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“Thou Shall Not”

I’m not a theoretician and I’m not a historian and I’ve never spoken about someone who was dead before. I guess that is what historians do and I feel, not reluctant to do it, but I’m not really sure I’m really capable of speaking about Ad’s work in a way that’s relevant to people who are interested in its historical relevance. I didn’t know Ad Reinhardt, I only knew him as a student, and I think probably the best way for me to acknowledge Reinhardt’s importance is to share with you the development of part of my history, the acknowledgment of Reinhardt’s ghost as it haunts you as you move through your life.

When I came from the West coast and I had never seen a Cezanne, and I had very little indication of what American painting was really about, and I came to Yale, I was in a Renaissance class, a history class. My teacher’s name was Helmut Whol, and when Franz Kline died, he cancelled the class. That was unheard of to me, they were cancelling the class and they were asking a group of students to mourn an American artist. I grew up with baseball players and the other heroes that we all grow up with. It began to dawn on me that there was a specific dialog that was engendered by some artists in New York that was relevant to my growth as an artist. Then, later on, Abstract Expressionism was in full swing, and when you are a student what you do, and I suspect all students do it, art comes out of art, so you mimic your heroes.

Yale’s department at that time was Pollock and de Kooning. Except for two or three of the teachers, there was a certain camaraderie and shared language that they all agreed upon, other than when they brought up two names: Newman and Reinhardt. Every teacher was totally frightened by them. I had no way of knowing or no reason to know what it was that put them off by Reinhardt and Newman. I was just working in my way to try and understand Philip Guston at the time. They used to say that Newman couldn’t handle a paintbrush, and all the paint slingers would say he had no facility. They used to say about Reinhardt that philosophy only led to philosophy.

 Then they invited Reinhardt to come and give a crit, and he came and mumbled about students’ paintings, he could care less. The next week he came up, he was invited to the University Lecture Series, and the University Lecture Series is different than the Yale Art and Architecture invited lecture, the whole university turns out. The lecture I had heard before at the University Lecture was Frost. So Reinhardt was following Frost. They put him at a different level of opinion and what you found there were the divinity students, the philosophy students, the English students, and a packed hall.

I went there with Brice Marden and there were very few art students there because we were almost taught to stay away from Reinhardt, he was up to no good. When I went to hear Reinhardt, I had really no understanding of what he was talking about. He read from “Art as Dogma” and he followed a system of negations, one after the other. I didn’t know if he was a poet, if he was some sort of religious philosopher, or if he was a very sincere person trying to work out and explain his own method of working, which would justify his existence. There was something very magnificent about his presence. It was one of those things where I felt shaken to my feet; that has happened very few times in front of very few people. And that was Reinhardt. I didn’t think too much about it.

I went to Europe and came back and when I was first in New York a couple of things happened simultaneously, I met Bob Smithson, who along with Virginia Dwan and Ad were putting together a show at the Dwan Gallery, so again, Reinhardt came up as that old belief system that said, “Thou shall not.” And the people who were involved in the show at that time, from my perspective, were making some of the more serious decisions about what it was to make works of sculpture that were challenging, given the tradition of sculpture, faced with what was in front of you.

 I was very interested in the show. I was also very interested in fact that, there was Reinhardt again, behind, as a voice for those people. The person who had been despised by the older generation, all of a sudden became the driving force for a group of younger people who I felt were at the threshold of doing something that I thought was really quite exciting.

I admit that I didn’t understand most of it myself, I was completely turned off by big Judds, I didn’t know what to think of them, they frightened me. I understood they were strong, I was leery of them. If you are a young artist everything is competition out there and you see big good work that frightens you, you don’t know what to do. Smithson was a good friend and introduced me to some of the people and some of their work, and it all seemed to level it out a bit.

At the same time I met a few other artists and I showed a few pieces in New York, and I remember going out to lunch one day with an artist and he said, “Oh Richard, you are here in New York, let me tell you about the New York art scene. Do you want to be a movie star?” And I said, “No, it’s not really in my disposition to be a movie star, but tell me what you mean.” He said that there is a very definite way of relating to the external realities of the art market in the art world and promoting yourself and dealing with your work to reflect upon its external consequentiality in a way that will guarantee a certain reception for your work.

I felt a little bit like I had just entered Hollywood but there was a reality to that. It wasn’t that it frightened me but it made me think about Reinhardt again. “Thou shall not.” I’m not an overly moral person, I just felt like somehow it wasn’t in my disposition to go along with being a movie star and relate to those external values, and there stood Reinhardt saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do this, don’t do that, you’re your audience for your own work, work comes out of work, identify with your own work, don’t care about who identifies with your work.”

If you read Reinhardt, the logic and consistency of what he has to say about being an artist, it’s thunder. It doesn’t leave you much room to breathe. I mean, finally you can come out and say, he is a cynical old reformist, or you can say, I can’t take it anymore.

When Barbara’s book of the writings first came out, the work anthologized. I sat down and read it straight through. Its not like it’s a Bible, but it’s one of those things you go to constantly to reaffirm a position that you found true, just to get your head back on straight. He has been a great model for me, and some sort of moral barometer. There aren’t too many around. He and Newman.

From Ad Reinhardt and Color, Guggenheim panel discussion with Barbara Rose, Richard Serra, Margit Rowell, Joseph Kosuth, and Lucy Lippard, February 16, 1980. Reel to Reel collection. A004. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives. New York, NY.


Richard Serra

RICHARD SERRA is an American artist based in New York.


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