PRINT December 1966

Reinhardt: The Purist Blacklash

AD REINHARDT HAS CHAMPIONED abstract art for the past three decades, and for the last half of that period, he has stood for purism in painting. His uncompromising position negates every other esthetic attitude. Relativism is rejected outright. He allows that he may be wrong but insists that if he is not, then he is absolutely right.

Reinhardt’s dicta are always witty and provocative, and more often than not, profound. But it is the brilliance of his painting that has forced his contemporaries to take heed of his writings and, understandably, to rebut.1 The controversy has been of value, for the vitality of New York art stems in part from perpetual disputes which sharpen issues. At times, however, Reinhardt’s artistic enemies have shifted their assault from his ideas to his work. This is natural, for his “extremist” ideas are embodied in them. But it is also deplorable, because the rancor of polemic has obscured their extraordinary quality.

Reinhardt’s painting and esthetics were shaped by geometric abstraction, the dominant vanguard art of the 1930s, and by Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s, much as he later reviled it. In fact, his style since 1950 has derived largely from a synthesis of these antithetical tendencies.

The geometric abstractions that Reinhardt painted from 1937 to 1941 (and later, for he did not limit himself to one style in the forties) were influenced by Miro, Stuart Davis, Carl Holty, Leger, Mondrian and Gris. He exhibited with the American Abstract Artists, and like most of its members, aspired to an art of “essentials,” “simplicity” and “purity.”

During the early 1940s, Reinhardt reacted against his ascetic inclination. Cubist abstraction had become too mechanical, too confining. He needed to shake it up, and one of the techniques he used was collage. Having previously employed paste-ups as preparatory sketches for his geometric oils (a common practice in the thirties), he now sliced up magazine and newspaper illustrations, each cut so that references to objects were obliterated, leaving only disembodied textures. By juxtaposing these incongruous details, Reinhardt veered toward Surrealism. He also loosened up tightly knit structure by working more directly, painting quickly over hard-edge forms, complicating, shredding and melting them. The free-flowing lines and amorphous patches call to mind oriental calligraphy, Impressionist and Expressionist facture, and particularly, Surrealist automatism. But even the freest of them are too bound to an infra-Cubist structure—too deliberate and orderly—to issue from unconscious impulses. However, the all-over patterns of open and closed shapes of richly varied brushwork frequently evoke mysterious grottos and other phantasmagoria—like the collages of the period. Although Reinhardt’s intentions were formal, his organic improvisations are closer in look to those of Tobey, Hofmann or Rothko than to the paintings of the American Abstract Artists.

As Reinhardt turned away from geometry, he became friends with the artists later to be labeled the Abstract Expressionists. He joined the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946; among the artists who had shows there up to 1951 were Pollock, Rothko, Hofmann, Still, Newman, Tomlin and Pousette-Dart. In 1949, Reinhardt was a founder of the Club, and in 1950, he was one of the Irascible 18 who protested against the policies of the Metropolitan Museum. In 1951, he and Motherwell edited a widely circulated paperback, Modern Artists in America. In sum, he was at the center of Abstract Expressionist activities after World War II.

Of these painters, Reinhardt was closest to Newman, Rothko and Still. Like them, he came to reject gestural intricacy and reduced his pictorial means in the direction of color-field abstraction. Around 1950, he broadened the calligraphic lines of earlier pictures into generally horizontal and vertical swaths. He also simplified his palette, often to a single color on a white ground. Soon after, he transformed the swaths into horizontal bars—a quasi-geometric, magnified pointillism. In many pictures, the hues were high-keyed (a reversion to his Davis-inspired color of the thirties) and dissonant, optical enough to rock the eyes out of your head, as Fairfield Porter observed.

In 1952, Reinhardt hardened the bars into mat rectangles, at first asymmetrical, then arranged into centered cruciform designs. In each of these paintings he used one all-over color—red, blue or black—but the tones of the rectangles were varied slightly. Reinhardt had circled back to geometric abstraction, but with a difference—the affinity to color-field painting.

