PRINT April 1974

The Art Comics of Ad Reinhardt

NEW YORK ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, the movement (was it ever a movement?), the years (when did they begin, when end?), wasn’t so long ago. For young artists and writers, however, Abstract Expressionism seems to have turned opaque, become a discrete historical artifact—like a chunk of cloudy amber hanging someplace between Surrealism and Color Field or Pop painting. So it becomes important to retrieve—even celebrate—those more or less peripheral events which still preserve some of the savors and juices of the moment—which indicate how it felt, what it sounded like, who was there. In this respect Ad Reinhardt’s art and art-world satires (he used to call them “comics” and often used such funny paper conventions as the framed episode and the conversation in “balloons”) are like precious containers of the air of New York, 1946–61.

One of the points to bear in mind when looking at Reinhardt’s satires is that they were produced in, and about, a compact, highly intellectual, articulate milieu in which all his nuances were appreciated, and puns and allusions understood.

In his studio he kept folders of cartoons, illustrations, prints, newspaper and magazine photographs and clippings, quotations on subjects that interested or amused him. It is a commercial artist’s method—Norman Rockwell, for example, would collect documentary dossiers on such things as rural mail boxes, high-school bands, teenage haircuts. Reinhardt stretched the method to fit his own extreme tastes—he had a collection of trees, eyes, maps, of cartoons based on an artist painting a picture, of cruciforms (Early Renaissance crucifixions, Carolingian belt buckles, ancient Roman battle plans), of artist’s biographical statements. He saw relationships in puns, rhymes, alliterations. He had a keen art historian’s eye for odd resemblances and filiations. He delighted in amassing enormous amounts of information and then sorting it out, ordering it, in unusual, often hilarious patterns. Had he been Noah, the giraffe would have marched aboard his ark next to the spotted-bill duck.

This genius for collecting and classifying is what strikes you first in Reinhardt’s art comics and satires. The collage technique was, of course, an ideal method for presenting such material, and its practice was well known to modernist disciplines since the Dada collages of Max Ernst, Karl Schwitters, Hannah Hoch, and Raoul Hausmann, among others, and since the Bauhaus elementary design courses of the mid-1920s. But there is considerable originality in the poise and fluency of Reinhardt’s versions, in his manipulation of small shapes into larger ones, in his feel for an overall abstract skin, the cut of the edges and their juxtapositions which shock a little, but not too much to upset the pictorial unity. These, combined with his knowledge of commercial art (layout, specification of type, lettering), were the basis of his satires and comics.

Their source materials are easily recognizable to art-world readers—which always was Reinhardt’s audience. They are photostats and cutouts from reproductions and 19th-century illustrated books that he picked up in secondhand stores. All are linecuts. Among the books he used were collections of the prints of Dorer (perspective studies, St. Sebastian, the Beast of the Apocalypse make multiple appearances) Holbein, Hogarth, Thomas Bewick, the Punch illustrator John Leech, Thomas Nast. He was especially fond of anonymous engravings after masterpieces and minor bits of art history. Dictionaries, manuals, anthologies of quotations, grammars, almanacs, calendars—all sorts of compendia were sources of material, raw and cooked, for his elaborations.

The relationship of Reinhardt’s comics and satires to his painting is slight—apart from the obvious link to his collages of the 1940s. It could be said that as he took more and more out of his art in the 1950s, he put more and more into his satires. It was as if, while painting, he had a thirst for words and images, for immensely complicated iconologies, for direct communication in vulgar jokes, scholarly asides, erudite games of wit, Til Eulenspiegel pranks. As the paintings became more and more spare, the appetite for verbal complications increased. On the other hand, as his satires (and essays, lectures, conversations) became more and more fluent, erudite, poetic, noisy—jumbling shrill voices and pullulating images—he would turn to his paintings for calm and serene contemplation, leaving only the slightest jingle of a hue or a line in their voids. You could say that while he purified his paintings, he complicated his language.

