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Black Paintings

Indivisibility Undone

The painting leaves the studio as a purist, abstract, non-objective object of art, returns as a record of everyday (surrealist, expressionist) experience (“chance” spots, defacements, hand-markings, accidents—“happenings,” scratches) and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negating the negation of art), again and again, over and over again, until it is just “right” again.

The black paintings that left Reinhardt’s studio in the final six years of his career maintained a fragile material and visual equilibrium, easily marred by routine handling that would leave traditionally painted canvas unharmed. During this time, Reinhardt voluntarily repainted the surfaces of such damaged paintings owned by others. After the artist’s death, occasional localized damages continued, and so did the practice of treating such damages with wholesale over-painting of the surface, albeit by a restorer. While these restorations may have appeared acceptable immediately following their execution, because Reinhardt’s idiosyncratic material processing was generative and intrinsically linked to his intent for the viewer’s experience, time has visually demarcated these works from those exclusively by Reinhardt.

The specific processes Reinhardt developed for creating his black paintings must have held some inherent significance. The extent to which this significance lay in ritual practices or served more simply as a vestige of his Abstract Expressionist roots, is debatable. However, Reinhardt’s reliance on the gradual action of turpentine on oil paint to eventually yield his optimal balance of binder and pigment had less to do with practicalities than with the conceptual consistency of his work. The slow and not entirely predictable evolution of his paint mixtures within jars was entirely consistent with the gradual and not entirely predictable evolution of the paint surfaces under his brush as was, and remains, the gradual and not entirely predictable comprehension of tonal subtleties and visual “hum” of the paintings by viewers. It was only over time, and only for Reinhardt to guess exactly when just the right amount of oil had dissolved away from the pigment to create such paint films. The end result could not be forced—Reinhardt could anticipate from the outset but not guarantee—since the ultimate absorption of the medium away from the velvety pigment was specific to the physics in each jar and the absorbency of the underlying paint on the canvas. The paintings slowly evolved for the artist in the studio as they eventually would for the viewer in the gallery.

As evidenced from a documented discussion between Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the artist, Reinhardt appreciated that the evolution of his paintings, in this case during the course of a restoration, did not always occur in a timeframe conducive to the needs of the paintings’ owners. However, it was never the repainting process that was negotiable, only the end product:

I’ve restored the painting and am waiting to see how it dries . . . Each painting, each color, each coat, the same paint, dries differently even in the same place, and there is no way of being absolutely sure how it will dry . . . One of my paintings may dry “better” and “closer” to the painting that is yours than the painting that is yours and I’d like to offer to send you, or if you wish, to invite you to look at, several similar paintings in my studio, in case your painting doesn’t dry exactly right, now. It will be all right in time, and may take time, so maybe you would not mind another in its place, temporarily or permanently, always “exchangeable” any time you want. I am not sure what all the implications are, for you, but I make this offer anyway.1

Unlike the virtually undifferentiated surfaces originating from Reinhardt’s hand, overall restored Reinhardts frequently exhibit enhanced brushstrokes or other features, disturbing the original surface’s equilibrium of stillness, form, and color. While Reinhardt’s paintings do exhibit subtle brushwork, it is only evident at the boundaries between different tonal areas, the results of painting up to an adjacent color, subtly intermingling the interfaces or leaving a slight reveal of the underlying paint. Reinhardt’s lusterless paint minimizes these distinctions between strokes and the overall perception is of modulated color rather than brushwork. Saturation of any kind, such as greasy fingerprints or a restorer’s surface coating or over-paint, negates this matte color and its intended muting effect. In the over-painted works, the directionality of the restoration brushstrokes, as well as their saturation of the underlying original layers, over-emphasizes these boundaries, creating lines instead of “adjacencies.” Although the distinction is subtle, a line emphasizes itself while an “adjacency” emphasizes the flat expanse on either side of it. Reinhardt carefully avoided lines in favor of “adjacencies,” which ultimately read as modulated tonal differences with a single plane. The more distinct lines created by restoration over-paint result in unintended spatial distinctions, overlaps, and figure/ground relationships. In addition to the accentuation of brushstrokes and an overall hardening of the relationships between forms, Reinhardt’s original color is similarly distorted by the intervening over-paint and coatings. In over-painted works, the original paint has been covered with a combination of alternating pigmented and clear coatings. Unlike Reinhardt’s surfaces, which were matte due to a paucity of medium, the restorer’s layers attempt to replicate such a surface artificially, using resinous layers and matting agents. Over time, these layers have become increasingly opaque, essentially acting as a thin scumble over the original, imparting a cooler and bluer tonality to the original.

While Reinhardt’s prescription for restoring a damaged paint surface may have included substitution with another painting, it never suggested a substitution of the hand that painted it. Despite the likely intent of the restorer, posthumous over-painting treatments have resulted in distortions of the original visual properties. A seamless conceptual consistency through the material processing, execution, and the painting itself permitted Reinhardt’s successful repainting, but could not extend beyond the artist. Over time, rather than reintegrating the artist’s paint surface, the restorer-applied layers reinforce only themselves as distinct and unfortunate presences, a tinted glass sarcophagus permitting only glimpses of what is buried underneath.


1. Ad Reinhardt, letter to Alfred H. Barr Jr., December 13, 1962. Museum Collection Files, Department of Paintings and Sculpture, Reinhardt Correspondence File, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Bradford K. Epley

BRADFORD K. EPLEY is Chief Conservator at the Menil Collection.


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