In some respects Reinhardt’s intentions resemble those of Newman, Rothko and Still. Like them, he wants to create an absolute, supra-personal art, and his stance is as heroic and moralistic as theirs. However, unlike them, he renounces extra-esthetic associations in favor of a purist approach. The similarities and differences between Reinhardt’s and Newman’s points of view are clear in their published statements. In 1947, Newman wrote: “The basis of an esthetic act is the pure idea . . . that makes contact with mystery—of life, of man, of nature, of the hard, black chaos that is death, or the greyer, softer chaos that is tragedy. For it is only the pure idea that has meaning. Everything else has everything else.”2 In 1962, Reinhardt wrote: “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else.”3

Reinhardt’s remark summarizes an estheticist position he took early in his career.4 But he diverged from it in 1947 when he exhibited two pictures, titled Dark Symbol and Cosmic Sign in the Ideographic Picture show, organized by Newman at the Betty Parsons Gallery. In the following year, however, he attacked “transcendental nonsense, and the picturing of a ‘reality behind reality’.” Instead, he professed a desire for “pure painting [which] is no degree of illustration, distortion, illusion, allusion or delusion.” 5

Like Newman, Reinhardt adopted negation as a means of achieving his absolute. In 1948, Newman wrote: “We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.”6

No-saying became central to Reinhardt’s approach in 1949.7 In 1962, he summed it up: "The one object of fifty years of abstract art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only, separating and defining it more and more, making it purer and emptier, more absolute and more exclusive—non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective. The only and one way to say what abstract art or art-as-art is, is to say what it is not.”8

Reinhardt distills the quintessence of art by purging elements in past art that prevent the rendering of it directly and exclusively. Deriving art from art is a traditional approach, an art historical one, and Reinhardt is an art historian, expert in Far and Near Eastern art. He admires "the completely conventional, formalistic, academic tradition wherever it occurs, in China, India or Europe.”9 He also conceives of all art, when it enters the museums, which, for him, are the only places for art, as emptied of every meaning (political, religious, etc.) but one—its value as art. However, Reinhardt has built a vanguard principle into his traditionalism, for he believes that art undergoes a continual revolution, progressing always toward purity.

Such critics as Priscilla Colt have stressed Reinhardt’s “ingrained traditionalism.” A sign of this, among others, is his preference for grey—the color of modeling, of grisaille. Other writers think that he has gone so far in his criticism of tradition that instead of extending it, he has destroyed it. They consider him a nihilist and brand his avowed love of tradition as fraudulent. They mistake his irony, often turned against himself, as a lack of seriousness. But how serious is Reinhardt when he asks whether art is too serious to be taken seriously? And can an artist with a pure conception of art (like Kierkegaard’s vision of Christianity) dare call himself an artist?

Reinhardt’s process is intellectual, and to him, the contrary of art-as-art is life-as-art. Barzun has remarked that art as a mental activity denies art which touches the pulse of life:

Common language records this opposition in a dozen ways: Life is warm, hot, glowing; Intellect is cold and dull. Life is its own mover, impetuous, heedless of reasons and obstacles . . . Intellect is static, calculating, aimed at purposes clear to the few . . . Intellect observes rules of its own making that no one enforces, and is full of scruples in private, though in public it speaks confidently of itself and callously of life. The classic instance of Intellect’s inhumanity is Voltaire’s remark after he had asked why someone wrote bad books and was told that ‘the poor man had to live’: ‘I do not see the necessity.’ Intellect has apparently nothing to say to the predicaments and tragedies of life . . . Whereas life is immediate and convinces by throbbing in your veins or panting in your face, Intellect stands on the margin of existence and convinces, if at all, by the roundabout road of argument . . . Any pair of common images about the two shows them as antagonists—Intellect, stiff, angular, unchanging; Life, flowing and adaptive. Intellect, the blade that carves and separates forever; life a perpetual mixing and joining, fusion and confusion.10

