Pictures of One Thing
Barbara, you asked me to say a bit more about a question I raised when reviewing Kirk Varnedoe’s 2006 book Pictures of Nothing: Why didn’t Varnedoe discuss Reinhardt given that—as you said in your email—“if there was ever a picture of nothing, it’s a black Reinhardt?” There are two tempting responses to this question. One is to say that a Reinhardt black painting is not a picture; the other is to say that it’s not of nothing.
The first potential response I dismiss out of hand. A Reinhardt black painting is definitely a picture. At a time when other artists were trying to entirely evacuate pictorial space and ended up making objects, Reinhardt continued to insist on pictorial space—in fact, his version of it just might be the ultimate iteration of synthetic cubism, with its tightly-knit little near-monochromatic facets ironed out into the squares of a grid and its shallow space reduced to the unstable optical differences between almost indiscernible shades of near-black.
The second idea is harder to come to terms with—because who knows what nothing is or how anything can be “of” it? But to my mind think that although Reinhardt (like any thinking person, probably, but especially by any thinking person who has delved into Asian traditions of religious thought) was very interested in nothing, he wasn’t interested in painting it. Remember what he said: “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing.” That’s a curious and complicated statement; one of the most surprising things about it is that it is not simply, “Art is one thing.” The subject of the sentence is not “art” but rather “thing,” or to be more specific the noun phrase “the one thing to say.” One way to read this is to take it that art might be one thing, or it might be many things, or it might be nothing—no matter, as long as you say it is one thing. The sentence deliberately presents itself as a statement of dogma rather than of fact. That’s very Reinhardt. Nonetheless, I suspect that Reinhardt really did consider art to be one thing, and not nothing, let alone many things. And as his paintings were pictures of art, they could not (in his eyes) be pictures of nothing.
What Reinhardt wanted his paintings to do was not to produce this “one thing” but to make it accessible. “Without an art-as-art continuity,” he claimed, and an “abstract point of view, art would be inaccessible and the ‘one thing’ completely secret.” The art tradition, in this view, is like a tradition of esoteric learning, with the central teaching being handed down from master to master (though in this case not in words). But the content of such hermetic transmission is always threatened with impurity and confusion—with “combining, mixing, adding, diluting, exploiting, vulgarizing, or popularizing,” as Reinhardt put it; if the chain of transmission were to be broken, the “secret” would be lost, perhaps forever.
So Varnedoe was right not to include Reinhardt among the “pictures of nothing” because they are not of nothing but rather of this one thing that Reinhardt called art. And of course that one thing, whatever it is, is the one thing that cannot be encompassed in Varnedoe’s liberal pluralism. It is the absolute. Ours, we keep being reminded and rightly so, is a market-based culture. When the absolute is put to market, it is no longer absolute. It is one option among many. The art that Reinhardt called for, like the museum he called for and the academy he called for, cannot really exist in the modern world. The only place for their “soundlessness, timelessness, airlessness, and lifelessness” is on the moon.
Did Reinhardt really believe that the art he called for could exist, that the museum he called for could exist, that the academy he called for could exist? I have to think he was too intelligent for that. But “the one thing to say” was that they had to exist. In the museum we really have, his art is not one thing, except in the sense of being one thing among many, and of that one thing there are necessarily many perceptions, many understandings. There we can enjoy his adumbration of the absolute as a manifestation of style without wondering what it would mean to assent and maintain a commitment to it. But among the many perceptions and understandings to which the museum gives a home, Reinhardt remains to remind us that the many is always one too few, and that it’s possible to imagine that the missing one might be worth all the rest.
BARRY SCHWABSKY is the art critic of The Nation.