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Ping/Pong: Lucy Lippard and Barbara Rose talk about Reinhardt

Ad Reinhardt, detail from “How to Look at an Artist,” PM, April 7, 1946. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.


Barbara Rose: Don’t you find it odd that two very young women did the first serious writing about Reinhardt? My explanation is that he managed to be so far outside the accepted New York School macho man stereotype that he made no gender distinctions, just intellectual and moral distinctions, which is one reason I was drawn to his writing and personality. I guess I liked the paintings so much because they didn’t try to overpower or dominate you. I was sick of being assaulted by Picasso’s gross phallic aggressions and profound misogyny. Ad was adamant that the black paintings follow Leonardo’s humanist schema—as wide as the arms could stretch. His format was never the landscape or any abstraction of the horizon line. Maybe because he was a city boy.

I think it’s important that his primary dealer was Betty Parsons. He joined her gallery in 1946 and was still showing with her when he died in 1967. All the other New York School guys—Pollock, Newman, Still, Tony Smith—had left because Betty was not really a sales lady. Ad would complain she wasn’t selling his work but he knew perfectly well she showed art for love not money and I think he liked that. And of course she was also an abstract painter.

Lucy Lippard: Rita Reinhardt told me that he chose me to write the Jewish Museum catalogue because at that point his work needed to be reconsidered. And it was the young artists you and I were associated with who were doing that. The ethical distinctions (and the right-on, take-no-prisoners humor) were what I loved too. I was already wondering what I was doing in this world that he took down with such skill. After the Jewish Museum show, Ad said, “Well I suppose I have to give you a painting, since all the guys—or Sam Hunter, then the Jewish Museum director—demand that.” Then we had a fine old time discussing the morals of giving work to critics. Needless to say I never got a painting, which is just as well since I’m a slob and it would never have survived my household.

Ad Reinhardt, detail from “How to Look at a Good Idea,” PM, August 4, 1946. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

Rose: Hmmm. Ad never offered me a painting. He died while I was editing the writings (actually a project I suggested because I thought they were so important and needed to be published in one place). It was exhausting, thousands of pages. I asked him why he kept publishing the same text over and over and over in different magazines. He said, “Because they haven’t understood it yet.” Anyhow he knew I looked at a black painting every day because Frank Stella bought a big vertical one from Betty Parsons for $1,500 in 1961—which he didn’t have of course—but I think he paid Betty $100 a month. The painting was hung near the only window so you could see it change during the day. Frank loaned it to a show and somehow when it came back it was a wreck. (Big surprise.) So Frank gave it to Goldreyer, the infamous restorer who worked on the New York School paintings, and when he was done Frank said it wasn’t a Reinhardt, it was a Goldreyer and so he didn’t want it any more. I don’t know what happened to the painting because I never saw it again.
There is a totally false idea that Frank was influenced by Reinhardt. He wasn’t. He admired Ad’s painting and liked Ad a lot but he was actually thinking about Matisse’s paintings with the reserved lines between the decorative bands and of course of Johns’s flags which identified the image with the field. He used black enamel because it was the cheapest paint. You could buy it in hardware stores in gallon cans. Besides Frank painted the black paintings in 1959. They were large glossy and not refined.

I remember the day you and Bob Ryman, who you were married to at the time, came to visit us. I think what you and I had in common was we went to Smith and had a kid before anybody else.

Lippard: I don’t think I ever thought Frank was influenced by Ad but the art world loves black and white simplistic ideas.  Can’t say I would have recognized the Matisse thread, though certainly Johns, who was on everybody’s list (LeWitt’s big influence too.) You knew Johns well. How did he take all that? Though I’m pretty sure he liked Ad’s subtlety, Ryman’s big influence was Rothko, who said he was going to hire Bob as an assistant around 1959-60. Bob was really psyched but then Rothko offered him so little money he couldn’t do it. I had a couple of bad experiences with Rothko, but what a painter.

