The Art of Seeing
Ad Reinhardt’s consistent, repeated attempt to achieve the ultimate and “perfect” result in his black paintings is not unlike the constant inquiry and attention to detail, at times to the point of irrationality, that one finds within the confines of the conservator’s world. To restore a flat plane of black or white or red is an exceedingly tedious task, requiring an obsession that seems to verge on insanity. The visual rewards are often inconsequential, and others can seldom comprehend the efforts that are expended to attain a flawless result; it is, however, a challenge I have embraced.
If Reinhardt’s black paintings are often difficult to grasp as a spectator, the surface of these paintings are even more problematic for the conservator whose mandate is to maintain their pristine quality. The restoration of these works must be carefully considered, since the visual and emotional experience they elicit can be greatly compromised—even lost—by a reflective surface or by superfluous forms created through damage or restoration. I have had the rare opportunity to experience some of these extraordinary works over long periods of time and at very close range. I have acquired minuscule samples from their surfaces in order to carry out scientific analysis and ascertain what materials were used to create or restore them. Yet while this sort of analysis provides valuable details about the works, the answers it provides beget more questions. I make a great effort to reconcile the meaning of these paintings with their materials, and the information gathered always serves to intensify the discussion. How important, for example, is the suede-like matte surface of Reinhardt’s black paintings to their interpretation? Must the surface be pristine for the painting to be understood? What happens when the surface has been compromised by subtle marks, abrasions, and patterns, the inevitable result of many years of handling, traveling, and display?
Reinhardt was familiar with damages to his work and he often repaired them. Both before and after a 1966 – 67 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, for example, he restored many of the works included in the show, both from his own collection and from the collections of lenders. During a 1963 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—Americans, curated by Dorothy Miller—a damaged black painting owned by the museum was returned to Reinhardt’s studio, and he replaced it with a similar black square. The art critic Irving Sandler describes a telephone conversation between Reinhardt and Miller, who reportedly demurred, “But ours is the Museum of Modern Art’s picture,” to which Reinhardt replied, “I don’t know what you’re fussing about, I’ve got paintings here [in my studio] that look more like that painting than that painting does.”
A letter to Alfred H. Barr, Jr. suggests Reinhardt’s insistent willingness to repair his canvases and his view that the repeated re-creation of a pristine surface was part of a painting’s life. Indeed, while we have learned to accept signs of age in most paintings—we “see through” the prominent craquelure in a 17th-century painting, for example, or the fine black lines created by cracking patterns in the surface of a Piet Mondrian painting—we are generally unable to accept a fingerprint or a scuff on the surface of a Reinhardt or any other monochromatic work. We no longer have the artist to consult when one becomes damaged, however, and we know that it is nearly impossible to hide a restoration on a painting surface such as a black Reinhardt. So how do we proceed?
The conservator focuses on the tangible—on the science and the materials involved in creating an artwork—but an understanding of the artist’s concerns and historical interpretation is equally important. This contextual information contributes appreciably to how I view a work and approach its conservation. Over the years, I have come to recognize the limitations of both science and human visual perception in conservation.
Can we trust what we see? Does science help us determine what we see? Viewing Reinhardt’s black paintings is an extreme example of the difficulty of finding the absolute observer and coming to terms with the relationship between the material world and how we perceive it relative to our experience and viewpoint. In conservation, science has given us many clues to the materials and techniques of the artwork, yet it remains unable to explain the dualism of our sensory experience and what science tells us to be the truth. This leads us to the spiritual dimension that Reinhardt so often negated but was consciously thinking about. He referred to the black paintings as both the “end of the Western tradition” and a new “mode of perception.” As the art historian and critic Barbara Rose remarks, “These paintings challenge the viewer to the point where it changes the state of the viewer’s consciousness.”
Excerpt from Imageless: The Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2008).
CAROL STRINGARI is Deputy Director and Chief Conservator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. She has carried out research and treatment on a wide range of artworks, including works by Vincent van Gogh, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Ryman, Bruce Nauman, and Ad Reinhardt.