empty of a celebrity-conceited, narcissistic, nihilism common to the more openly championed peers of his group. The gang’s star rapper may have been the quiet burner but his longer reach secures his fate as the late bright star: first up and last down. Delivering his words with a wry smile, his character sidestepped the typically verbose and overbearing traits common to the work of his contemporaries, instead evidencing antipathy to the “buddies on the scene” posturing with heady cocktails of guileless gesture.
The theatrical, dramatic, and at times tragic events of these years unfolded in an American renaissance that wasn’t merely confined to life’s unexpected details. The “work in focus” at that time was for the most part imbued with a muscle flexing and brooding demeanor. Singularly solipsistic, verging on the megalomaniac, the cries of anguish from the arduous demands of exploring the “grander” themes of late Modernist painting’s discourse seemed relentless. The grave and sobering responsibilities for the few that dared to investigate yet another chapter of the painting debate, revealed scant predisposition or appetite for any real currency of ideas. Performance painting was still a sport in those days. With no real competition, the kings of the wild frontier remained the only headline act with painting as simply a stage or arena on which to perform. Exceptionally, Reinhardt pushed further, searching for new, more fertile territory and, in so doing, got a good look at what was coming over the horizon—Pop, Conceptualism, Minimalism—and, of course, for some, martyrdom.
For most malingerers hanging around on the streets of Manhattan with Lower East Side studios and Greenwich Village hideaways, the endgame was to extract the untapped, deeply anthropomorphic roots that would otherwise remain hidden. Dirty work indeed.
Reinhardt rolled up his sleeves with a self-possession and erudite resolve akin to an expert surgeon, delivering masterworks over and over again—each clean, precise, and crystalline in their enduring brilliance. We read neon words in pure, effervescent tones, blinking perfectly:
T I M E L E S S C L A S S I C
With the hallmark of the true professional, Reinhardt made hard work look easy. This straightforward approach engenders lasting greatness. His no-nonsense attitude spared Reinhardt the indignity of taunts of being “self-serving” and “vainglorious” leveled at his more nostalgic peers. We can leave history to re-calibrate and instead reflect on how a life’s work may be remembered in stories that become legendary in their retelling, in turn evolving into a type of truth for our insatiable, quickstep culture. Reinhardt spared us the emotional struggle and, in doing so, enlivened us with new ways of looking.
In Reinhardt’s painting, we encounter spaces, almost ethereal—paradoxical given their opacity and blackness. We are afforded a moment to pause, to reflect, and to breathe. We learn to associate with an unmediated, sensory wonder. Pathos wrapped in velvet. There is mystery in the hidden and the peripheral. This is addressed quite adequately with line, brush and deep-tone harmonies. However, Reinhardt let it be known that he wasn’t into mystique. Rather, he favored paradox as a sharper instrument for illustrating lasting memory. As Tolstoy reminds us, “truth is not opposed to error but to false appearances.” Reinhardt’s legacy earns him a unique badge of honor.
JASON MARTIN is a British artist who lives in Portugal.