Rose: Do you really think Ad was an influence on Conceptual art? Even though they appropriated him—his stance that is, not the art—I think Conceptual art has nothing to do with Ad. Carl Andre, who did know and like Ad’s work a lot, always said he thought what was needed was contraceptual art.

Lippard: Of course Kosuth appropriated the black paintings in his dictionary “paintings” and some young Conceptual artists admired Ad’s use of text and images, although he of course kept them totally separate and was certainly uninterested in “dematerialization.” And Carl, who was never a Conceptual artist as such, did not entirely detach his concrete poems from the units of his sculptures, opening the door to a parallel experience. Sol always wrote about conceptual art “with a small c.” All of this offered models that younger artists took in entirely different directions, none of which would have interested Ad at all.

Rose: I’m interested in the way different people see the black paintings. For me, after you look for a long time there seems to be a kind of gray haze that floats right on the surface. This may all be in my imagination. But I definitely do not see them as flat. The mystery is how they elude just looking like a monochrome dyed canvas. I think this is because they appear to emit light from within because of the way they were painted in thin layer after layer. In Flemish old master oil painting, the alternation of paint and transparent glaze gives the illusion of light trapped in the painting, coming from behind the figures.

Lippard: Yes, light is crucial. As it is to Ryman, who probably has gone further with Ad’s mission to create the last paintings, but his light is external. Ad’s is decidedly internal, veiled, almost a denial of light. The matte surfaces (so risky and threatening the paintings’ survival as he knew) and the reds, blues, greens hermetically sealed below that gray haze contradict (and enhance) his declarations about taking painting to the brink. What in your graduate school experience prepared you for Ad?

Rose: Absolutely nothing. I didn’t study modern art, and 20th-century American art was not even taught. However I did take every class Meyer Schapiro gave while I was at Columbia, including of course medieval art and art theory. John Dewey had taught there—Judd actually studied with him—and Ad must have read his Art as Experience since it was de rigeur at Columbia.

Years later, I found out Ad had studied with Meyer for four years and had graduated from Columbia College with a B.A. in art history. My education was coincidentally similar. Ad got an M.A. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts where he studied Asian and Islamic art. I studied Mozarabic art at the Institute as well. So I was probably attracted to Ad’s thinking and art because my personal taste was and always has been for rigorous, disciplined, classical art as opposed to expressionist styles.

I shared his distaste of Surrealism. I found it creepy and academic. I remember Sidney Tillim saying the Surrealists had nightmares because they couldn’t paint. It was something Ad could have said because he was so adamant in his rejection of any kind of representation—he was the only New York School artist who never painted figurative works—although unlike most of the others he actually could draw and studied at the National Academy of Design. I was always impressed by the fact that his rejection of something was not because he could not do it, but rather because he thought there were higher forms of creativity.

One question I could never answer was whether Ad believed that abstract art was a form of transcendence with a spiritual content. This was of course the argument of Newman and Rothko—Reinhardt was a student of world religions and participated in conferences on religious art. I remember he took me to a symposium sponsored by ARC, the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture directed by John and Jane Dillenberger. But he made no claims for the mystical content of art so we really don’t know what he thought. Or perhaps he was ambivalent. He never discussed his religious upbringing, which logically must have been Lutheran—which would explain a good deal of the severity of his moralism. My personal opinion—based on nothing other than a subjective feeling—is that the black paintings do provide a contemplative experience I would call mystical. I have no idea whether that is what Ad intended since he refused to make any claim for his art other than that it was a discipline. I am curious about your view of Ad’s relationship to religion, spirituality, and especially transcendental mysticism, which is the origin after all of abstract art. And of course let us not forget his hero Mondrian was a theosophist. What do you think about Ad’s views regarding religion and art?

