Thirty minutes into the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, comedian Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) encounters some frustration. In a scene titled “The Practical Joke,” Kaufman becomes increasingly heated during a negotiation with an ABC executive and a fellow editor over the formatting of his network special “Andy’s Funhouse.” Kaufman requests that the vertical hold on the television’s image be brought out of alignment so that rather than presenting a screen which seamlessly supplies content, viewers would be compelled to examine their television sets as yet another malfunctioning home appliance. There was the potential for the living room-cum-home theater to become theater in itself, for the slapstick to be performed rather than watched, as the viewer would repeatedly whack the side of the analog television to recalibrate the screen.
Here, the joke was intended to breach an interface and for attention to sabotage itself. There’s a credulous desire that the disruption caused by a simple tweak in the delivery of the set’s information could upend a ritual stare, allowing the viewer to develop questions about and beyond the surface of the screen.
This is not what ensues. After a board meeting of higher–ups, the special is shelved and when it airs two years later, the vertical hold gag is cut short to a few seconds. Reconfiguring glitch to gimmick, the network ensures that its compromise can never be reason to leave one’s seat.
Ad Reinhardt’s series of black paintings far predate Kaufman’s vertical hold (and its later Carrey incarnation) but fundamentally share in its desire for content to foil its mediation.
The paintings set up the body as a kind of control from which image and object fork. In person, the absence of color has a warm retinal depth, which amplifies the materials that compose it. The canvas has tooth, their frames are shoddy and all of these traditional traits of a painting are articulated rather than masked by its total hue.
This is not what one sees in print. Resistant to imaging, Reinhardt’s black paintings cannot be documented as objects in a room. Instead, they are a supersaturation of printing itself. On the page, one does not find a painting but an apparatus that has exhausted its surface in full opacity, a frustrated format that must rely on caption alone to index its object. Dimensionality collapses, as the painting trades its image for its absence. There is simultaneously too much and too little to print.
While they elude specificity, Reinhardt’s paintings were inherently tuned to the page. The conglomeration of print technologies through which these paintings have passed have in turn yielded an excess of black surface. Although it began on wood and linen, Reinhardt’s absolute black migrated away from the bounded dimensions of painting and became more of a template which saturated a variety of supports. This proliferation called into question the value of one surface’s equivalency to another and moved painting out of the singular. One could say that what was visible was less an object than a distributed effect.
If today, images produce audiences in advance of what they present and resolution is prized at a premium, part of what provided the incentive to see Reinhardt’s black paintings was certainly the opposite. Objects which disagree with their documentation insisted on primary experience. Like Kaufman’s attempts to lift the viewer from their repose, what charges Reinhardt’s work is its ability to strain the interfaces that disseminate it and bring the audience to an embodied attention of the object itself. At this point of agitation is where many will find themselves—never in front of a Reinhardt, but between several, almost equal iterations.
Man on the Moon, dir. Milos Forman, 1999. Film stills taken by Jacob Kassay.
JACOB KASSAY is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.