The twin heroes of this effort, for Reinhardt, were Joyce and Beckett. The spirit of the former presides over Reinhardt’s lust for cataloguing and naming everything in the world (i.e., the art world, his world). You hear Joyce in the tropes, oxymorons, onomatopoeia and alliterations, in the lilt of the language, in the dirty jokes, plays on names, scholarly, almost pedantic references. Beckett’s characters, who sense the universe darkling about them, who stoically watch each sine qua non slip away, find their mirrors in Reinhardt’s last paintings.

It was a dialectic, a conversation between Democritus and Heraclitus, the philosopher who laughs and the one who weeps, that Reinhardt, a master dialectician, had orchestrated in his tidy studio.

Reinhardt’s first and longest series of “comics” appeared in P.M., the anti-fascist, anti–anti-communist New York tabloid, founded by multimillionaire Marshall Field to add a fresh voice to a national press that was almost wholly conservative, isolationist, anti-labor, anti-civil rights, anti-Russia, pro-capital punishment, in the days when America First flourished along with Eleanor Roosevelt jokes.

Throughout the series, Reinhardt equates Realist art with reactionary, big business, and exploitative politics. And he makes abstract art a part of the progressive, populist, constitutionalist-socialist, characteristically American enlightenment. In Reinhardt’s floating world, the old-fashioned visual traditions are supported by potbellied plutocrats, wild-eyed bigots, degenerate slum lords. The artists who create and the audience that enjoys abstract works are represented by clean-cut, right-thinking, all-American Mr. or Mrs. Good.

In point of fact, in the 1940s, liberals and leftists were among the most energetic supporters of Realist art. Their idol was Diego Rivera. They rejected the abstract because it didn’t celebrate humanity, didn’t attack the exploiters or mourn their victims. While “important” issues were being debated, while people were dying, starving, murdering, etc., explorations in line, color, and form were, they thought, trivial escapist pastimes.

The audience which, in fact, did appreciate vanguard art did not consist of young American workers or progressive activists, but largely of European intellectuals and rich Americans who had been educated abroad or in the board rooms of The Museum of Modern Art, and, of course, the Spartan little band of New York abstract artists.

Reinhardt’s basic Joke was to reverse this situation, blandly to proclaim its opposite—and inside the fortress of the left establishment. It’s no wonder that after a year of work and 22 pages, the editors finally caught on, compared Reinhardt’s taste with the pictures they had hanging at home, and fired him.

Reinhardt parodied textbooks and didactic appreciations of abstract art which explained its highly complicated ideas and structures in simplistic diagrams and similes. He carefully reroasted all the old chestnuts: the parallels with music and architecture, the relationships to post-Newtonian physics, to Einstein’s theory, to atomic structure, to Freud and psychoanalysis, to modern anthropology and the study of myth. The diagrams in popular textbooks and catalogues (viz. Fry, Cheney, Read, Bell, Erle Loran) are revisited and reduced to the sort of good-humored, progressive-education exhortations that one associates with summer camps, winter cruises, and remedial reading.

P.M., 7, “How to Look at Modern Art in America,” June 2, 1946. The most famous satire in the P.M. series, Reinhardt’s first Tree was pinned to the studio walls of artists all over America for years. It is perfect, a diamond of satire, and it seems a shame to poke around in its wit and fantasy with explanations that can only seem hamfisted in the context. However, parts of the Tree have become obscured with time—and Reinhardt was always an enemy of obscurities.

The Tree itself and many of its labels closely follow a cartoon by Miguel Covarrubias that had recently appeared in Vogue magazine, and had been widely appreciated. Covarrubias’ humor is gentle. Reinhardt’s is tough, and his mockery includes, of course, a sharp parody of Covarrubias.

In the texts along the bottom of the page, “Folks are better than angels—Taylor” refers to a book by Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels, in which the director of the Metropolitan Museum celebrated the great patrons and collectors of the past, but could not resist his usual attacks on the motives and creations of modern artists. To suggest Taylor’s tone, in a once much-quoted article in the Atlantic Monthly (1948), he wrote: “The contemporary artist has been reduced to the status of a flat-chested pelican, strutting upon the intellectual wastelands and beaches, content to take whatever nourishment he can from his own too meager breast.”

