The history of art records a long tradition in which man tried to cancel his own individuality to focus on the work of art being made. This happened for various social and political, spiritual, and psychological reasons. From the anonymous art that glorified the great “powers” of antiquity, to the abstractions of Islam, through “acheropita painting” (not painted by the human hand) and the tradition of Byzantine icons, we arrive at the art that dominated most of the 20th century. In a reaction against romanticism, modern art found its own autonomy. During the 20th century, the world suffered dictatorships, wars, and death camps. As a reaction, many sensitive artists felt the need to shun this disorder, escaping in the research of places of harmony.
Ad Reinhardt was definitely one of the most profound searchers for autonomy in art. In his texts on art-as-art, Reinhardt maintains that art speaks about itself. Reinhardt rejects the personal sign of the individual abstract expressionist gesture in favor of an art more and more austere, rigorous, impersonal and self-referential, an art that tries to achieve a form that does not reference anything other than itself. He does so in order to reach a “zero point” close to emptiness, to silence, to pause, to the oblivion of intellect and emotions, and thus to bring harmony.
Reinhardt wanted to overcome narrative and indeed every emotion, especially in the last works. His black, like Malevich’s black, permits no chance of interpretations and readings: it is an absorbent black that does not refer to anything other than a possible but unknowable place.
Here the logic is not spatial; we are very close to zero of Zen thought. The painting wants to become a tautology: art-as-art.
Ad Reinhardt’s paintings and thought were among the starting points of my own work. Even if I walked the path of Minimalism, it was in the opposite direction: for me everything is mind and the idea of “representation” is something that is not a contradiction. When I use the word “representation,” I mean “re-presentation” because the transformation of anything is equal to itself. Where there is a gesture, there is the representation of an intention, a will: it is impossible to eliminate the man, his history, his desires from his work. The choice of extremely essential forms, such as geometric shapes cannot escape a mental journey in which there are forms that pre-exist. For example, if I choose to paint a square, I “represent” all the squares I’ve seen in my life. This leads me to say that every form, every picture of whatever nature, external or internal, being a mental image, tells of something other than itself. The world offers itself as a naked body but our eye always dresses it.
A work of Ad Reinhardt, like a mountain, a cloud or a chair, exists only as the sum of our experience in relationship to it, as Marcel Proust beautifully taught us. Nothing is fully objective. Everything is image. Illusion is the only truth.
Translated by Francesca Grilli
MARCO TIRELLI is a painter and sculptor who lives and works in Rome, Italy.