PRINT Summer 1976


An Ad for Ad as Ad

Art-as-art: The Selected Writings Of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 236 pages, illustrated.

Since the 19th century almost every artist has thought of himself or herself as an outsider. Movements like Surrealism or Abstract Expressionism are as much the result of artists’ need to operate, however marginally, within a larger group, as they are a matter of shared esthetic goals. Isolation can be a numbing experience.

Ad Reinhardt, the quintessential outsider, came into his separatist position gradually; once there, he guarded his outpost fiercely. He was originally trained not as a painter but as an art historian and esthetician. The fact that he appeared more comfortable with a book than a paint rag served later on to distance him from Cedar Bar shop-talk and professional camaraderie.

In the late ’30s, however, Reinhardt’s clean, rectilinear painting style shared many qualities with his co-members of the American Abstract Artists group. In this context he was anything but an outsider. A few years later, as a highbrow cartoonist for the newspaper P.M., his esthetic and political opinions were regularly broadcast from within a major bastion of the intellectual establishment. Compared to de Kooning or Newman at this time he was an insider, and a semifamous insider at that. At the beginning of the public phase of Abstract Expressionism he joined the “Irascibles” in the familiar photograph, standing sullenly in the back between Adolph Gottlieb and Hedda Sterne. But more or less from that time on he became increasingly estranged from his fellow artists. His neat, earlier painting, inflected by the vocabulary of Neo-Plasticism, became a type of the “well-made picture” publicly reviled by the Abstract Expressionists. He found himself increasingly out on a limb, alone, a single leaf from one of his family-tree cartoons.

Reinhardt was a highly intelligent and resourceful man, and a witty and effective polemicist. He joined the battle, defending his esthetic, and deliberately widening the gap between himself and everyone else. It was one of those inspired strategic decisions that made his work immediately more visible. From this time on he tried to establish only two tracks for painting: a decadent, impure, corrupt track (everyone else on this one), and a clean, mystical, pure track which had only one rider—Reinhardt himself. His art-historian-esthetician persona permitted him this kind of oversimplification; historians usually see tracks and networks more clearly than artists, in any case. He appropriated all the unpleasant terms others used to describe his works, and threw them back proudly, having bathed away their pejorative overtones in a sea of Eastern mysticism. “Empty,” “repetitious,” “unfeeling,” “sterile” all took on the reverberations of the temple. It was a grown-up “sticks and stones” response, and it was effective.

An abiding problem was his need to separate himself from a few other painters whom critics had associated with Reinhardt’s own esthetic. Thus, as early as 1954 he described Barnett Newman as a “. . . traveling design salesman” and an “avant-garde huckster-handicraftsman and educational shopkeeper.” His tactical astuteness is apparent when one realizes that this characterization was published in the College Art Journal, where one might presume it would have a meaningful effect on future museum curators and heads of art departments. In the same article Mark Rothko is described as a “Vogue magazine cold-water-flat fauve,” along with the expressionist likes of Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann. On Reinhardt’s track there was only room for one.

This article, one of Reinhardt’s most vituperative, reappears in Barbara Rose’s new collection Art-as-Art; The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt. The book is one of the “Documents of Twentieth Century Art” series, issued by the Viking Press and edited by Robert Motherwell, Bernard Karpel and Arthur A. Cohen. The pieces included fall into three general types: a group of formal, previously published statements and articles; a collection of less formal unpublished and undated notes; and a few transcripts of panel discussions, interviews and the like. Reinhardt uses a number of voices, ranging from a strange, convoluted drone (R. D. Laing, in “Knots,” or even T. S. Eliot of the Quartets) down all the way to John Simon sniping smartly with Time-style puns. This petty bitchiness is Reinhardt’s least attractive quality. He enjoyed cataloguing the moral and esthetic failings he saw in his contemporaries. Motherwell, a Protestant, is chided for accepting a commission for a synagogue, and Rothko, a Jew, for his work for Catholics. De Kooning is accused of living like Elizabeth Taylor. “What’s wrong with the art world is not Andy Warhol or Andy Wyeth but Mark Rothko. The corruption of the best is the worst.” Ironically, in these words, by describing Rothko as “the best,” Reinhardt pays about the only compliment to a contemporary that I could find in his book. He seems to have accepted his own condition as that of sinlessness, since along the way enough stones are cast to rebuild the Great Wall of China.

A number of Reinhardt’s familiar “Art-as-Art” statements are included, and they constitute the core of his esthetic ideology. The texture and quality of his writing often reminds one of his painting style. Obsessive symmetry and extraordinarily close tonal values characterize, metaphorically, his prose style:

Simplicity in art is not simplicity
Less in art is not less
More in art is not more
Too little in art is not too little
Too large in art is too large
Too much in art is too much

In these formal statements the vocabulary is conceptual and abstract. Color and the vivid phrase are eliminated. He asserts, but never justifies or explains. Repetition is a central device; the “Art-as-Art” pieces are almost as similar to each other as the paintings which prompted them—unless it was the other way around.

