Reinhardt in Storage

During the 1970s I worked for the McCrory Corporation, which had a large collection of mostly Constructivist and geometric art. It was my responsibility to keep track of the artworks. Sometimes I worked in an art storage facility on the Upper East Side. It was a rather large space with a desk and built-in racks of various sizes containing wrapped paintings, including, I was told, a painting by Ad Reinhardt in perfect condition. Infrequently, I would unwrap one of the other paintings in storage so I could look at it privately while I worked: a Rauschenberg Combine was one of my favorites to view in this way. The piece had a screen door that functioned as a kind of pink glaze when closed over the rest of the painting. Or I could keep the screen door open. While at the warehouse, I kept the files of locations of works updated and waited for deliveries or pick-ups.

Back of Reinhardt painting. Courtesy Princeton University Art Museum.

Sometimes interesting visitors would come to the storage area to view works. These visitors included Orrin H. Riley, the founder of the conservation department at the Guggenheim Museum. I loved it when he came because he would talk with me about technical issues. He told me that paintings by Juan Gris and Willem de Kooning should never be wrapped in glassine because the oils they used in their mediums would cause glassine to stick to the paint surface. He kindly gave me advice for my own work, including formulas for grounds.

Once he came to consult on the condition of the vertical format black painting by Ad Reinhardt in the collection: “Abstract Painting,” 1959, oil on canvas, 80 by 40 inches. Until then, I had not moved this painting. I didn’t want to risk damaging it. When we first looked to check its condition, we realized that it was indeed pristine. In fact, it had not been unwrapped since leaving Reinhardt’s studio.

The painting was in a specially-fitted box and cover that had been made, Riley explained to me, by Reinhardt himself. The painting fit snugly in a cardboard box with an open front, cardboard sides projecting slightly in front of the painting. Then a cardboard cover fit tightly over the first box in such a way that the inner surface of the cardboard did not touch the front surface of the painting. In this way the painting was protected without plastic or paper. Riley said that Reinhardt had copied the basic plan from a cover he had seen which was made by Arshile Gorky. The painting was framed with simple black, wooden strips. Thus the sides of the painting were also protected and not touched by the cardboard. I now use a less elegant variation of this plan when I wrap my own paintings for shipment.

I was surprised and excited when I noticed that Reinhardt had signed his name on the cardboard cover in his distinctive and beautifully executed calligraphy. For some reason we had to rewrap the painting to send it out, so we discarded the cover. Now, I can’t imagine why we did this. I cut out the signature and gave it to a friend who admired Reinhardt. I wish now, of course, that I had kept the whole cover with the signature.

Orrin Riley said that he had the reputation of being the only one who could restore paintings by Reinhardt, but that he had a “secret”—he brought the damaged paintings back to Reinhardt who would repaint them. Reinhardt soaked oil paint in cans filled with turpentine, leaching out almost all the oil, then painted over the whole surface again with new coats of this mixture, until he got the colors right. After Reinhardt died in 1967, Riley said that he could no longer “conserve” the paintings in this way.

Contributor

David Reed

DAVID REED is an artist and painter living in New York. He will have an exhibition in Berlin with Mary Heilmann at the Nationalgalerie in the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum for Contemporary Art that opens August 28th, 2014.

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