What I like best about Ad Reinhardt’s polychromatic black paintings is how they turn me on. I don’t mean that I feel especially excited, but rather that they draw my physiology into their physics. It is I who opens up before them as my visual system struggles with the attenuated hues. “Your vision is changing things; you are changing”—that’s what Holland Cotter rightly observed in 2008.
The changing is involuntary. The visual system is a circuit of passive and active responders, which perpetually overcome disorder; the process creates the illusion that a self exists inside each of us, a mind, a being. But sentience is instead only the transitory coherence of the mechanics of the body and the materiality of the world; it exists in this very flux. Reinhardt’s midcentury artistic practices fit such then-popular philosophies of life, especially Zen Buddhism and also the Bergsonism expressed in George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962). As was well-documented by Barbara Rose, Reinhardt claimed both Eastern and Western traditions as direct influences.
Reinhardt’s final black paintings (1960 – 1966) are blue black and red black and green black, three by three and one by nine, I and eye and eye and I. The paintings are partly me, part of my body, partially my being. Consequently, I would suggest Reinhardt got it part right and part wrong in his statement, “There is just one painting: Art-as-Art Dogma, Part XV, 1966.” There, he repeatedly asserted: “There is just one.” But it seems the proof of the paintings is that there is just one and also just many, together. It’s a matter of perspective, of quality or quantity.
The concept of the one and was directly explored by Bergson. A reel-to-reel tape recorder? The color spectrum? An elastic band? These are the famous similes for duration, the interpenetration of the multiplicity we sense only in intuitions about existence. Black on black is how we feel time and space moving us in one direction or another. “Thus the living being essentially has duration; it has duration precisely because it is continuously elaborating what is new and because there is no elaboration without searching, no searching without groping,” Bergson wrote in The Creative Mind. This process of change is what is meant by experience.
Surely the movement from one state to another is the most basic consequence of Reinhardt’s paintings. He suggested this effect with a simile of his own. When questioned around 1964 by an interviewer for the Smithsonian’s Oral History Project, “Do you find meaning at all in meaninglessness?” he replied: “It’s just as clear as someone making a decision.” Transition, that’s the key.
The transformation in each of us is the evolution of all, where diversity holds the promise of a community to come. Is this the hope embodied by New York City’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio? Change to come? Reinhardt demanded as much in a note made during World War II, “How can the fine plastic artist pretend to less?”
DAVID RASKIN, PhD is the Chair of the Department of Sculpture and a Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.