Ad Reinhardts Black Paintings: A Matter of Time
In the world today, one would have to make heroic efforts to keep still.
What everybody knows about Ad Reinhardt, even if they know nothing else: his black paintings take a long time to see. The black paintings build in an obstacle by challenging most viewers’ patience. When first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1963, at least one visitor cancelled his membership in protest. Why would Reinhardt make so heavy a demand on us? Whatever the case, the black paintings enact a form of protest. “Everything is on the move,” Reinhardt declared. “Art should be still.”
The black paintings mark the endpoint of years of experimentation—Reinhardt even called them his “ultimate paintings.” For years leading up to this body of work he had undertaken a ruthless process of renunciation, stripping away practically all the tools at the artist’s disposal, including color, contrast, facture, and shape—never mind representation, marketability, or “self-expression.” He defined his project in rigorously negative terms:
A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless) no–contrasting (colorless) colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, free–hand, painted surface (glossless, textureless, non–linear, no hard-edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings—a pure, abstract, non–objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self–conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti–art).
What drove Reinhardt to make this demanding work? The context I propose is an aesthetic field I call “slow art.” Reinhardt’s black paintings are its perfect instantiation. “Slow art” refers to a set of encounters between the observer and the object—experiences, not things. Slow art is collaborative, impossible without viewers’ presence. One result is that paintings, as we continue to look at them, turn into moving pictures because they change. Rather than remaining inert images they become events. Just as images change on a movie screen while we watch, so do paintings—provided that we dwell with them. While the canvas does not measurably alter, our experience of it does. As we rest with a work, we come to see more, and feel differently, than what we remark at first glance.
Slow art is a product of modernity, the child of two massive cultural forces conspiring from the later 18th century onward. First, acceleration (of capital, bodies, images) amped up the pace of daily life, manifest in new economic, informational, and visual technologies. Slow art was born in the gap that opened when time itself seemed to pull away from the older, familiar, cyclical rhythms of nature and the church. As acceleration created a need to linger, slowness became an end in itself, a “movement” of resistance. When secularization constricted old routes to spiritual comfort, slow art offered new routes. It supplemented consolations no longer available to secular humanists. It became a way of enacting Mircea Eliade’s pronouncement that “the sacred is a part of the structure of consciousness and not a stage in the evolution of consciousness.” Slow art thus represents the sacred gaze adapted to modernity, recreating the conditions for rumination. In the way his black paintings function, Reinhardt was the prophet of slow art.
Everywhere in his journals and published writing he argues with himself. Evidence against “spiritual” associations is easy to spot. “The religion of art is not religion. / The spirituality of art is not spirituality.” More specifically he wrote, “I wanted to eliminate the religious ideas about black.” On the other hand, Reinhardt described the “continuous absorbed attention” that his black paintings require as a “kind of sanctity, demands purifications . . . rituals, creeds.” He imagined a “Passage from visible to spiritual, temporal to eternal, creature to creation / A reality that does not belong to our world, holy ground.” He cites Scripture: “Him that has made the darkness his hiding place”; refers to the Ka’aba—that cube-shaped building in Mecca, in whose directions Muslims pray; and to the Upanishads “formless art thou and yet thou bringest forth many forms.” In 1955 he tellingly called the black painting, “A free unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon.”
How can we reconcile these contradictions? Reinhardt struggled—like Stuart Davis and David Smith—to integrate avant-garde art and political activism. We can trace this struggle quite precisely through his writings. One “solution” Reinhardt devised in 1943 was to distinguish “a picture” from “a painting.” The latter is “not concerned with communicating specific information or subject matter,” the way illustrations do. Painting is strictly about painting. “Pictures,” by contrast, depict everyday, external reality, which is accomplished most effectively by “magazines and movies.” Therefore abstract art “should be of great immediate value here, to everyone” because it “is clearly and directly what it is.”
Political, social, aesthetic commitment: Reinhardt’s list is seamless, situating all three on a level playing field. He takes his example from a recent exhibition of his hero Piet Mondrian: “What greater challenge today . . . to disorder and insensitivity; what greater propaganda for integration than this emotionally intense, dramatic division of space?”
As the 1950s advanced into the 1960s, however, the synthesis failed to hold. Reinhardt lost the faith he had held during the War that “the fine artist can be important to the war effort as fine artist, not as soldier, draughtsman . . . poster designer.” His 1957 “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” renounces the longstanding effort to yoke abstract art to politics. Rather than abstract art being “of great immediate value . . . to everyone,” Reinhardt now concludes that “the less exposed a painting is to a chance public, the better.”
Reinhardt’s deeply felt social commitment never died. It transmuted. Abstract art could continue to serve social ends, provided those ends be correctly understood. In this respect the black paintings are the logical endpoint of Reinhardt’s career for social reasons as well as for artistic ones. In his Smithsonian archives interview Reinhardt acknowledged “I know I can sound religious, have a kind of faith in art or whatever it is or your own art but the minute you start to make it positive it sounds terrible.”
Here is a classic Reinhardt contradiction: to “sound religious” and to “have a kind of faith,” while lacking any language that might express that religion or faith. This dilemma leads Reinhardt directly back to the heart of his painterly practice, namely negation. “You know, I’ve always talked negatively anyway. That sounds religious too, the negative kind of theological approach where you never especially in the Hebraic and the Islamic where you wouldn’t pin down God or the minute you make Him a thing it’s not Him or not it, or it’s a vulgarization.”
Indeed Reinhardt’s writings can sound like “negation theology,” a paradoxical way of intuiting the divine by saying what it is not. It is probable that Thomas Merton, Reinhardt’s friend from their Columbia days and a Trappist monk, introduced the artist to the negative theology of St. John of the Cross.
On October 29, 1957—three years into the series—Merton requested a black painting from Reinhardt as an aid to contemplative prayer. In a journal entry of November 17, Merton described living with the painting. “Almost invisible cross on a black background. As though immersed in darkness and trying to emerge from it . . . You have to look hard to see the cross. One must turn away from everything else and concentrate on the picture as though peering through a window into the night . . . I should say a very ‘holy’ picture—helps prayer—an ‘image’ without features to accustom the mind at once to the night of prayer—and to help one set aside trivial and useless images that wander into prayer and spoil it.”1
Ten years later, at age 53, Ad Reinhardt died. Merton wrote to their mutual friend, the poet Robert Lax, breaking the news. Merton imagined Reinhardt vanishing into his black paintings, “He walked off into his picture . . . Ad is well out of sight in his blacks.”2
1 Cited in Lipsey, 300 – 01.
2 Cited in Lipsey, 292.
ARDEN REED is Dole Professor of English at Pomona College, California. He is currently working on a book about Slow Art to be published by University of California Press.