The soil, roots, and trunk of the Tree parody synoptic tables of the modernist movements, especially Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s famous graph of interacting Isms, which was widely used as a teaching aid in colleges, even though it had been meant as a simple aide-memoire. Its elegant simplifications are turned by Reinhardt into a Marx Brothers concept of dendrological art history.

Starting at the left: Helion, John Graham, and George L. K. Morris are falling leaves; they had recently turned from pure abstraction to modified figurations.

The four branches at the left hold the abstractionists, more or less, moving from strict Mondrian followers (Burgoyne Diller, Fritz Glarner) to artists who drenched their shapes with natural symbolism or mood (Loren Maciver, Morris Graves). There are a few misspelled names—Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Louise Bourgeois, as well as Waldo Peirce and Georgia O’Keeffe at the right. In front of the branches, two birds sing together—the painters Rudolph Bauer and Hilla Rebay. She was the director of the Museum of NonObjective Art (parent organization of today’s Guggenheim) and was a generous patron to Kandinsky and to the German Kandinsky follower Bauer.

Matta’s leaf floats off the “Abstract” section of the Tree because he was leaving America. Marc Chagall, Andre Masson, and Lyonel Feininger are included because they were living in New York at the time.

There is often no particular order in the placement of the artists’ leaves. Reinhardt delighted in anti-museumal juxtapositions, however. Puma, who ran a gallery, wrote oddball books and was a character on the scene (a heavy Latin type), is fixed between Ivan Le Lorrain Albright and Hyman Bloom, two of the official stars of the moment. Dobkin and Botkin are paired because Reinhardt always liked their chiming names.

The peaks of the “Abstract” branches represent the artists Reinhardt admired at the time: Balcomb Greene, Stuart Davis, Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky. Quite a few friends are paired: Harry Holtzman with Diller, Willem de Kooning with Lee Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb with Mark Rothko. More often, however, unlikes are yoked, or artists are placed next to the painter they would least appreciate as a neighbor.

The Gottlieb at the right is not Adolph but Harry Gottlieb, a veteran Social Realist; he appears above Philip Guston, then involved in a Neo-Romantic phase.

The scarecrow in the cornfield placarded by art-in-business signs refers to S. J. Woolf, an academic portraitist and writer for The New York Times who indulged in that journal’s usual, overblown, anti-modernist cant. Woolf’s gimmick was to make a cafe-type drawing of a subject while interviewing him, get him to sign it with a flourish, and reproduce it with his article. This was the Times’s idea of culture. The cornfield is set in a dustbowl landscape out of 1930s regionalist painting, including a horse and buggy.

The small, fat Napoleonic soldier, to the right of the tree trunk, will be a recurrent motif, often joined by a tall, thin partner.

A final inside joke—although Reinhardt calls his overview “Art in America,” it concerns painters only. He never mentioned a sculptor. When his friend sculptor Philip Pavia took him to task for this, Reinhardt replied that “Mondrian said” it was a dead profession.“He was trying,” Pavia told me later, laughing, “to wipe us off the map!” I think that Reinhardt was well aware of the hypersensitivity of American sculptors, their pain at being generally ignored, and this was his way of rubbing it in—especially for his good friends Pavia and lbram Lassaw.

Transformation, 3, “Art of Life of Art,” 1952. The first of the Joycean satires, it brings back a number of motifs from the P.M. collages—the fat and thin Napoleonic soldiers, the beast of the Apocalypse, and includes Durer’s St. Sebastian and Callot’s hanging tree from the “Miseries of War.” A catalogue of artists’ unmentionable practices and unnatural acts are defined in lapidary phrases. All are hortatory, as if some corrupt Polonius was sending Laertes off to make it at the Art Students League. Sentences frame the collage and form a pile of slogans on the right; all of them pun with names of artists, critics, dealers, curators. There is a weather prediction, some threats and fights, menus, nursery rhymes. The names and the puns are the overt subject. There is a certain undertone of violence, as if Reinhardt was dehumanizing the art world, turning its characters into coarse food, curses, sterile abstract verbs. “What the hell’s going on here!” becomes (Franklin) Watkins (Jean) Helion (Giorgio) Cavallon (David) Hare.

