New York

Ad Reinhardt

Marlborough | Midtown

Barbara Rose and H. H. Arnason have contributed essays to a presentation of the Black Paintings by Ad Reinhardt. Painted over a long period, from the early ’50s to the time of his death in 1967, they were executed contemporaneously with both a Red and a Blue series about which no discussion has yet appeared. Since, by contrast, the Black Paintings have been so widely shown—although, perhaps, without the signal success they achieve in the present installation—I feel freer to immediately deflect attention from the paintings themselves to Miss Rose’s essay which clarifies so many of their issues as it nullifies Mr. Arnason’s offering which, if nothing else, is impertinent biographical flim-flam: you know, how he and Reinhardt never quite hit it off until one day, quite by chance, they ran into one another beneath the Carpaccios of the Accademia.

Miss Rose, instead, offers up a percipient argument of which I offer only the merest outlines. She rightly contends that the Black Paintings are a mystical attempt on Reinhardt’s part to staunch art, to present “a single summary statement which would subsume all previous forms, styles and techniques in painting.” To achieve this exalted end the artist was obliged to overcome quintessential dualities, a split between Eastern and Western modes of feeling, between linearity and painterliness, between ego-action and theocratic stasis—Miss Rose avoids such awkward locutions—and still more. To have thrown out of art, for example, all of the Western cultural tradition after a long “summarizing and distilling (of) all previous advances in painting,” was also an aspiration shared in common with Clyfford Still and is central to the thinking which brought first school American field painting into existence.

The East/West duality was synthesized within a rejection of the instantaneous image of the artist’s emotionality in favor of an Eastern stasis which demands, for its very comprehensibility, a viewing in extended time, a particularly excruciating duration in those Black Paintings whose tones are so closely approximated as to render the elusively simple images—cross figures in the earlier ones and a nine square grid in the later ones—virtually monochromatic. Through such a method, the Western record of personality traces was transformed into a non-representational icon, that is, an image which takes much time to see but little.

Moreover, the blacks are often so closely hued—their distinctions are primarily thermal—as to call into question the edge of the square which gives the individual black plane its figure and, by extension, the whole concept of linearity, at least as it is defined in the traditional Wölfflinian concomitants of local color and planarity. Miss Rose holds the absence of luminosity accountable to a thirst for mystical perfection, that is, for an image devoid of the traces of the human hand or whatever environmental reflections may glance off a glossy surface, which explains why Reinhardt opted for matteness. She is, of course, assisted in her view, though no claim is placed on it, by the fact that blackness depicts the absence of light although symbolically blackness argues for the absence of God, a fact which might have been avoided as it appears to refute Miss Rose’s expert presentation.

For me, these matte, unmarred, unreflective surfaces induce a kind of dusty or murky haze—a black luminousness one might say, or a de-egofied shimmer. Bizarrely then, however far from human production the Black Paintings have moved and however close to a neutral, desireless nirvana, one feels that their effect tends to counter the aspirations of the artist. Instead of withering Western ego away they at length travel full cycle, and affirm through their ultra refinement only that which is most distinctly, humanly and individually possible.

Robert Pincus-Witten