New York

Ad Reinhardt

As it has been a quarter of a century since we last had the opportunity to view such a concentration of Ad Reinhardt’s work, this retrospective of the paintings of this celebrated iconoclast could not have been anticipated more optimistically. The curators unfortunately did not rise to the occasion: what we got was a replay of the fairly conventional story of Reinhardt-the-painter, with little more than lip-service paid the larger and more important story of Reinhardt-the-artist.

Ad Reinhardt idealized his abstract art in scores of texts written over a period of more than two decades, culminating in his autonomination as the creator of “the last painting.” Whether or not we credit Reinhardt with launching the final, decisive assault upon figuration, it is difficult not to be struck by his rhetoric demanding of painting an autonomy of the most stringent kind. Reinhardt’s legacy is encapsulated neatly in his text “Art-as-art” of 1962: “Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art-as-art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.”

Reinhardt chose to speak of his painting in this way at least as early as 1943; but it was not until the early ’50s that he began to frame these ideas in that style of determinate negativity for which he has been most celebrated, and which supports the critical consensus that Reinhardt’s painting has always been timeless and hermetic. Yet if we probe Reinhardt’s early “fine” art practice, particularly a previously unexamined body of political illustrations dating from the late ’30s to mid ’40s, we are apt to discover an entire messy world that has been ignored, minimized, or suppressed.

During the early ’40s, Reinhardt contextualized painting within a larger, totalizing praxis: a society where, in the words of Marx (echoed later by Piet Mondrian), “there are no painters but at most people who engage in painting among other activities.” In an unpublished text from 1943, Reinhardt acknowledges these sources, drawing parallels between Marx and Mondrian; according to Reinhardt, both “saw the disappearance of works of art when the environment itself became an aesthetic reality.” Reinhardt continues, evoking a picture of social life where the essential qualities of paintings and other visual forms that are principally distinguished by their communicative function (for example, the cinema) are free to coexist and to develop. Thus, while Reinhardt never believed that abstract art could be independent or free without somehow first being isolated from the instrumental misuse of art in capitalist society, his first solution was to posit a totalization of praxis that amounted to a proto-post-socialist supersession of the capitalist division of labor. Reinhardt sustained this hyperpoliticized version of Mondrian’s “plastic art and pure plastic art” at least until the mid ’40s. Because of Reinhardt’s left political affiliations, this theorizing invariably took place in a highly polemical atmosphere, and generally on two fronts simultaneously: first, as a defensive posture in favor of abstraction as a legitimate form of art against the philistinism of the New York art establishment; second, against the attacks on abstract art as bourgeois idealism by his fellow travelers. Reinhardt, it seems, might just as accurately have characterized his life work as the realization of the difficult freedom of the Modernist left.

The mid ’40s proved to be a turning point for Reinhardt, at which time he seriously began to consider the metaphor of the Academy as a means whereby abstract art might argue for and obtain its necessary freedom and independence. Reinhardt’s polemics reflected this shift and thus began a long period during which he penned numerous texts on determinate negation, suggesting that “one can find some of painting’s meanings by looking not only at what painters do but at what they refuse to do.”

Reinhardt’s recasting of his prewar position evades the concrete issue of the social and political shape of a world in which this kind of practice would be possible. Instead, Reinhardt introduces something like an allegory of the political. His notion, expressed in 1959, that “abstract art has as its central idea purity and freedom and morality” compresses twenty years of insights on that issue. Relying solely on Reinhardt’s accounts, we would certainly have missed the subtle articulations that historically define the rich relationship between an autonomous abstract art and a totality of equivalently valued practices. We would also have missed the fact that during his formative period he was vigorously involved in the communist movement in New York City. Commenting on Reinhardt’s political orientation, Lucy Lippard makes a mistake that is by no means exceptional. She writes: “The fact remains that his own interest in Marxism was intellectual rather than actively political.”

Lippard is not the only writer whose criticality has been either compromised by Reinhardt’s single-minded self-promotion of his so-called “black” paintings or glossed over by the surfeit of polemical texts enveloping them. The latter has always represented an equivocal boon to Reinhardt scholars and curators: look long and hard enough through Reinhardt’s writings and you will find the means to justify virtually any of his self-descriptions. Because of a disturbing propensity for historical and critical discussions of Reinhardt’s lifework to remain largely dominated by Reinhardt himself, the complexities and contradictions of his oeuvre remain relatively unexamined.

Michael Corris