The night-capped drinker seems to sign off the action, and start it again, like Finnegan tossing from dream to dream.

The allover disposition of elements corresponds to Reinhardt’s manner of painting in 1953—accumulations of small shapes structured in vertical massings. But the montage, the iconography, with its threatening beasts, people fighting, torture, execution, all suggest the nightmare. And the teeming puns, too, recall dream language.

Reinhardt had been in psychoanalysis, had carefully read Freud, Jung, Joyce. This satire seems as much his comment on his own inner preoccupation with the art scene as it does with any outside events or situations. Its covert subject may be his terror at those myriad names and faces, all that activity. And this is the only “page of jokes” in which he inserts his own name. The artist’s dream of reason is filled with verbal monsters.

Art News, 2, “Founding Fathers Follyday,” Art News, April, 1954. (Part of Reinhardt’s joke is the elimination of word spacing throughout; in this exegesis, for the sake of clarity, I have reinstated it.)

To the left, the Founding Fathers meet, in a flurry of wise but dim quotations brandished by a parade of Egyptians. Under the aegis of early American, Old Testament, Church and Classic fathers, a schedule of sporting events is announced. In the center spreads the Avant-Garde Tree. To the right is the museum. Fluttering to the right of the museum is a group of art-gallery announcements. At the lower right, the night-capped drinker verifies Reinhardt’s sign. The puns, portmanteau and accordion words, are piled so thickly on each other that to decipher all of them would be tedious as well as ruinous of Reinhardt’s manic wit. I will untangle a few, however, to give the reader an idea,and then urge him to explore the field on his own, remembering only, when in doubt, read aloud.

The first event under “Bowling”: Harold Rosenberg had written an article for Art News on American painting, dividing up the 18th- and 19th-century artists into “Redcoats” and “Coonskins,” i.e., Europe-oriented and native-grain artists. Clement Greenberg had recently praised Rothko; Rosenberg had praised de Kooning. Both Rosenberg and Greenberg, at my urging, had contributed to Art News. Thus, in the Art News burning-bush arena is a fight between: Greenberg (Mark Rothko) Redcoats vs. Rosenberg (de Kooning) Coonskins. The capital “B” is lifted from my middle initial.

Also under “Bowling”: Meyer Schapiro vs. Bernard Myers (the latter, an art historian, author of a book on Expressionism).

Stuart Davis had painted a picture titled Rapt at Rappaport; he was also associated with lobster pots and the artists’ colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Art historian H. Harvard Amason was head of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, later of the Guggenheim Museum; Gordon Washburn was director of the Carnegie. (The theme of the burning bush, bushwah or bourgeois is a recurring motif; Moses appears appropriately as its “Founding Father.”)

Soby is matched with Sweeney, then director of the Guggenheim, in the F. L. Wright Hamburger Castle (i.e., Guggenheim Museum).

Dealers are wrestlers.

Artists are boxers. The point of the second event, the McNeil-Cavallon match, is that both are named George.“Gorgeous George” was a celebrated television wrestler at the time. Hyman Bloom had shown paintings of dissected cadavers; Jack Levine, of a gangster’s funeral.“Gang-busters,” of course, was a popular television program.

At the temple of the muses, The Museum of Modern Art is the target—Alfred Barr-becue’s House of Fame, with Barr’s assistants, Dorothy Miller and Andrew Ritchie. Reinhardt objects to the aura of snobbism at the Modern (“our kind of people”) and to its “Good Design” shows which he, like many artists, felt confused the public and degraded high art by mixing it up with the commercial standards of applied art (“rich hardware and cheap art work”). Invoked under Napoleon’s leg are: the Museum’s Director, René d’Harnoncourt; its President, William A. M. Burden; Victor d’ Amico, in charge of education; Douglas McAgy, who had gone there from San Francisco to help with special projects and exhibitions; and its Librarian, Bernard Karpel. Other museums are advertised to the right of Napoleon: the Metropolitan (“mud trap hole in tin”); the Whitney (“wet knee”), via its directors, Hermon (“hangman”) More and Lloyd (“nouveau riche”) Goodrich, as well as Artists (“oddist”) Equity.

