A seminal figure in the history of abstract art, Ad Reinhardt is widely known as the creator of a series of black paintings. A result of several decades of continuous artistic and intellectual search, these paintings marked an important moment in the development of abstraction, simultaneously bringing to conclusion some of its concerns and opening up paths for new approaches. Developing ideas of Mondrian and Malevich and attempting to create “pure” paintings, Reinhardt eliminated from his art everything that he deemed was obscuring its essence. The resulting black canvases, which Reinhardt painted exclusively over the last decade of his life, became an important influence on the art movements of the 1960s, including Minimalism and Conceptual Art, and continue to be an important point of reference for artists today. In addition to his career as an artist, Reinhardt was a distinguished professor of art history, teaching at Brooklyn College, Hunter College and Yale University, and an author of humorous cartoons for various publications.
Born and raised in Queens, New York, in 1931 Reinhardt enrolled in Columbia University to study literature and art history, attending lectures by Meyer Shapiro, actively participating in the political events happening on campus, and editing the student magazine The Jester. Throughout these years he was also studying painting with Carl Holty, Franciss Criss, and Carl Anderson. Soon after graduation Reinhardt joined the American Abstract Artists group, where he met some of the leading abstract artists of the time, including Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. Influenced by the painters of the group, especially his teacher Carl Holty, in the early years of his career as a painter he explored ideas that came out of the cubist tradition, creating canvases with sharply outlined, interlocking forms in saturated colors. Later he would take great pride in the fact that he was the first American painter to work exclusively in abstraction since the very outset of his career, bypassing the surrealism that many later Abstract Expressionists were experimenting with at early stages. In 1940, he created his first collages and grid paintings, attempting to move away from the individual painterly gesture, and beginning in 1950 his works featured almost exclusively rectangular shapes. Though Reinhardt was in constant dialogue with the artists who came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, he nonetheless resisted association with the movement, strongly opposing the emphasis on individual gesture and emotional expression. He also actively argued against symbolism, mystic associations, and allusions to reality that many Abstract Expressionists employed in their works. In his writings, including “Art-as-Art” and “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” he called to dispense, among other things, of texture, composition, expressionism, illusion of space, and movement in painting in favor of formal, purely aesthetic work. Departing from the dense canvases of the late 1940s that featured “gestural calligraphy” and “glowing colors,” by mid-fifties Reinhardt was using exclusively symmetrical, grid-like composition and was systematically reducing his palette until only white, red, and blue were left. In 1953, he painted his first all-black canvases, and by 1956 he eliminated red and blue colors, creating exclusively black paintings for the following decade.
These works, titled simply Abstract Painting, Painting, or Black Painting, were initially rectangular-shaped, pronouncedly vertical canvases (horizontal would evoke landscapes and thus allude to reality), divided into a grid, and eventually evolved into perfect squares, featuring a cross-like composition. While called “black,” they are in fact not exactly monochrome: under an attentive, close look perfectly symmetrical squares and rectangles of black and sometimes very dark blue would manifest themselves. Embodying all the rejections that Reinhardt called for, these paintings provide the viewer with a pure aesthetic experience, devoid of interpretative attempts. There is no illusion or depth of space to them and they are absolutely static. To conceal the brushwork and thus remove any trace of individual gesture, Reinhardt thinned his paints and applied them in
very fair layers to create a surface that would absorb light. This technique made the paintings extremely fragile: even a slightest touch can ruin them. This feature has presented so many challenges for conservators that in 2010 the Guggenheim Museum conducted an extensive study on the execution and methods of conservation of Reinhardt’s black paintings. This aspect also presents considerable difficulties for exact dating of the paintings, since it is known that they were frequently damaged and re-painted by Reinhardt, sometimes with considerable changes.
Reinhardt’s search for classical, pure, timeless art was as much an intellectual as an artistic pursuit; he argued that profound knowledge of art history is essential for a true artist. His own dedication to art history is evident in his academic career: after receiving his graduate degree at the Institute of Fine Art, Reinhardt himself began to teach, first at Brooklyn College, and later at Yale and Hunter College. His studies and teaching were supplemented by extensive travels to Europe and Asia. During his trips Reinhardt took thousands of photographs of monuments that he later compiled into lectures on world art. According to the testaments of his audience, these lectures, or “non-happenings,” as he called them, were fast, dense, and contained ingenious observations and parallels. He studied Asian and Islamic art, first with a distinguished scholar of East Asian art Alfred Salmony at the IFA and then independently, before finally travelling to Asia and the Middle East to see the major monuments. It has been argued that the all-over, imageless, pattern-like features of Islamic art, along with monochrome tradition of Chinese landscape informed his own artistic search, and he definitely saw his later paintings as a part of continuation of the tradition of art that has been created purely for its own sake.
Reinhardt’s first solo exhibition took place at the Artists’ Space in 1944, and from 1946 to 1965 he was exhibiting his work at Betty Parson’s gallery. Unhappy with the critical reception of his exhibitions and feeling that he came to an important point in his search, in 1965 Reinhardt organized an exhibition simultaneously in three New York galleries that showcased the development of his artistic practice: blue, red, and black paintings were shown separately in each gallery. The show brought the desired attention of critics and scholars, and in the following year the Jewish Museum organized a large retrospective of his work. The catalogue for the exhibition included an essay by Lucy Lippard, in which she outlined the progression of his artistic development and pointed out that he was the only artist of the Abstract Expressionist generation that remained relevant to the younger artists. While there were significant differences in the concerns of minimalist artists and Reinhardt, and as Yve Alain-Bois pointed out, no young artist in the 1960s consciously adhered to Reinhardt’s “rules,” it is clear that there is a direct affinity between the impersonal and precise art of minimalist artists and Reinhardt’s quest to “avoid interpretative elements and humanist content.” In this, as Lucy Lippard notes, he was at least a decade ahead of his contemporaries, and continues to be cited today as a seminal figure of influence.
Ad Reinhardt’s works can be found in numerous public and private collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitey Museum, and Yale University Art Gallery.
"Ad Reinhardt: Centennial 1913-2013." The Brooklyn Rail. http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/1/.
Bois, Yve-Alain. Ad Reinhardt. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991.
Lippard, Lucy R. Ad Reinhardt: Paintings. New York: Jewish Museum, 1966.
Reinhardt, Ad, Heinz Liesbrock, and Josef Albers. Ad Reinhardt and Josef Albers, a Meeting. Bottrop, Germany: Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, 2011.
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