As an artist who has written about art as long as I have made it, I am always on the lookout for role models who are as comfortable in the studio as they are on the written page; people like Robert Smithson, Philip Guston, and Ad Reinhardt shaped my ideas about art and art criticism. As much as I admire him, I am here to argue against one of Reinhardt’s more famous pronouncements: “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.”
Reinhardt is, of course, best known for monochromatic paintings he made between the early 1950s and his death in 1967. John Loengard’s iconic black-and-white photographs of Reinhardt working in his studio in 1966, a year before his death, only begin to approximate the moody atmospheres that Reinhardt’s late paintings convey. In our current world of image saturation, duplication, and replication, they remain both acutely contemporary and impossibly old-fashioned. Their minimalism is impossible to reproduce, to the point where an illustrated Ad Reinhardt catalogue works best as a flipbook for comparing shades of black. Instead, in a manner that sounds hopelessly outdated in our era of digitized surrogacy, their subtle numinous atmospheres and gradations can be gleaned only through firsthand experience. Reinhardt’s work was part of a movement against Abstract Expressionism that critic Harold Rosenberg captured in his capsule obituary of the movement: “Barnett Newman shut the door, Mark Rothko drew the shade, and Ad Reinhardt turned out the lights.” In his 1957 essay “Twelve Rules For a New Academy” Reinhardt includes James McNeill Whistler’s declaration that “A picture is finished when all traces of the means used to bring about the end have disappeared.” This approach—what curator Thomas Kellein described as “Painting as an Ultimatum”—is visible in the blatantly frontal, reductive, and material specificity of his late paintings, which he claimed to be the last paintings that anyone could paint. They stand as painterly proofs for Reinhardt’s dictum of art as a self-contained formal system.
Reinhardt did address social values directly, in dozens of image-and-text essays published between 1944 and 1961 in intellectual journals like PM and visual art magazines like ARTnews. Combining collage elements with his own drawings and texts, these works offer opinionated, often combative satires of the art world in general and the meaning and value of aesthetics in particular. Reinhardt also published a number of short essays and pithy manifestos in magazines, most often in ARTnews. Bearing titles like “Art-as-Art Dogma” and “The Artist in Search of a Code of Ethics,” they range widely, addressing art’s relationship to politics, religion, ethics, and education from a decidedly contrarian point of view.
The 1956 line on the chronology Reinhardt composed for his 1966 Jewish Museum exhibition states: “Borrows money from bank to travel.” What Reinhardt did with his borrowings was travel the world making photographs of similar forms, beginning an ambitious typological project to catalogue and cross-reference artistic and architectural motifs from diverse cultures. When he presented 2,000 slides from what he called his “imaginary museum” in 1958 at New York’s Artist’s Club as the World in Color Slides, a “Non-Happening,” the audience (including the artist’s friends, students, and colleagues) found it boring, and many quickly left. Yet the omnivorous diversity of this visual archive (presented as a “Non-Happening” a year before Allan Kaprow’s first performative artwork, “18 Happenings in 6 Parts”) completes the four-part harmony that, like a squared circle, forms Reinhardt’s modernist ethos.
Imagine a relentless progression of slides, first juxtaposing ancient pyramids, modern cornices, and pointed thatched huts, followed by successions of fluted, rococo, or austere columns and spires, which segue into compare-and-contrast studies of statuary buttocks and behinds spanning sexes, continents, and centuries. Reinhardt’s image bank proffers a personal proof for a theory of creativity. Functioning in much the same way as Richter’s Atlas, it illustrates, through repeated forms diversely expressed, that there is a fixed point in the moving world, and everything in human creation follows a presumed pattern that was ultimately expressed by Reinhardt as a mandala. I think his image bank provided the evidentiary underpinnings that allowed him the freedom to generate the cruciform geometries that infuse and enliven the otherwise too-severe reductiveness of his black paintings. Reinhardt expressed this idea visually, tongue firmly in cheek, in a 1956 cartoon entitled “A Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala.” A squared circle, subdivided to suggest an approximation of the compositional matrix of his black paintings, is ringed by collaged illustrations of monsters and saints that shorthand some of the values embodied by his photographic typologies. Employing an art critical term common to Reinhardt’s time, I would argue that his statement “Art is art. Everything else is everything else” was a provocative act of misdirection, and that it was the “push and pull” between art and life, between intellect and action, individuals and groups, words and paintings which animated and sustained his many creative endeavors. This is what continues to make Ad Reinhardt such an able role model for navigating the ever-more complicated waters of art and life.
CHRISTOPHER FRENCH is a painter and writer, and President of AICA-USA.