The legacy of Ad Reinhardt, for me, is Conceptual art. In fact, I co-curated a show in France, which went to the Swiss Institute in 2004, inspired by Reinhardt’s importance for Conceptual artists, showing their last paintings, called The Last Painting Show, Before the End.
However, because I was living in Paris during May 1968, my reading of Reinhardt is different from Joseph Kosuth’s, who met Reinhardt. Joseph said that what he learned from Reinhardt was that he not only painted black paintings, but also that he taught, wrote texts about his works, drew cartoons, and took part in panel discussions. This implies that you can’t separate the paintings out from the rest of Reinhardt’s practices, and that, in this way, it’s the same as the relationship between Judd’s work and his writings.
But I have a feeling that Reinhardt would not have wanted to show his cartoons and slides next to his paintings. The art was art, and what was not art was not art. But today it’s a different time, things have changed, and now it makes sense to show all these things together. What we have, then, is a struggle over the meaning of art between primary and secondary texts in relation to production. Reinhardt said that he was making the last paintings he could make, so he saw himself at the end of a certain kind of art. But he also said that the end of art is always a beginning.
I must have seen some of Reinhardt’s paintings, but I didn’t really pay much attention to them then because I saw that Reinhardt was not simply repeating a motif, that they were all different, and at the time, in the mid-to-late 1960s in Paris, art had to be political, which repetition was, while individual expression was not. For me, of the American artists I was aware of, Carl Andre, and I guess Frank Stella, and Donald Judd, were the political ones.
Around 1966, one year before Reinhardt died, I was in France doing square paintings that were all the same, with the same pattern repeated—a black circle on a white surface. I did, I guess, around 200 of these paintings over the years. It’s difficult today to defend making monochrome paintings, but there was a time, in the 1960s in Paris, when me and the other members of BMPT—Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni—were thinking about how the Russian artists had painted black paintings in 1915, and then two years later there was a revolution, and we wanted to incite revolution ourselves. I was doing black circle paintings in 1966, and then two years later May 1968 happened, so things did eventually kind of work out that way. Now, looking at the Reinhardt show at David Zwirner, I think you can go on, and still do abstract painting today, but to me it’s a little bit selfish, and I can’t really defend that aspect. So I’m glad that other people are still interested enough that I can go on.
When I arrived in New York in the late 1970s I was doing stripe paintings, as a reaction to Daniel Buren and my time as part of BMPT—there had been a time when we all made each other’s work, as a kind of experiment. At one point I said, “you know what, I can just make the stripe and the background exactly the same color,” and there was a certain formal logic behind it, which gave me a monochrome. At the time we were trying to figure out post-Modernist and neo-Expressionist art, like Julian Schnabel’s.
I was lucky enough to meet some people who were still making monochrome paintings. There was an art collective, made up of abstract painters who were also trying to make sense of that situation, which was called Radical Painting. I read an article by one of its members, Marcia Hafif’s “Starting Again.” I got in touch with her and we talked, and ended up participating in a couple of shows, including one at Williams College. It ended up happening at the same time that there was a new interest in abstract painting, with neo-geo and neo-Conceptualism.
The question that we should ask ourselves is, can formal abstract painting be a political gesture? If I had known a little more about Reinhardt’s position and discourse at the time, I would have totally agreed with it. Art is supposed to be art, and politics are somewhere else. But because of the radical nature of the time, and the kind of painting we were doing in Paris in the ’60s, you had to go to that somewhere else, and do something there, if you thought that things were not the way they ought to be.
Daniel Buren was critical of painting because of his involvement with institutional critique. But I thought, “you know what, painting is an institutional critique.” Though the institution is not the museum; it’s art.
Edited version of a November 16, 2013 artist talk by Olivier Mosset, delivered on the occasion of the exhibition Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.
OLIVIER MOSSET is a Swiss-born artist who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.