Framing the collage are long chains of words (derived from the Viconian “thunder,” 100-letter words, in Finnegans Wake), easily decipherable into Joycean trills (“pin the label libel down”). The “Stable Salon” refers to an annual New York artist-selected exhibition first held in an empty store on Ninth Street in June, 1951, and later transferred to the Stable Gallery on Sixth Avenue; it included all Reinhardt’s friends and Reinhardt himself.


In “Founding FathersFollyday,” the emphasis has clearly shifted from attacks on the philistines outside the art world to jeers at the traitors within. The reactionaries are forgotten; now the enemy is the best friend. What’s wrong with modern art and the art world is not their official neglect, but promotion. The theme of the culpable artist had been present in Reinhardt’s work, of course, almost from the start. To this satirist, we are all guilty.

One or the things that infuriated him was a general sense of well being and enthusiasm in the air. “Everybody’s your buddy.” Pictures were beginning to sell. Critics, in their new-found conviction, were overpraising artists. Cultural name-dropping was a prevalent vice. In his revised version of “How to Look at Modern Art in America,” Reinhardt’s cultural name-dropping is strictly alliterative—Neolithic to Newman, Masaccio to Motherwell, Paleolithic to Pollock. Obviously in this game of pin the name on the donkey, lany name will do. In the middle of the Tree, by the way, is a characteristic salute to an old pal: “Bowhows to Wolff”; Robert J. Wolff, a studious abstractionist (Bauhaus), was hardly as well known as the other artists among the leaves, but he was a close friend of Reinhardt’s and his boss at Brooklyn College.

The buddy business was contagious, but, still, infuriating.

“They all pretend,” he used to say, “that the crisis in modern art no longer exists!”

He had moved the crisis from art politics and history to theological speculation, to a metaphysical analysis of his brothers’ sins.

As his friends slowly became convinced that he meant what he said in his satires, they cooled toward, or became angry with him. This hurt, and made him stick more doggedly to his views. He knew he was right; he knew that painters were selling out the art world—for money. They knew it, too, but did not consider it a matter of transcendental Good or Evil, nor did they consider their old friend Ad a fit officer to preside at their Last Judgments. He realized he wasn’t changing the situation with his satires. On a card dated Nov. 4, 1957, he wrote:

Tom: Hold on, hold up, hold off, I don’t want to do anything, I forget myself sometimes, sometimes I get enthusiastic or excited, like any old eager beefer, but when I sober up I say to myself, hold on, hold up, hold off, lay off, lay up, lay down, lay aside, and things are the same like they seem all right, so retire, make on, make up, shake up, shake down, buckle up, buckle down, muckle on, mockle on, rockle on, goggle on, wockle away, A.R.

Furthermore, while “things” were getting worse, they were looking up for him. He was pleased to have his “black” paintings shown at The Museum of Modern Art, even though he said, “Dorothy Miller finally has scraped the bottom of the barrel.”

He still felt strongly, of course. I was on a symposium with him in the early spring of 1967; he read a brief series of punning notes and then, in response to some comment, said sharply, “There is a Right and there’s a Wrong! ”But the biting edge was missing. He felt that the art world had attained the condition of self-parody—the artists’ situation was so blatantly caricatural that it was impossible to satirize it, much less remain untouched by its “corruptions.” And, too, he was a famous artist, calm, assured—no longer outside or apart—and fatally sick.

The one malignant joke in his life was his death at the age of only 54.

Thomas B. Hess



Excerpts from The Complete Art Comics and Satires of Ad Reinhardt by Thomas B. Hess, which will appear this season.