PRINT December 1978

Five Unpublished Letters from Ad Reinhardt to Thomas Merton and Two in Return


Dear Tom:
Merton, Thomas, 1937 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . unknown
Robinson, Leonard W, 1935 . . . . . . . . . . unknown
Reinhardt, Adolph F, 1935 . 732 Broadway, N.Y._

From a new book of the old Sachems. Did you know we belonged to the same lodge, same tribe? I saw you summer of 1958, last spring 1960 I saw Leonard Robinson at our 25 reunion. Shall I report you two as not unknown? To me?

There’s too much to say about a reunion, particularly one’s history, remembrance. I got angry at an article on the middle Thirties by James Wechsler (1935) and several years ago by Herman Wouk (1934). Too much trouble to write my history to kill their history. As the old Sachems have it “By your words and not by your deeds shall you be known.” Old Indian saying, some people “unknown” no matter how many best sellers.

I don’t have to apologize for that remark? Robert Lax says your best seller book on art is out? Some day I’ll make a book on art.

I was in Paris, London in June, also finished my “Arab tour” in Andalusia (Seville, Cordoba, Granada) which I started in India, Persia, Egypt in 1958. Now I’m tired of traveling, especially by jets. Next trips, slow boats. No reasons to get anywhere that fast any more.

I’m working, not teaching next year, planning a painting retrospective show, 25 years of abstract art, like 1935–1960 (Columbia), next reunion and survey or show like this 1985. See you before then. What’s up? Ad.


Dear Tom:
Sometimes we see jolly old friends only at sad funerals, dear relatives and classmates only at tragedies, communicate only at crisises. When everything is all right, everything is all right. The other day I received in my mail, a mailing piece and a blurb I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw . . .

Why shouldn’t you be human after all and to err is human, we all know, but why should I be forgiving? And you forgiven? It seems that all my favorite religious writers, one day, like Coomaraswamy and Suzuki, who were all right until . . . Then Tillich had to be abandoned because of his introduction to the Museum of Modern Art’s catalogue of “The New Images of Man,” now Maritan [sic] and you . . . Is Buber still all right? He sympathizes with the Arabs . . . Can you understand why I became a white Muslim two summers ago?

Do you know I was in Jerusalem-Jordan (7th century), Damascus (8th), Cordoba (8, 9th), Cairo (9–14th), Seville and Granada (13–15th), Konya [in Turkey] (12–14), Istanbul (16–19), the last few summers, fellow-Sachem? And before that in Delhi and Agra (14–18) and Isfaham (16–18)? The dates are the dates of the mosques I saw. Do you know that I give a survey course in Islamic, and Coptic, art at Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges in the City University of New York? Its proper maybe, I should find myself among anti-imagists, anti-idolatrists, pro-iconoclasts, and nonobjectivists?

Imagine you after all these years. . . . Have you given up hope? Have you no respect for sacredness and art? Reality-schmearality, as long as you’re sound of body? Are you throwing in the trowel at long last? Can’t you tell your impasto from a holy ground? Any more? Is the scum of its pots greater than the holy? Just pack up your scribbles in your old kitch [sic] bag and smile, smile, smile, hey? Is the potchy calling the whole kittle-Kaboodle back? With all the scumble-bumpkins, and, Mac, the Palette-Knifers storming the gates of all the four quarters, Lax and I have been meeting to discuss means . . . We’ll send help, hold on, old man.
Your old friend,

Dear Tom:
Thanks for the bread and cheese. I gave some to the starving Lax, who’s so ready to come visit again, you watch out, he’ll be there full time, visiting, eating all your bread and cheese, or rather, eating you all out of your bread and cheese. Enclosed find seven images I made with my magic box. What’s to prevent me from making your image into postcards and cleaning up everywhere there’s Catholics? And Thomas-Merton-fan-clubs?

I think I’ve got it in for celebrities these days. I read a book called “The Power Elite” and it seems that celebrities everywhere nowadays, are used to “distractions,” celebrities and their doings are the “opium of the people.” “Who is there to be distracted?” You ask of statues? People. Distracted from “reality.” People don’t face reality, I guess. Nobody knows what’s real. In art, we know that realism (according to the Hindu?) is one of the fifty-seven varieties of decoration.

Latest idea is, what is religious and sacred in a work of art is its perfection, form, artistic content, which is not anything you can pin down, as excellence or specific quality or etc. or anything like that. Latest idea among theologians on art? This is an old “puritanical,” Moslem, and Zen idea. Jewish too? Not negro, I bet. Or Porto Rican.

I’ll probably give a slide-lecture at the Dayton Art Institute on “Moslem vs. Hindu Art” (I make it sound like a war in the title to attract crowds) this fall, when Lax and I may come by again. I’ll have projectors, etc.