Photo by Ad Reinhardt. August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Courtesy Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

Lippard: Yes, Ad was very cagey about the “spiritual,” always leaving the door open, but refusing to go through it. Didn’t you once write that art took—or could take—the place of religion in contemporary society? I remember mulling that one over, as a lifelong atheist, and wondering if we needed any kind of religion at all. I think the word contemplative (or transcendent) is the right one. Not religion in any organized sense, but a conviction that art could satisfy that need for something beyond us, without the imposed institutional bullshit. Certainly the black paintings inspired a kind of awe and I suppose if one is mystically inclined there is more to it. A truly abstract art is or was then a kind of holy grail—always just out of reach. I’d forgotten about Ad’s friendship with Merton, yet another of the contradictions and ambivalences that made him so interesting. Maybe only those really close to him had any idea of how he really felt about all this but I suspect no one did.

He was raised Lutheran, but his parents were also labor activists; studying with Schapiro must have honed his intellectual skills in this area.

I have to agree with you about Surrealism as art. I’ve always been a collage freak and I fell for the ideas, which were far more interesting than most of the art. Dada was my real love for obvious reasons . . . Absurdity and iconoclasm. In fact I never have been able to resolve my attraction to the esthetic poles: the more or less classic, rejective, black and white, and the messy, political, sensual, colorful. I’m always quoting two Reinhardtisms: “Art teaches people how to see” and “art is art and everything else is everything else.” The first one is just plain true. Artists are complicitous in the way the world is seen. The second one I have clearly transgressed, but I still admire its perfect clarity.

Rose: I guess we both came rightly to the political protests we took part in, along with Ad and Judd, Morris, Andre, I think I went to jail with you once during one of the anti-war protests (there were so many of them). I remember how much we respected Ad for marching with us and not just standing around while innocent millions were being slaughtered. I suppose what he got most from our generation was respect—for the art and for holding out against vulgarity, stupidity, and massification—but also for the gutsiness of being an old guy and standing with us.

Lippard: Do you think Ad was influenced by Buddhism?

Rose: Like a lot of people in the art world I studied Buddhism and I guess I raised my kids as Buddhists (although not officially of course). I have a theory that Ad actually without admitting it or even acknowledging it to himself converted to Buddhism when he realized that the Western religions were all about war and some kind of violence and pain.

I wonder where Ad’s interest in aesthetics came from? He obviously had tremendous talent—he could draw, which you can’t say about most of the New York School guys—but why become an artist?

Lippard: I seem to remember Ad saying he knew he was going to be an artist but went to Columbia so he wouldn’t have the limited education most artists have. Maybe art represented a free zone. That’s how I pictured it when I got out of college, before I realized we were in a sandbox in a capitalist society. But there are still vestiges of a space where you can have your say in and out of art/writing and think critically, if you’re lucky, and willing to keep your standard of living low. With my authority problem I could never have done a desk job or academia. I wonder where Ad would have gone if not into art? Hard to picture.

Rose: Did you agree with Ad about religion and spirituality?

Lippard: Once my son and I were following some dressed-up old folks toward church in Little Italy. He asked where they were going. I told him, more or less, and he announced that before he was born he was God. How come? God is invisible and so was he. One time when I was arrested in D.C., Ethan was staying with Alice and Larry Weiner. They saw cops roughing people up on TV and told Ethan proudly that his mother was there too. Scared him.

Rose: I think that was the time we were both arrested. My daughter Rachel was at the Lycee Francais and they asked her where her parents were that day and she replied “mon pere est dans son atelier et ma mere est en prison.” I think one reason I was so involved with the protests and marches was I didn’t want my kids to have to think I was like the Germans, who did nothing when the Nazis took over.

Lippard: I don’t think I was ever arrested or even marched with Ad, though I always admired him for being one of the first artists to sign up against the Vietnam War. Rudolf Baranik, a close friend, was another one out there early on. He was a Lithuanian Jew whose parents and little sister were killed in a forest near Vilnius. (They had hedged their bets with the two boys, sending one to Chicago and one to Moscow.) Rudolph much admired Ad and his work and they met in some Lithuanian contexts as well as in the art world. But Ad might have thought Baranik a hopeless romantic. (He called himself a socialist formalist.) Not that Ad totally escaped romanticism either, for all the pronouncements. I like the idea of Ad’s black paintings as silent non-violent protests, and wish I thought this was a Ghandian moment, but nothing seems to work today.

