A Tale of Two (Black) Squares: Reinhardt, Stella, and Irwin
I came to the 60s late, and from out of town. So The Jewish Museum’s Toward a New Abstraction and the Modern’s “Americans 1963,” both of which opened in the spring of 1963, were news to me. Until that moment New York painting meant, as far as I knew, Willem de Kooning’s abstract landscapes or Robert Motherwell’s mural-size elegies: Abstract Expressionism cresting on the cusp of the decade. Nothing had prepared me for the shock of those deadpan black paintings, by Frank Stella at one exhibition, by Ad Reinhardt at the other. Nothing had set the stage of my experience for the entrance of Minimalism.
How long it took before I realized that these two sets of black pictures represented two different minimalisms—one bearing the capital M and facing forward into the decade; the second, small-m’d, and joining hands with other, similarly motivated, pictorial asceticisms from the past—I no longer remember. Yet it soon seemed obvious that what they had in common was, nothing.
For all that he might reiterate his art-as-art position, insisting on the formless, directionless, colorless, textureless, spaceless, relationless condition of the black squares, Reinhardt nonetheless seemed to think of Art as opening up some kind of back door in the mind, an expanding, pulsing awareness of the visual process itself “Tao,” he once wrote in a note to himself, “fills the whole frame yet you cannot keep track of it…It is dim and dark, showing no outward form.” The black paintings became the vehicle for the staging of this “it” that one could not keep track of, except to acknowledge the infinitely slow pulse of perceptual change, to take account of the fact that perception is the registration of pure difference.
The long time that it takes simply to see the black paintings—to wait for the formless monochrome somehow to exhale the not-quite-colors of a kind of afterimage of a Greek cross that would appear to score the surface of the square, if it could ever be brought into focus in its entirety at any one moment—becomes the form of a meditation on perception. And perception is announced thereby as something that takes place as a duree, an unfolding, a diachrony. As one section of the nine-part grid thickens into the memory of reddishness and advances out of the midnight of the rest of the work, declaring the upper beam of the cross, the leftward arm, say, until then a hovering density of blackened blue, retreats, becoming level once more with the painting’s veil-like surface. For all their mystery, for all the taciturnity of their refusal, these paintings lodge the totality of their effect in a sleight of hand through which the material surface of the picture appears to be supplanted by an optical membrane: a resonant film that seems the very envelope of vision, like the blackness you “see” when you shut your eyes. And this is the sleight of hand that depends on the vulnerability of human eyesight to optical illusion. Thus, although one cannot imagine Reinhardt feeling any sympathy for Josef Albers and the gregarious sunniness of his Homage to the Square, shored up as this long series was by the scientific positivism of his idea of visual research, it is nonetheless Albers’s triumphant self-discipline and minimalist restriction, Albers’s heritage of Bauhaus commitment to uncovering the donnees of perception, that provide a precedent for Reinhardt’s black squares.
And their legacy? Who was to take on the mantle of that search for the perceptual nothing, the visual sublime? Certainly not Frank Stella.
It would come instead from quite another quarter. It would be lodged in the late 1960s in California. It would be shaped by Robert Irwin’s rides into the desert in his shiny Fleetwood convertible, the sun glinting equally off the Cadillac’s chrome and the far shimmer of the sand, and Irwin taking the radiance in with, “It’s cherry.” Years later one can still hear this excitement in Irwin’s voice, describing the sunset over the Nevada desert: “There’s like a haze of green floating between the pink and orange layers in the sky just above the mountain to my left. The sun dipped below the horizon about five minutes ago. The base of the mountain is purple already, and some of the canyons cutting into its face have gone jet black, but this greenish hue—it’s not smog, it’s light—just seems to be hovering, floating there above the rim of the ridge.”
From Rosalind Krauss, “Overcoming the Limits of Matter: On Revising Minimalism,” in John Elderfield, ed. American Art in the Sixties: Studies in Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), 123 – 4.
ROSALIND KRAUSS is a critic and historian based in New York. She is a professor of 20th century art and theory at Columbia University.