I discovered Ad Reinhardt in the summer of 1980 through a tape recording of a lecture he gave at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1967. Skowhegan kept a tape library of past lectures. I listened to the one by Reinhardt several times during my summer there. At the time, I knew nothing about Reinhardt and probably did not see a work of his until I moved to New York City a year later, but seeing his work was not nearly as important to me as the ideas he expressed in the lecture about art and what it means to be an artist.
The first thing that struck me about the lecture is that Reinhardt did not show any slides, nor did he speak about his own painting until the end, when he was prompted by student and faculty questions. For the most part he spoke about art-as-art, the relevance of Eastern art and thought, and what it is to be an artist. A running theme throughout the lecture was what art is not, more so than what it is, but my feeling is that he expressed what art is through his painting. He also spent much time explaining that art is separate from other things. That there is a difference between art and everything else, and that it is critical for an artist to understand what that difference is. He offered unusual guidance by warning those in the audience that an artist who tells you they have something to say should be held as suspect and that art is not based on expressing personal experiences—two ideas that ran counter to what I was hearing from my teachers and fellow students and also seeing in galleries and museums.
Though I was a student in 1980, I had already determined to devote my life to being an artist. The ideas I encountered in Reinhardt’s lecture and later in his writings offered the clarity I was seeking when looking at and making art.
I believe there is a desire on Reinhardt’s part, and certainly on mine, to make paintings that distill perfection. I view Reinhardt’s black paintings as the closest to this ideal. They represent a pure form of painting that neither seeks nor requires explanation. The black paintings are fully resolved. They have no specific meaning. Any questions asked and any meanings assigned are imposed by the viewer and do not exist in the paintings themselves. The black paintings stand alone, separate and apart from the world they inhabit.
Reinhardt’s art-as-art doctrine has deeply informed my personal approach to art making. Since 1980, the art world has become very pluralistic—broadening the definition of art to the point where most anything is accepted as art. I believe to accept all things as art is the same as accepting nothing as art, and that it is essential to make choices and to decide what is valid and what is not. Reinhardt helped me understand this distinction for myself, perhaps moreso than any other artist. Reinhardt’s works and writings offer an important counter-view to an art world that remains pluralistic. I think this is in part why Ad Reinhardt’s work and writings are so appealing and are as relevant today as they were in his lifetime.
Michael Scott is a painter based in New York. Images of his paintings can be seen on his website fortycircles.com.