Painting of the Day

7 Dec



Abstract Painting. by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). Oil on canvas, 1963. Currently not on view, but belongs to the collection of MoMA, NYC. 

Notes from

Abstract Painting contains three distinct shades of black, which become visible only after prolonged looking. Reinhardt was intensely sensitive to such subtle variations. He explained, “There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.” When Reinhardt’s black paintings were first exhibited at MoMA, in 1963, their reductive imagery and stark palette shocked visitors, prompting at least one Museum membership cancellation in protest.

“Artists who peddle wiggly lines and colors as representing emotion should be run off the streets.”

While it appears entirely black at first, Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is composed of an almost imperceptible grid of nine squares distinguished by subtle variations in color. Close examination reveals a red hue in the squares at its four corners, blue at the top and bottom of its vertical axis, and hints of green across its horizontal center. These nuances, however, reveal themselves only after an extended period of careful looking, and the sustained encounter they demand, in Reinhardt’s view, marks the distance between aesthetic experience and everyday life.

Reinhardt’s paintings are a stark contrast to the dramatic gesturalism characteristic of many Abstract Expressionist paintings. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Willem de Kooning or Robert Motherwell, Reinhardt worked with a limited palette, applied matte pigments in smooth, even strokes, and reduced the composition to an easily repeatable grid.

During the last seven years of his life, Reinhardt repeated the reductive schema of Abstract Painting with an unwavering consistency and almost religious conviction. All of his works from this period are similarly dark and gridded, and they all measure five feet by five feet. The only variable in this arrangement is the distribution and saturation of colors. 

With Abstract Painting, Reinhardt took the tendency in modern art toward abstraction and simplification to the extreme. His writings reveal the artist’s commitment to an aesthetic purism that refused any references to the outside world. For Reinhardt, artistic freedom demanded the absolute separation of art from life. “Art is art,” he famously declared, “and everything else is everything else.” This elimination of both subject matter and subjectivity, he argued, liberated art from the practical demands of both politics and society. “Art is free,” he proclaimed, “but it is not a free-for-all.” 

While many of Reinhardt’s contemporaries ridiculed his purism and regarded his black paintings as an attack on “the very idea of art itself,” he gradually gained a receptive audience among younger artists. Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella adopted similar strategies of formal reduction. To many in this younger generation, Reinhardt’s writings and paintings supported their own efforts to blur the distinction between art and life by reducing painting to a blank canvas. Reinhardt always rejected this association, however, stating, “The one thing to say about art and life,” he proclaimed, “is that art is art and life is life.”

At first glance this painting presents a flat black surface. But longer viewing reveals more than one shade of black and an underlying geometric structure. Reinhardt has divided the canvas into a three-by-three grid of squares. The black in each corner square has a reddish tone; the shape between them formed by the center squares is bluish-black in its vertical bar and greenish-black in its horizontal bar. Reinhardt tried to produce what he described as “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art.”

In the last ten years of his life, Reinhardt focused solely on square, black paintings. In his unpublished writings, the artist indicates that these pictures relate aesthetically to monotonal Chinese paintings rather than Western painting’s concepts of light and dark. These canvases are intentionally enigmatic, painted to resist interpretation and to represent the beginning of a new way of seeing and thinking about art. In 1961, Reinhardt described them thus:

A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless) no–contrasting (colorless) colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, free–hand, painted surface (glossless, textureless, non–linear, no hard-edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings—a pure, abstract, non–objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self–conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti–art).

My comments:

In some ways, Ad Reinhardt seems like one of the most pure artists that ever lived, an artist who did not love art for the ideas or meanings that you could attach to it, but for just its very materials and very essence. With Abstract Painting, Reinhardt creates profound meaning not from connecting the stuff of art to a larger idea about the human condition, but by revealing the unexpected complexity and nuance of black upon black paint. He doesn’t try to fit conform to the language of humanity; instead, he communicates to us in the language of art. 

I bolded two parts of the notes from above because I found these particularly interesting. Is art “better” when it speaks to the society or political climate in which it is created? Does political art, even if not overtly but at least indirectly political, speak more to us or serves us more than art without such meaning? Should art even have anything to do with politics? Or does political art just seem like a masked agenda? 

It’s also interesting how the younger artists kind of misinterpreted the meaning of Reinhardt’s art. And it’s an interesting distinction that Reinhardt strives to make about the boundary between art and life. Many artists, such as John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, have apparently tried to argue that art is life, but Reinhardt rejects that argument and considers them as very separate things. I’m not sure who is right.

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