In Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, Ishmael arrives by apprehensive steps at a disquieting thought: “the whiteness of the whale” makes tangible the deathly void that lurks beneath the world’s appearances. What if the blackness of Reinhardt’s last paintings evokes the opposite, the fullness of being? Or the static perfection of the real that Parmenides posited as the truth beneath the shifting falsehoods of mere appearances—close cousins to the “images” that receive such a thrashing from Reinhardt’s polemics? Because he gives art-as-knowledge the same harsh treatment I wonder if his fields of black pigment might share a purpose with the “cloud of unknowing” an anonymous English mystic praised as a way to God. Dismiss your rational mind and you will ascend to the absolute.
I don’t say any of these interpretations is correct. I would not, strictly speaking, call them interpretations. They are speculative responses to the felt power of Reinhardt’s black paintings and they are, in principle, endless. But what about his claim that, as “the last paintings,” they had put commentators out of work? There is not, after all, much left for aestheticians, art critics, and art historians to say along the usual lines if, as Reinhardt insisted, “The only and one way to say what abstract art or art-as-art is, is to say what it is not.” And what is “art-as-art” not? According to Reinhardt, it is “non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective.” Liberated by these negations, art has no job to do. It bears no burden of usefulness. “Art-as-art is nothing but art.” End of story. Except for this twist. There is no necessary connection between “art-as-art” in Reinhardt’s writing and the art he made in his studio. But there is, I believe, a connection—not necessary but contingent. Not aesthetically “pure,” but practical.
As I see him, Reinhardt was an artist of uncompromisingly refined taste. Thus Clyfford Still’s claim about his work’s “power for life or for death” struck Reinhardt as hopelessly vulgar boasting. When Abstract Expressionists presented their messy brushwork as sincere self-revelation he saw, instead, a coarse form of preening. In the utopian promises of Piet Mondrian’s geometries he found traditional composition mistaken, with remarkable crudeness, for political progress. And there was worse. It all infuriated him, first, because he was allergic to the crude, the coarse, and the vulgar; and, second, because so many found the crude, the coarse, and the vulgar so seductive. If audiences were satisfied with everything that infuriated Reinhardt, how would they ever be able to see his art in all its refinement? So he set about in his writings to clear away everything dubious in art—or at least to clear a way to his paintings.
Insistently repeating “non” and “not,” Reinhardt charted a via negativa from art-as-usual to the art he preferred, namely, his own. Nonetheless—and here is the twist in the story I have already mentioned—the rhetorical negation that leads us to the black paintings does not carry over to them. They are not negative. They are not nothing. They are not even some mystical Nothing with a capital “N.” They are something, all the more so, perhaps, because it is impossible to say exactly what they are or mean. Invocations of Moby Dick or Parmenides or The Cloud of Unknowing may illuminate the black paintings.Or not. It depends, and not on anything dependable—on the light in the gallery, for example, or your mood. Or even your taste.
Few works of art are as deeply immersed in the contingencies of time and space, of our intentions and attitudes, as these “last paintings” of Reinhardt’s. Many have talked about the experience of seeing them, about the state of mind and of feeling one must attain for that experience to seem complete. Writers always mention that it takes time, it takes a meditative sort of patience, even to see that a black painting is never a single hue. It can seem, sometimes, that these paintings encourage us to indulge ourselves in the subtleties of our seeing. Inhibited, however, by the “nons” and “nots” of Reinhardt’s writing, we also censor ourselves, talking at length about nuances of black and the elusiveness of shape but ignoring everything these canvases evoke and permitting no metaphor to hatch. Reinhardt aimed his negations at art and art-world behavior he disliked. Face-to-face with his art, we negate all but our perceptual responses, assuming we thereby make common cause with the artist. But, as I’ve suggested, I don’t believe this is so.
Though he meant his via negativa to bring us to his art, he could only have meant his art as something positive. Something with a value not only inestimable but, he may well have hoped, impossible to articulate. So what is there to be said? A few writers still give narrowly formalist accounts of Reinhardt’s negotiations with “absolute flatness,” “opticality,” and so on. Far more come up with allusions, implications, or metaphors of some sort. It is a sign of the power of the black paintings that they throw us back on quasi-interpretive expedients to which we must resort if we are not to sink into the disconnected void of formalism or the even sadder void of abject silence. But which expedient to cling to? The choice is yours. If you don’t like the blackness of Reinhardt’s last paintings as a reversal of “the whiteness of the whale,” what about that blackness as the darkness visible at the heart of the Gothic novel? If the plenitude of Parmenidean stasis rings no bells for you in the vicinity of these canvases, why not see them as maps of the motion—the vectors and trajectories, infinite and innumerable—that Heraclitus posited as the essence of the Real? The Cloud of Unknowing is not your cup of tea? Try the Zen no-mind. Or something else.
Nothing will be satisfactory and yet the failure of interpretation need not be total. Noticing that some of these expedients are more congenial than others, you take the first step, however tentative, on the way to self-interpretation—to a sense of your place in the web of meaning and of your spidery power to weave at least a portion of this web. Thus the black paintings, in their “purity,” have a use from which that very “purity” is said to exempt them. This usefulness is oblique, it is elusive, yet it is not in the least incidental. It is what qualifies Reinhardt’s art as major.
Carter Ratcliff is a poet and art critic who lives and works in Hudson, New York.