“Once space scared people. Space was a big, blooming, buzzing confusion. Even now, what space (or people) represent is still a big mystery but we know more about what they ‘do,’ today.”1
Mr. Reinhardt, your mind was a big, blooming, buzzing confusion. And it scares me. And I believe it scared you, too. The terrifying infinite and the terrifying chaos of a modern world you were trying to understand, and trying to place yourself in. And “You, sir, are a space too.”2 And you were a man who saw so much in space, perhaps too much, you took on the chaos and tried to make it your own.
In his cartoons, letters to friends, the tree diagrams and the “How to Look” series, Reinhardt engaged in a frantic rearrangement of the world around him. It seemed as if the art world saturated his thoughts such that he needed to actively structure the ever-expanding messiness—as if he might get lost in its endless space, as if it might otherwise subsume him, or outgrow him: “Maybe you think things are o.k. and that you’re doing all right. But someday the monotonous and ugly spaces you live and work in will be organized (by your children).”3 His battle was playful, hilarious, dark, defensive. Sprawling tree diagrams of artists and schools glorified pure abstraction in the healthiest, highest-reaching branches, while the other branches were bogged down in nonsense. Through the 1950s, the trees were revised, new and old enemies were revisited, Surrealists ran art in “to the ground”4 and Abstract Expressionists were “Romantic-ham-“action”-actor[s],”5 and even the writing of others was cut and pasted into the poetry of Reinhardt’s moral imperatives. It was obvious that “too many different kinds of activities have been called “art” and too many different kinds of people using paints and brushes have been called ‘artists.’”6
I can’t imagine any man’s mind, big as it might be, seeing so far and containing so much. But his mind did not burst. His mind, and his body, turned to an extreme solution, turned to the black paintings, turned sharply and definitively against everything else. “A painting of quality is a challenge to disorder and insensitivity everywhere.”7 In the black paintings, space could be declared, defined, understood. So, of course, the declaration was necessary: “No Space. Space should be empty, should not project, and should not be flat.”8 “A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, size less)…” And with his dear friends, the Trappist monk and the mystic poet, the Marxists and followers of Zen, the notion was accepted—blacker and blacker and blacker paintings, a pure, spaceless, timeless art, an art “aware of no thing but art.” And no need to see any farther.
But now, now the paintings must come together, and my mind goes back to the buzzing confusion of Reinhardt’s mind, and I am scared, I am cynical. We don’t believe that paintings can proclaim emptiness anymore. We don’t believe paintings can proclaim infinite space. There is discussion, there are metaphors of blackness, there are hopeless romantics who believe in purity, but haven’t we only added to the confusion? Haven’t the paintings only added to the confusion?
And then, I see them. I see the black paintings together and I am stunned—and if a Zen metaphor has any potential in this world, it is met by these paintings. These paintings absorb my cynicism, in a surface that literally does not reflect my own self back to me. I can give so little, and they can give so little, yet I am no longer scared. And was he? Were the paintings able to still the buzzing confusion of Reinhardt’s own mind? I cannot say, it would have been a mighty challenge. But I can say a little about process. And Reinhardt’s process had to require meditative concentration. It required a steady, calm hand, and patience. And paint, when you are mixing it and applying it, is interesting and beautiful. More captivating than jokes about the art world. And when mixing a tub of black paint, you often think, this is the most amazing color in the world, I have the most amazing job in the world. Or you think nothing.
And Mr. Reinhardt, when I think about you now, I think about your rules, and I think about your arguments, and I think about what ideas your paintings might hold. And then I see the paintings, and I don’t think about any of those things. I see the paintings, “as wide as a man’s outstretched arms” and I wish I could give you a hug.
1. Ad Reinhardt, “How to Look at Space,” PM, April 28, 1946.
2. Ad Reinhardt, “How to Look at Space,” PM, April 28, 1946.
3. Ad Reinhardt, “How to Look at Space,” PM, April 28, 1946.
4. Ad Reinhardt, “How to Look at Low (Surrealist) Art,” PM 3, March 24, 1946.
5. Ad Reinhardt, “The Artist in Search of An Academy,” 1954.
6. Ad Reinhardt, “The Artist in Search of An Academy,” 1954.
7. Ad Reinhardt, “How to Look at Space,” PM, April 28, 1946.
8. Ad Reinhardt, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy, “in Gregory Battock, ed., The New Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1966).
Julia Rommel is an artist based in New York. Her paintings are included in the Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100 exhibition.