I’ll dig up what I feel is the great “Asiatic art,” though your asking me for “some” of it is like asking, like some non-Christian asking, how about a little “Christian art”? Some great Christian art?

Classic “Buddhas,” Indian, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Javanese, Singhalese. And “mandalas,” Indian, Central Asian, Japanese (mandaras [sic]), Tibetan, etc. I’ll send photographs, or bring them. You can parallel everything “east” in “west,” celestial ceilings, paradise scenes, infernos, temptations, diagrams, icons, etc.
See you soon,

[October 3, 1963]
Dear Tom:
Talk about telepathy, extra-sensory-stuff or what would you call it, I was about to sit right down and write you a letter or post card, a pleasant one maybe, or one chewing you up or down for that Billy-Congdon-business, digging up old sores, dead horses, sleeping dogs, telling you about how I was on that March-on-Washington, only saw two other artists, saw no Catholic poets, especially neither Lax nor [Ned] O’Gorman, their being on Greek or Manhattan Islands being no excuse at all, tomorrow I write them chewing them up about it, when all of a sudden out of the clear sky and mailbox, comes your calligraphy, your beautiful calligraphy but too small, don’t you know them fellows way down East used brushes bigger than anyone’s big head, a big pot of paint size of a big sink, and in bare feet, dance over a piece of paper bigger and longer than Ulfert Willkie stretched from end to end, rack-like, didn’t Willkie tell you and [?] how I found him in a Kyoto temple sitting on the floor with his ink and paper, and I grabbed him and made a Western tourist out of him again, showed him the sites and sights, museums, made him take his camera out and shoot whatever you see in the books and histories of art, whacking him on the head whenever he thought about going back to the meditations, and cross-legged sitting he was doing?

The old-time, big, choreographic calligraphy was too physical, too poetic (they called their marks “Dog Baying at Moon” or “Tiger in the Marches” or “Dragon in the Lilies”)—I like your calligraphy because its pure and to me. I’m as pure as ever, people say he thinks he’s “holier than thou” about other artists still, I title my written works “Art-as-Art Dogma” now (I used to make sentences out of words as a joke and after I kept repeating the same jokes over and over again, they suddenly turned into dogma, a sort of absolute truth, more or less). I had a show in Paris that sounded mystical again, “Les forces immobiles” (not my idea), lectured in Oregon “Against Things” in July (show in Paris in June), and marched one day in August and that’s this summer.

Have I sent you the Museum of Modern Art catalogue of “Americans, 1963”? The officialdom finally proclaimed my existence, stuck me into a “Pop-” Art and “Young Talent” show (about 15 years after my age-group graduated into the museum). Well, “That’s life” (everyone says, when I call it corruption, injustice, vanity, misery, success, failure, karma, sell-out, fallout, money-grubbing, imperialist, colonialist, profiteerist, etc.

Well, I wrote this at “one throw,” just like that, all at once, the way the calligraphy’s supposed to go, hit or miss, all the way to the bottom of the sheet, only one or two under the belt, Spanish brandy. Propoganda will follow, next mail, you write.

[31 October, 1963; date crossed out]
Dear Ad [crossed out]:
Well, October has thirty one and here I am again your friendly old calligrapher always small calligraphies down here, I am the grandfather of the small calligraphy because I don’t have a big brush and because I no longer run about the temple barefoot in the frosts. But I am amiable and the smaller they get the more mysterious they are, though in fact it is the irony of art when a calligrapher gets stuck with a whole pile of papers the same size and texture, why don’t friends from New York who receive all kinds expensive samples of exotic and costly materials I invite you to pretend you are about to print a most exotic book and get samples of papers from distant Cathay and all over and then send them to your dusty old correspondent who is very poor and got no papers any more except toilet papers for the calligraphy.

I mean it about the samples. Or scraps that are left over from your large calligraphies (come on I know you are making large calligraphies in secret and that corners of the huge papyrus are lying around and fed to mice they should rather be sent down here and to be made into calligraphic minuscules of which I am the grandfather.)

Here are some more calligraphic hats for New Years.