Reinhardt asserts that an artist’s concern with purity in art leads to purity in his public role. “Absolute,” defined by Webster as “free from imperfection; perfect; free from mixture; pure . . . determined in itself and not by anything outside itself; not dependent or relative; ultimate; intrinsic,” is close to “absolution”—“an absolving, or setting free from guilt, sin or penalty . . . a releasing from censures.” By this standard, impure art perverts the artist who creates it. Reinhardt has written: “Any combining, mixing, adding, adulterating, diluting, exploiting, vulgarizing or popularizing of abstract art deprives art of its essence and truth, and is a corruption of the artist’s artistic conscience.”11 To him, the worst sinners in our time have been the Abstract Expressionists.12

By 1952, Reinhardt had rid his art of gesture (the signs of the artist’s creative process, active presence and temperament); organic shapes (which evoke life more than do geometric ones); and varied, high-keyed colors, but not tonal variations. After 1954, he simplified his format and attempted to subtract all color and line. He limited the canvas shape and composition, eventually to the trisected square. He also greyed his colors, gradually making them indistinguishable—colorless. As the tones grew closer in value, the lines that separated them dissolved. Drawing, like color, became almost invisible. The viewer had to strain to make either out. What remained perceptible on first viewing was a homogenous, dark surface. As Sidney Tillim observed: "This field is the real structure . . . rather than the . . . grid.”13

Reinhardt achieved the consummate picture in 1960—a five foot square canvas, composed of nine identical grey squares. He has been repeating it since then. About this series, he wrote: “The one work and the one direction of the fine artist or abstract painter today is to paint and repaint the same one thing over and over again, to repeat and refine the one uniform form again and again. Intensity, consciousness, perfection in art come only after long routine, preparation and attention.”14

Such programmatic thinking (a reversion to the thirties love of ideology) which results in preconceived and finished pictures, has been anathema to the Action Painters, whose attitude has been summed up by Franz Kline: "To be right is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in.”15

As a classicizing artist, Reinhardt aims at clarity, but he also accomplishes its opposite, for the black paintings deny visual logic, as if illustrating de Kooning’s remark that nothing is less clear than geometry. Much as Reinhardt’s abstractions make explicit his intention of removing color from color, the ghosts of colors remain and function as colors. And the harder one peers, the sharper the colors one coaxes from the monochrome become. Reinhardt is revealed as a masterful colorist who cultivates a low register palette and the most nuanced of color interactions. The minute shifts in tone generate vibrations which prevent the pictures from becoming static, inert and monotonous (qualities he desires), for they keep the eye active and alert—nervous. Furthermore, although the black paintings look anonymous and self-effacing, they are original and immediately recognizable as Reinhardt’s invention, as personal as his signature.

Reinhardt also intends the late pictures to be aloof and inaccessible, and to communicate nothing but themselves. But in this too, the reverse holds. The image of the cross is, of course, loaded with associations. To be sure, he generalizes the form so that symbolic references are minimized. Still, thoughts of iconography and icons—or empty iconography and empty icons—come to mind. More important, in order to purge color and line, Reinhardt shrouds them in a dim atmosphere. But the atmosphere induces contemplation, for the activity of peering, which requires time, effects a trance-like state in the viewer. And the ambiguous and haunting aura of darkness invites associations and suggests mysteries.

Priscilla Colt has written that Reinhardt’s pushing of the visible toward the brink of the invisible, of logic toward the brink of illogic, of the material to the verge of immateriality, inevitably suggests a link with a transcendent level of existence. It is as if he intended the act of straining to see to become symbolic of a straining for an elusive or unattainable objective. But ultimately the eye discovers the futility of straining: ultra-passivity, neutral receptivity are necessary to the process. Identity with Reinhardt’s unnameable absolute will be attained only through a suspension of goal-seeking and egocentric activism. So nothing may become everything. It is in this sense that the black square may be regarded as a “ritual aid in a quasi-religious search.”16 Reinhardt has disparaged mystical interpretations of his work, but he does at times seem to elevate art-as-art into an object of worship, and religious terms do appear in his writing (“the museum ought to be a shrine”).

