New York

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Blue, 1952, oil on canvas, 18 x 14". © Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Blue, 1952, oil on canvas, 18 x 14". © Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Ad Reinhardt

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Blue, 1952, oil on canvas, 18 x 14". © Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The recent exhibition at David Zwirner of twenty-seven blue paintings made by Ad Reinhardt, focusing on the period between 1950 and 1953, was a tour de force on many levels. It is doubtful that any museum could or would have assembled such a concentrated, ambitious show, since it lacks the box-office appeal of shock-and-awe sensationalism. Ironically, the gathering of such a cohesive group of paintings was shocking in its laser-like focus and awe-inspiring in the loftiness of its uncompromised aesthetic achievement. It was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and coherent, even breathtaking, exhibitions this writer can remember.

Reinhardt, who died precipitously and prematurely in 1967 at the age of fifty-three, was a prolific writer who laid out his premises with unambiguous clarity if not dogmatism. The only member of the New York School who began as an abstract artist, he used cartooning to drain off any content linking art to life. This put him at odds with the other major figures of his generation, who were affected by various forms of Surrealism and Expressionism, which he found compromised the integrity of art as art.

After serving in World War II, Reinhardt took postgraduate courses in East Asian art with Alfred Salmony at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, which deepened his interest in the cultures. Increasingly, he was drawn to Chinese and Japanese painting, whose calligraphy inspired his works of the late 1940s. The red and blue paintings that followed consolidated any residual gestural elements into patches, blocks, or, as Reinhardt referred to them, rectangular “bricks” of color, gradually eliminating both hue and tonal contrasts in favor of increasingly close values. As they developed, these works verged on the monochrome.

Margit Rowell, in her 1980 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibition catalogue Ad Reinhardt and Color, the only publication to seriously examine the artist’s relationship to hue, called Reinhardt “a born colorist.” She characterized his ultimate elimination of even red and blue in his final black paintings as resulting from his decision to abolish the tension of contrast as well as illusions of advancing and receding planes from his art. Both the red and the blue series are dated 1950 to 1953, although the blue series, as the works within it gradually turn brown and purplish, moves ever more resolutely into the darkness of Reinhardt’s final series of black paintings. In the first of the blue paintings, there are still considerable color variations in the horizontal and vertical blocks of blue, green, and purple, floating as if weightless in an ambiguous space that many writers of the time compared with Claude Monet’s water lilies. However, given that many of the blue paintings have a vertical format equal in size to Chinese scroll paintings, the forms released from earthly gravity in the blue paintings were more likely inspired by such art.

Reinhardt was a scholar and a teacher as well as a painter, and his own references to color reflect his understanding of its function and possibilities. “There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control,” he wrote in 1960. “Control and rationality are part of any morality.” To make sure his colors did not evoke associations, he made lists of potential symbolism such as “red, fire, blood, hot, riot, revolution, passion, energy, fear, jealousy, deceit” and “blue-color of villains, ghosts and fiends’ hope, heaven, sky.”

The fundamental issue, he concluded, was not color contrast but light. “Not colored light,” Reinhardt wrote in 1966 to Sam Hunter, “but color that gives off light.” Eventually, Reinhardt excluded chromatic color in the conclusion of a process he had begun to consider earlier. Thinning his paint radically, he began to superimpose layer upon layer of color, effacing all traces of distracting brushwork. Trained as an art historian at Columbia College, New York, where he studied with Meyer Schapiro, he knew the techniques of painting well. He realized that the layer after layer of thin oil paint, which he painstakingly built up, produced an evanescent haze that would make the black paintings that follow seem so mysterious.

“Art is art. Everything else is everything else,” Reinhardt famously proclaimed in his disavowal of any Romantic or expressive associations in his work. Yet it is difficult to see these luminous radiant blue paintings as totally disengaged with the subtle light effects of dawn or twilight, in which illumination gradually progresses or diffuses into darkness. He produced the velvety surfaces of these works via a meticulous process of leaching oil from pigment, making it increasingly powdery rather than shiny or reflective. The resulting matte surfaces are necessarily extremely fragile, but fragility is an important part of the content of Reinhardt’s work. And despite his constant denial of content as part of totally abstract art, it is the poetic content of these profound and beautiful paintings that sets them apart and continues to move us.

Barbara Rose