And now a jocular thrust: history has sure made your face red, yes? when all the time who was at the parade but Ned O’Gorman the Catholic Poet and you having surveyed a small sea of only two thousand faces mostly non-Catholic have cynically asserted that there was no Catholic poets present, well history gave you the lie because there it was in Jubilee not only Catholic poets but also Catholic babes extremely well fed and furnished by nature with unusual great wads of insulation fit for the pencils of a Rubens. Oh for the pencils of a Rubens. You don’t get the classical reference of this quip it is an 1840 book by some Lord Curzon or other who was in the Greek monasteries and mocked at the monks and when some starets would creep out of a grotto with a beard this Limey would mock out loud: “Oh for the pencils of a Rembrandt.” Well now I a boy of the twentieth century exclaim for the pencils of a Rubens at all the well baptized flesh that was in that parade and you had no eyes for any of it, you were in one of your trances, you were getting into one of those dervish moods of yours, you were hobnobbing with the Muslims and not paying any attention to the delights of Christianity, it is pretty easy to see you are no Rubens you big quietist wait till the Jesuits get after you but this is only a jest and not a threat you go ahead be a quietist I am right with you I am a Jansenist also and a Sufi, I am the biggest Sufi in Kentucky though I admit there is not much competition. Anyhow it is when I dance that I make the calligraph.

Lax was very piqued with all your nasty stabs about the parade and he has written me since then fifteen letters about the parades he has been in that you were not in I have no doubt he has treated you to the same.

What else I do is make the snapshot of old distilleries. And now enough of art. Take seriously the samples.

Rev. M. Louis Merton, O.C.S.O.—is that still your title, rank, status, position, do you get promoted inside there in the monastery as everyone does outside? If one endures long enough in our art world, one becomes a “dean.” I’ll be the “Dean of Abstract Art” when a few of the older men are no longer alive. Stuart Davis used to be “Dean” but now he’s only “Dean of Regional Art” or is second in line after Hopper, “Dean of American Scene Art.” Josef Albers, I guess, is “Dean of Squares.” Robert Lax is “Dean of the American Catholic Poets in the Orthodox Islands.” Did you ever see Lax and O’Gorman on the telly (TV) reading their stuff? I’m sure you’re the dean of something besides small calligraphy.

That “T” above, its stem is a sample of the best paper I could find to send you. I had to fold it “eightfold” wise to fit it in an envelope so please forgive the creases. I put in two other mailings some fine-Italian-hand-paper and some non-yellowing-fine-Japanese-paper. I couldn’t find any fine, clean, efficient, German papier, old Nazi stock, parchment, but enough of fascist business. I’ll look up some 100% American stock. You want a big brush? Happy New Year,

[12 January, 1964; date crossed out]
Dear Dean Reinhardt:
Yes, as one dean to another, I am frequently promoted as dean, usually by myself as I get little cooperation in this matter from others. However, it is true that with your encouragement and assistance I am already the dean of the small abstract calligraphy. As to the title of Louis which I share with too many bartenders and taxi drivers, I am detached from it. Fr. O.C.S.O., I am [this in the margin]. Not unappreciative, just torpid as to letters after names which are a Jesuitical trope. I am through with all tropes. I begin to be nothing but a dean. I want all the letters in front of the name only, and after the name just a lot of room to get out of the way when they throw things, not to have to stumble around with orders and degrees. Promotion is what I despise, except promotion once in a while as dean.

Now as to your papers you have been most generous with the papers and if I send you some of the small abstract calligraphies it is not in order to plague you and clutter up your flat, but to show you whereof I am the dean, and you should send back whatever would otherwise just clutter up the flat as I intend to get through to the millionaires like all the other deans. But for you I have signed the small abstract clalligropos which I take to be the most lively, for the Dragon Year as a new card and stay away from the feminine dragons in this year especially.

The big fine Italian hand paper I have not yet got to with my fine Italian hand.

Now what do you think of the printing method I have devised as dean in my specialty? I think it makes for very nice small obscure calligraphies and comes out more fine than the great brush. I am nuts about my method, like all the other deans. While you have a free moment from being Dean of Regionals and Folk Art and Dean of the Great Quiet, maybe you tell me which is the most lively method and second how I get to the millionaires with the minimum of delay. (No, this about the millionaires is joshing.) In any case these pictures are for pleasures of contemplation and if they have this effect I go back content to my deanery and make a lot more, however not threatening to send you the whole tidal wave which is soon to break.

What is your mind about the great brush? It seems to me that with the great brush goes also a huge pot, as I cannot get the great brush into the small bottle of India ink, it seems to me I should experiment with a slightly larger brush which I have and make prints and see what happens, but all large brushes drink the whole bottle of ink in one gulp then where are you, I ask myself? What is your counsel in this grave matter? Maybe there is some funny way of making the ink bottle go a long way like putting in half water or something mean like that.

Lax has got out of being dean of Greek Islands for a while. It is he that starts all the wars in Cyprus. You wait, it will all come out.

I hide my head from the American hubris that starts and will start wars and violence all over the place, I go back to be dean of the small silent calligraphy and weep for the peace race. Now its flags in Panama, and I got a friend just through telling me of peaceful Indians on islands around there etc. Bah. Fooey on the pale faces.

Edited by Joseph Masheck