New York

View of “Ad Reinhardt,” 2013.

View of “Ad Reinhardt,” 2013.

Ad Reinhardt

View of “Ad Reinhardt,” 2013.

The front room of David Zwirner on Twentieth Street was giddy with Ad Reinhardt’s drawings and collages. Staggered frames across the wall presented meticulous drawings of smirking fat cats, slumbering politicians, union laborers, and other characters too quirky to classify. Among the cartoons produced between 1946 and 1961, a vertical flowchart plotted, across dotted lines and sprightly abbreviations of bureaucratic architecture, the path of a bottle of whiskey from a Scotland distillery to a New York liquor store (and, more important, from 97¢ to $7.84). In a drawing two inches tall, a man scratches beneath his fedora and utters the familiar Reinhardtian question, WHAT’S THIS REPRESENT, HUH?—only this time he’s gesturing not at an abstract painting but at a rectangle labeled 16 1/2 PICAS and 6 PICAS. In this exuberant presentation by curator Robert Storr, Reinhardt appeared as a savvy designer and mercurial wit, a collagist who, equipped with a plentiful harvest of pulp illustration, could pillory Nazis and Greenwich Village developers with equal venom.

Standing in the middle of this room, the viewer had two choices: Follow the stygian lure of a Black Painting that was visible through the doorway (it led to a room containing thirteen such canvases), or pass through a short, dark hallway to see a brief show of images from Reinhardt’s collection of some twelve thousand slides. In some important respects, the latter was the better choice. Indeed, the slides have been the real heart of darkness in Reinhardt scholarship, omitted from most studies and exhibitions until recently. Sequences of slides established intimate connections across thousands of years of global art production, most photographed by Reinhardt during his travels, all organized according to shifting archetypes of shape (the triangle, the circle) as well as subject (the door, the kiss, the ass). The juxtapositions were funny, sometimes saucy, and their success relied on viewers’ nimble capacity to shift attention from similarities in form to similarities in subject matter. All that was missing was the aural effect of the slide projector. The gallery had transferred the slide show to video, so the satisfying crunch and plop that typically punctuates slide shows was missing; without it, the images lost a bit of the touristy clumsiness that had no doubt made the shows funnier.

The room of Black Paintings was a revelation, though perhaps not as intended. Not since the 1991 Reinhardt retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art had this many Black Paintings been assembled together. The variety among them was startling—the canvas from the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul radiated an acidic blue from within its black paint, and looked practically Technicolor compared to the other canvases. But the manner of the works’ installation was also startling. The paintings were put against very bright white walls, which intensified retinal afterimages that competed with the compositions. Light from the very high ceilings hit Reinhardt’s frames, thus casting a one-inch shadow at the top of most of the paintings. This violated at least two of Reinhardt’s Twelve Rules for the New Academy: No bright or direct light in or over the painting (rule #7); and the frame should isolate and protect the painting from its surroundings (rule #8). (In this instance, the frame became a means by which the surround intruded upon the work.)

Does an inch-wide shadow matter that much? On Reinhardt’s work, absolutely, in part because the subtlety of his color interactions is such that a shadow stripe not only produces a hieratic top but also destroys the modular symmetry upon which the artist relied in order to make his paintings “non-compositional.” What’s more interesting, however, is that those slender shadows seem to index the ways in which the art world has evolved in a direction opposite from what Reinhardt had originally intended. Photographs of the artist’s vitally important 1966 retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York show that the Black Paintings were lit from track lights hung on ceilings twelve feet high—a dimension that was more than sufficient to handle most paintings at the time. By contrast, the larger and more spectacular kinds of art produced in recent decades (such as that favored by, for example, Jeff Koons, a recent addition to Mr. Zwirner’s stable) require much taller ceilings, which produce lighting sources at high, shadow-producing altitude.

Cartoons and slides might lead one to believe that Ad Reinhardt can gain harmonious purchase in a space that is also hospitable to Jeff Koons. But that room of Black Paintings suggests something a bit less optimistic: Perhaps a venue that makes room for art that can be anything will of necessity interfere with paintings originally made in the belief that art must not be everything.

Sarah K. Rich