Rose: I was reading the Archives of American Art’s interview with Ad in which he blames the Whitney for a false reading of art history and a misunderstanding of American art. To what degree is that true today? Globalism has buried the idea of a history of American modernism for example. However, I think Ad was right that we can blame museums which legitimize artists and tendencies for the train wreck of art history since the ’80s. I would date the beginning of the end to the High and Low show at MoMA (1990) in which comic books were seen as equals to high art as a result of context. What do you think Ad would have thought of High and Low or of the total Duchampiazation of art by and in museums that ratify what is shown in galleries as investment grade art history?

Lippard: I think I’d date it to the Pop Art era, when art got chic. I’ve shown comics with “high art” (but not in museums), so can’t throw the first stone…And of course Ad’s comics must have been shown in museums by now. Does that make them art? I don’t think so. But there is something creepy about museums showing everything that’s hot at the moment, especially when political/community projects are taken out of context and co-opted. Maybe museums should just have stayed “mausoleums,” which they are good at, and left the art/life stuff out there where life is taking place. I can’t remember Ad commenting on Pop Art but can just imagine his scorn.

I don’t remember his comments on conceptualism either, but since so many of those artists came out of so-called minimalism, they often shared his dislike of Duchampization even though they were constantly being connected with it from the outside. (Haacke of course, being European, did not disavow Duchamp; in fact one of his sons has the middle name of Selavy.)

Rose: Do you think Ad’s work or his writing had an influence? On whom?

Lippard: I can’t say on whom, but I think both his polemics and work remain an influence, though obviously the “minimalists” were most attracted (and repelled?) by his example. I don’t read a lot of art magazines but it seems to me he is often mentioned and has remained a hero of some kind, even among those who don’t really know what he did. Did he want to be “iconic?” Or would it have annoyed him?

Rose: I think unconsciously that was his ambition. That was what he meant about how he hadn’t been understood. Now he is, or at least is beginning to be. Suppose Ad had not died when he was only 54, but had lived as long as de Kooning . . . Do you think he would have continued to paint only black paintings? Do you think he would have done anything else?

Lippard: Such an interesting question. He had in a sense backed himself into a corner, a corner where he was relatively content and making amazing art. Because he was so adamant he would have been almost obligated to go on with black squares. How many variations did he leave undone? Any? I doubt if he could have given up painting itself, and I suspect sculpture was out of the question. Then again, he was smart enough to figure out a reason why he should do something else. It would have been downright Dada to draw the curtain on something he loved. Maybe he would have pulled a Duchamp and worked on something in secret. None of these are choices he would have approved. What do you think?

Rose: I don’t think he could have gone on for another 40 years painting black paintings, but he was a born painter. He might well have done installation art—literally painted on walls—remember he was on the WPA and mural painting was a big deal. He could have made black environments. I heard he was interested in film, but he never mentioned anything like that to me. Do you personally believe the black paintings are the “last paintings”—the ultimate statement that can be made in paint on canvas?

Lippard: No. And I wonder if he really did. There were “last paintings” before him—remember Rodchenko?—and there will be more. It’s intriguing that artists seem to need to kill (conclude?) what they are compelled to do.

Rose: Do you see any relationship between Reinhardt and John Cage? After all, Cage was writing about silence and composing a silent piece while Reinhardt was engaged in silencing color and pattern. Obviously they were both influenced by Buddhism but my impression was Ad was not so interested in Zen as he was in the Chinese Tao of painting and of the centralized motifs Tibetan tankas, which are so incredibly detailed that even though they are figurative, they require a long time to visualize and go in and out of focus. Certainly he was among the few Americans to visit Southeast Asia after World War II. He hated reproductions and undoubtedly his studies with Salmony at the Institute of Fine Arts inspired this trip, which at the time was long and arduous.

Lippard: I guess the difference was philosophical, or intellectual. I don’t see Ad being attracted to “chance,” or Cage being attracted to Ad’s (funny) dictatorial statements. If they had silence in common, how come their ideas have been so audible?


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