The stunning extremism of Reinhardt’s late work signifies a radical attenuation of the pictorial and material means of post-Cubist abstraction. His various texts about the black paintings follow suit, summoning as they do a rhetoric of denial. There Reinhardt defines a black painting by invoking what it is not: the surface is “glossless” and “textureless,” its image is “non-linear,” with “no hard edge, no soft edge.” The painting’s status is “unmanipulated and unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, [and] unreproducible.” “It’s the negativeness of black, or its darkness particularly, in painting,” Reinhardt wrote, “which interests me.” Negation is, however, also a form of liberation: a black painting is said to be “free.”
With the black paintings, it is not only possible but necessary to acknowledge that, in certain respects, Reinhardt was making the same painting over and over again. There are of course meaningful discrepancies from one to the next that reveal themselves through a protracted, distant contemplation of the image as well as through a minute examination of surface (although close-up inspection is, of course, surely the “wrong” way to look at a black painting). Still, the conceit of sameness is an important one, and it, too, is at stake in the writing: “Repetition of formula over and over again until it loses all meaning / Nothing left except monotonous disappearing image […] everywhere, time, the same thing, one exercise.” Reinhardt frequently referred to a black painting’s abstract cruciform image as a “diagram,” a device that facilitates the activation of a repeated form. Yet Reinhardt also wrote, “the painting cannot be copied, reproduced, duplicated.” Perhaps that remark reflects the difficulty of photographic reproduction, although it could pertain to the subtlety of Reinhardt’s technique in that successfully imitating or “faking” a black painting would be extremely hard to do. (Even so, a black painting that has been re-conditioned by a “conservator”—a notorious problem—probably counts as a species of fake, or, at best, a surrogate.)
In this context, one measure of radicality in Reinhardt’s work is an aspect of his late practice that interrogates, in the context of sameness, the painting’s status as a unique object. It concerns the fact that, given Reinhardt’s paint formula, which contains as little binding medium as possible, the paint surface of a black painting is extremely sensitive to damage by touch. In the event of damage, which is common, it was his policy to “restore” the work, which meant, in effect, largely repainting it. It would be only a slight exaggeration, then, to say that Reinhardt thought of these paintings as almost interchangeable. (How, in any case, is one to judge the relative merits of one painting versus another, apart from degree of technical accomplishment?) This is an impossible thing to claim on behalf of any artist before him in the history of high- or late-modernist abstraction.
The status of the work in this regard is something about which Reinhardt also wrote, and it is significant that few if any other artists had ever felt the need to before. In an unmailed (or hand-copied) letter in the Archives of American Art, he slammed the owner of a damaged painting, for whom the prospect of restoration was as distressing as the damage itself. The terms of distress appear to have largely concerned the question of value. “How do you know,” Reinhardt wrote, “your painting now, repainted, is not worth $1500? I would charge at least $150 for restoring. Do you think restoring is a simple matter? Of course it will be another painting—the old is gone forever, and who’s responsible?”
Elsewhere, however, Reinhardt represented the vulnerability of the black paintings as an essential property, and in so doing he positioned them within a philosophical problematic of identity and material constitution. In a statement of 1963 occurs this passage: “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, accident—‘happenings,’ scratches), and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negotiating the negation of art), again and again, over and over again, until it is just ‘right’ again.” Is a repainted painting a new painting, or is it simply “new in the same old way”? The sameness of the series (which isn’t a series because it doesn’t permute or progress) allows us to identify a remade black painting as the same object with the same affect as an “original”—replaced yet, for all intents and purposes, the same. Authorship is also in play: we wouldn’t ask these questions of a painting that has been repainted by someone other than the artist, although we could justifiably do so.
If, following Reinhardt, we are to address the black paintings as a species of icon, then we should take a cue from icon theory and acknowledge that it is through sameness and repetition that the Byzantine icon derives its authenticity and, therefore, its power. Yet the black paintings signify the waning phase of high modernism as a utopian expression in that they introduce, by way of sameness, something that is apt to destabilize faith: a conundrum.
JEFFREY WEISS is a senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.