The roles that Reinhardt has played in the art world are as paradoxical as the black paintings. Lucy Lippard once wondered what the relationships were between "the expressionist and the purist, the editor and the theorist, the scholar and orientalist, and the cartoonist and social satirist, the idealist and the ‘conscience of the art world,’ or, as he has called himself, ‘the Great Demurrer in a time of Great Enthusiasms’.”17 Contradictory though these roles may seem, they can be viewed as aspects of a unified stance.

Reinhardt would like his purism to be universally accepted, but it is not. Therefore, he relies on history and esthetics for justification, discovering a universal principle whereby art rids itself of excess baggage in an inexorable urge toward its own essence. “The one way for the fine artist, the one thing in art left to do, is to repeat the one-size-canvas—the single-scheme, one-color monochrome, one linear-division in each direction, one symmetry, one texture, one formal device, one freehand brush-working, one rhythm—into one dissolution and invisibility, into one overall uniformity and regularity.”18 Hence, the ultimate stage of art’s evolution is Reinhardt’s black painting. But it may only be his private vision of an absolute art. Reinhardt turns, against his wishes, into an Expressionist.

However, he continues to yearn for a purist academy and assumes the role of polemicist to achieve it, using his satire as his main weapon. His ridicule is aimed at other artists. “The one fight in art is not so much between art and non-art as between true and false art, between pure art and action-assemblage-art, between abstract art and surrealist-expressionist-anti-art . . . The one struggle in art is the struggle of artists against artists, of artist against artist, of the artist-as artist within and against the artist-as-man, -animal or -vegetable.”19

Accordingly, Reinhardt has written, lectured and exhibited extensively. In order to advance his esthetic point of view, he enters the arena of his “enemies.” Removed from what ought to be his natural habitat—the ivory tower—he descends to their level. Given his hatred of art world commercialism and promotion, he should not exhibit at all, but he has, and at times with the Abstract Expressionists. An effective way to fight is to join—bore from within, sharpen contrasts by proximity—but by his standards, it is also an evil, if a lesser one.

Reinhardt’s argumentativeness is a denial of the primary values in his painting: aloofness, muteness and harmony. But cantankerousness has generally been an attribute of the life style of classicists. It is best characterized by a story of Reinhardt’s about “a teacher who asked her class one day who wanted to go to heaven. When Johnny was the only student who didn’t raise his hand, the teacher asked, ‘What’s the matter, Johnny, don’t you want to go to heaven?’ ‘Sure,’ he answered, ‘but not with them guys’.”20

Reinhardt’s place in contemporary art is ambiguous. During the fifties, his geometric abstractions were widely put down as a throwback to the thirties. Reflecting this attitude, the Museum of Modern Art omitted him from its important New American Painting show of 1958. His position among Abstract Expressionists has recently been rehabilitated in important group shows at the Guggenheim Museum (Abstract Expressionists and Imagists, 1961) and at the Los Angeles County Museum (New York School, 1965). The Museum of Modern Art gave him his due recognition by including him in its Americans, 1963 exhibition, which excluded Abstract Expressionists, however.

This situation has prompted an ironic comment from Reinhardt. In a self-interview, he asked: “You’re the only painter who’s been a member of every avant-garde movement in art of the last thirty years, aren’t you?” He answered, “Yes.” “‘You were a vanguard pre-Abstract Expressionist in the late thirties, a vanguard Abstract Impressionist in the middle forties and a vanguard post-Abstract Expressionist in the early fifties, weren’t you?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You were the first painter to get rid of vanguardism, weren’t you?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said.”21

Although Reinhardt should be numbered among the Abstract Expressionists, of them (with the exception of Newman), he has had the greatest influence on “minimal” artists who have emerged in the 1960s, notably such central figures as Frank Stella and Robert Morris. They have found in his works precedents for their own anti-romantic, anti-angst attitudes, for their inclination to a hermetic, impersonal and impassive, classicizing art whose forms are predetermined and schematic, geometric, monochromatic and repetitive.

Thus the present Reinhardt retrospective at the Jewish Museum, arranged by Sam Hunter and Lucy Lippard, is timely, but of greater consequence, the paintings are the issue of a masterful eye and touch, and they possess a vitality of surface, rightness of scale and resonant glow. In the end, only such qualities count; everything else is everything else.

