My initiation into the New York art world began at the height of Minimalism in the 1970s. I occasionally tell a story about buying a laminated, square breadboard on Canal Street shortly after my arrival. Without thinking, it was immediately tossed into a portfolio that I happened to be carrying. A few hours later I opened the same portfolio to show some of my work to a well-respected artist/critic at that time. His hand reached out to pick it up and, before I could tell him that it was a breadboard, he began to expound with great alacrity and insightful, informed intellect upon its formal qualities: the notion of balance versus equilibrium, the nature of wood itself rather than paint and canvas as a structural support as well as a material, the indefatigable difference between scale and size. After 20 minutes had passed I thanked him and, as much out of youthful naïveté and intimidation as anything else, I never let him know the true nature of the subject of our discussion. It is also the moment I first recognized the art world had become academic in the worst sense.
Years earlier Reinhardt had claimed that he was painting “the last paintings that anyone can paint.” My experience with the breadboard spawned a sense that all that remained of art now was a shell. Perhaps Reinhardt was right after all. Initially I took his “last paintings” statement as a personal challenge. In accepting that challenge I thought it would take a matter of, at most, a few years to respond. It took me 30 years. Over the course of those three decades or so, in our quest for democracy in all things, we watched the dumbing down of culture at almost every level, including both art and (despite Reinhardt’s activity as a teacher until his last days) the academy that would come to embrace what today is quaintly defined as “cutting edge.”
Reinhardt had said, art-is-art. Everything else is everything else.” But during the decades following his death, art as sociological commentary began to scoff at art that existed for the sake of art. Art as a social activity demolished art as a spiritual quest. Speed took on the notion of contemplation and buried it alive. Ultimately theory replaced art itself, and whatever was left of art eventually became “everything else”.
Now more than ever it is commonplace to sit on airplanes traveling at speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour, perhaps listening to Beethoven on the headphones while reading a newspaper article about last night’s political crisis on the other side of the planet—all at the same time. Certainly, the quality of each experience is diminished by the competing interest of the next, but the truth is we all experience Beethoven in this, or some other detached fashion, far more often than we do sitting in a concert hall. These simultaneous experiences are like bits of noise, each functioning to lessen the depth of the other experiences. This is the world in which Reinhardt’s late work must now exist. Multiple, simultaneous (rather than sequential) glances at the surface of predominantly virtual realities are the order of the day.
This situation does not diminish the significance of Reinhardt’s last works, but increases it. For every new blast of noise there is increased importance to the discovery made possible by that most singular of acts: the act of being lost in a place where the literal cannot take us, and having the acuity to find something meaningful while we are standing still. By embedding color in blackness and allowing the painting to reveal itself almost infinitesimally, Reinhardt lets our contemporary perceptual biases change. They do this to the point where all we can do is insist on slowly discovering that search for precision, not unlike the earlier searches of Mondrian. This is how Reinhardt engages in a slow-burning urge not to repudiate, but to go beyond the one liners and the standard half minute look followed by the “aha” moment when one “gets it.”
Reinhardt’s late paintings offer the opportunity to engage with focus, time, and clarity. This is the opposite of assorted easy recipes for the kind of socio-political commentary that is safe in the art and academic/MFA worlds, but much more efficacious (and genuinely risky) in an actual socio-political arena. It’s not that he didn’t believe in the need for a social conscience, but he used his writing, his illustration, and his life to that end. For Reinhardt art exists in a different metaphysical place. And that’s where it should be.
His art, especially the “monochromatic” paintings (they are not single colors to me) with their sense of scale, a monumentality not unlike ancient burnished walls of Pompeii, and their slow pulse that becomes increasingly experiential the longer one engages with them, pull me in for contemplation. They don’t ask for time, they demand it. In a contemporary art world where nearly everyone is desperately seeking their 15 minutes through misguided ideas about recognition, fame, or a non-existent avant-garde, Reinhardt continues to offer a chance to have thoughts and visual experience engage through us rather than preaching at us. With this work we enter a place without words—a place that could exist in no parallel form. Reinhardt now is generally positioned with the New York School as a person who was ahead of his time. Much more than a precursor to Minimalism, in his prescient, intelligent manner, Reinhardt carried what the New York School had begun even further. Pollock may have broken the ice, but it was Reinhardt who melted it.
DON KIMES is a painter and Professor of Studio Art at American University, Washington, D.C., and Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Institution, VACI, Chautauqua, NY.