Reinhardt was a precise and dextrous and committed writer. Words move across the page, undergoing subtle, almost Joycean transformations:

Whorls, whirls, whirls, wholes, parts
Painting is more than the scum of its pots
Can’t you tell your impasto from a holy ground?
Holy smoke

Word jokes are sprinkled liberally throughout his work, qualifying, but not softening, the tone. One also notices that Reinhardt, like Madame Defarge, was given to compiling lists. He mentions, with varying degrees of disapproval, over 70 other artists, all his contemporaries. The two devices come together in his wicked and marvelous list of art critics transformed into birds: “. . . the clammy green-bird . . . the howling rosen-bird . . . the tawney-hess pippett and flank-harrow sparrow, the emily-jinn-hour harpy and cackling coo, the canny-day common crow and larking-allways chicken . . . and hilly-creamer vampire . . .” All Reinhardt’s writings exhibit a steady and consistent wit, though not much good humor. Perhaps, after all, wit is the tribute malice pays to manners.

Having embraced his role as the final outsider, Reinhardt devotes his attacks to eliminating all other esthetic options, and asserting his own position as the final single culmination of the history of art. Barbara Rose, whose commentaries are otherwise exemplary, makes in this context a surprising error. She states that “. . . Reinhardt was the first Western modernist to challenge the notion of progress in art.” In the ’50s no artist I knew talked much about progress except Reinhardt. Kline felt his relationship to people like Toulouse-Lautrec (whose photo was always on the wall) and his involvement with Rembrandt’s and Hokusai’s drawings. He never mentioned progress. De Kooning, on some level, was always dealing with a certain artist born a quarter of a century before him. Rothko talked of Avery and Matisse. None felt he improved on or purified anyone. Above all, no one claimed to have painted the last painting it was possible to paint—except Reinhardt. “The one history of painting progresses,” he claimed, “from the painting of a variety of ideas with a variety of subjects . . . to the idea of no object and no subject and no variety at all. . . .” And again, “Any young artist involved in composition of (sic) visioning or imaging would be backward.”

The only sense in which Reinhardt suspended a progressive reading of art history was when it reached his own painting. Then things could stop, as the final goal had been achieved. This claim has probably been made somewhere, by some writer, every few years since the age of Phidias; Vasari even had a list of artists who had painted the ultimate painting. Reinhardt’s entire esthetic apparatus, based upon ever more drastic purges of the “extraneous,” is the very essence of the progressive notion of art. Whatever mischief this idea has caused—and I believe it has been considerable—Ad Reinhardt must accept a major share of the blame.

Cumulatively, Reinhardt’s “Art-as-Art” pieces take on the tone of special pleading, the defensive rhetoric of a narrowed sensibility attempting to turn idiosyncrasies into canonical law. When he announces that “there is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color . . .” we cannot imagine that Matisse sleeps less well or that Albers ventures a shrug, nor do we appreciate Reinhardt’s earlier paintings any the less.

Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt is a well-produced and handsome book, though I would have appreciated the addition of an index. Ms. Rose mentions a Reinhardt essay on Stuart Davis, piquing our curiosity but declining to include the piece in her collection. These are minor omissions, though, in a very worthwhile contribution to our knowledge of postwar American painting.

The man who emerges from these pages is finally inflected by my memories of Ad-in-action at the Artists’ Club in the ’50s, showing his slides and loosing his broadsides. One went to his talks in those days with guilty expectations. It was like attending a corrida where, admit it or not, we were there hoping to witness a goring. With Ad we were rarely disappointed. (“An artist’s first word is against other artists.”) On panels, no matter who the other artists were, their credentials were never in order. Reinhardt, the self-appointed customs inspector, could always point to something contraband that was being smuggled in, like color or brushstrokes. He was insufferable and entertaining, something less than Savonarola, but more than a gadfly. What he lacked in simple human compassion he made up for in intelligence. The latter, he might remind us, is, after all, a “pure” quality.

Included in the book and on the jacket are a series of photographs of the artist. In almost every one of them Reinhardt is shown with his arms folded across his chest. He even found an old (Gandharan?) sculptural fragment with its arms folded which he held in front of himself, his head peeking over the top. The habitual gesture is a curious mix of arrogance, self-assurance, and nervous self-protection. He is defiant and vulnerable, the outsider trying to trade places with everyone else to become the one insider. The image is touching in a human, impure way that Reinhardt would have professed to despise. Despite the Olympian pretense he was, after all, like the rest of us, unsure of himself, bragging, complaining, shooting darts and ducking, and like all artists, trying to construct something a little better than his life had provided.

Budd Hopkins is a painter who shows at the William Ziegler Gallery.