Irving Sandler



1. See “The Philadelphi a Panel,” It Is # 5, Spring, 1960. The participants were Guston, Motherwell, Reinhardt, Rosenberg and Tworkov. Also Elaine de Kooning, “Pure Paints a Picture,” Art News, Summer 1956, and Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object, 1964, Chapter 4.

2. Barnett Newman, Introduction to The Ideographic Picture, an exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Jan. 20–Feb. 8, 1947.

3. Ad Reinhardt, “Art-as-Art,” Art International, Dec. 20, 1962.

4. As the art critic of PM, Reinhardt parodied extra-esthetic references. His butt was Surrealism and the interest of artists oriented to it in primitive art, particularly Northwest Indian. In a cartoon in PM, March 24, 1946, entitled How to Look at Low (Surrealist) Art, he wrote: “If you still think that ‘paintings’ should be ‘pictures’ then you weren’t around a few years ago when Surrealism turned the ‘picture-art’ tradition inside out and ran it into the ground. Digging deep into your mind’s recesses, Surrealist art hit below the belt and the things you see become lots of other things.”

5. Reinhardt, Statement, in the catalog of his exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Oct. 18–Nov. 6, 1948.

6. Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Tiger’s Eye 6, Dec., 1948.

7. In an Incidental Note in the catalog of his show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Oct. 31–Nov. 9, 1949, Reinhardt wrote: “Most of these paintings were made in the American Virgin Islands, on a small island off St. John. They contain no sea shells, or undersea caves, no blinding sand of wild winds or superstitions, no terror of the deep, no west-indian magic, no zombies, no sea-urchins. There is in them no trace or taste of lobster or turtle, mangoe or mongoose, no rum or coca-cola, no bamboo or barracuda or outboard motor. No tropical fish or fowl, no human caricaturing, no native land or sea or skyscape, no abstractings from nature, high or low or still-life, no camouflaged Caribbean stories, no regional, religious strains, no local racial or political myths.”

8. Reinhardt, “Art-as-Art,” Art International, Dec. 20. 1962. Reinhardt goes on to say: ’“No lines or representations, no shapes or composing or imaginings, no visions or perceptions or sensations, no decoratings or colorings or picturings, no symbols or signs or impulses, no expressions, no objects or subjects, no things, no ideas, no relations, no attributes, no qualities . . . nothing that is not of the essence.”

9. Reinhardt, a statement in “Is today’s artist with or against the past?”, Art News, Summer, 1958.

10. Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, 1959, p. 162–63.

11. Reinhardt, interviewed by Irving Sandler, “In the Ari Galleries,” New York Post, August 12, 1962.

12. Reinhardt has often condemned “the cafe-and-club-primitive and neo-Zen-bohemian, the Vogue-magazine-cold-water-flat-fauve and Harpers-Bazaar-bum, the Eighth-street-existentialist and Easthampton-aesthete, the Modern-Museum-pauper and international-set-sufferer, the abstract-‘Hesspressionist’ and Kootzenjammer-Kid-Jungian, the Romantic-ham-‘action’-actor,” in Reinhardt, “The Artist in Search of An Academy Part 2: Who Are the Artists,” College Art Journal, Summer, 1954.

13. Sidney Tillim, “Month in Review,” Arts, Dec, 1960.

14. Reinhardt, “ Art-as-Art,” Environment, Autumn, 1962.

15. Frank O’Hara, “Franz Kline Talking,” Evergreen Review, Autumn,1958.

16. Priscilla Colt, “Notes on Ad Reinhardt,” Art International, Oct., 1964.

17. Lucy Lippard, “New York Letter,” Art International, May, 1965.

18. Reinhardt, “Art-as-Art,” Environment, Autumn, 1962.

19. Reinhardt, “Art-as-Art,” Art International, Dec. 20, 1962.

20. Reinhardt, “The Artist in Search of an Academy,” College Art Journal, Summer, 1954.

21. Reinhardt, “Reinhardt Paints a Picture,” Art News, March, 1965