The Black Paintings
I met Ad Reinhardt in 1962, after returning from a Fulbright in Spain. Seeing Ad’s work, and spending time with him, was significant to the development of my early career. For example in my 1965 essay “ABC Art,” there was a section titled “Art for Ad’s Sake” that related his example to new developments in art now called “minimal.” A decade later, I edited a collection of Ad’s writings, a project the artist himself encouraged me to pursue. When this essay was originally published in 1970 it was one of the first serious art historical studies of the black paintings.
Painted consecutively from 1953, the year he renounced color, until his death in 1967, the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt constitute an exceptional body of inter-related works unique in the history of art in terms of their effect, intention, and execution. Indeed, Reinhardt himself came to view them as the culminating development of abstract painting: a terminal point of the easel tradition, beyond which it was impossible to proceed to a further extreme. Reading Reinhardt’s many published and unpublished statements, we may reconstruct his goal as nothing less than the ultimate synthesis of the traditional polarities of Western painting, a single summary statement which would subsume all previous forms, styles, and techniques of painting.
To prepare himself for this task of summarizing and distilling all previous advances in painting, Reinhardt had devoted long years to the study of art history. Visiting monuments and shrines throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Reinhardt filled notebooks with drawings, observations, tables, and charts. His many students and friends were familiar with his extensive collection of color slides. These he often showed in sequences illustrating their purely formal relationships, independent of subject matter or function.
Although the black paintings exist autonomously, to fully understand their meaning it is necessary to review the context in which they were made. That context was the historical moment in which all of world art history became available to a single artist through travel and new techniques of communication which created a “museum without walls,” wherein the multiple forms of the past coexist contemporaneously in the present. Given the knowledge of diverse styles, meanings, and approaches to art in different communities and cultures, artists like Matisse and Picasso and art historians like Henri Focillon were able to view all of world art exclusively in terms of its formal relationships. Although most of the artists of Reinhardt’s generation were directly or indirectly influenced by Kandinsky’s theory of expression which stressed the communication of interior states, Reinhardt was far more drawn to Focillon’s approach. In On the Life of Forms of Art, Focillon emphasized objective formal relationships as opposed to the subjective states that were the content of the various forms of expressionism. When Focillon’s most distinguished pupil, George Kubler, published The Shape of Time, a book which saw art history as a system of linked formal and structural relationships, Reinhardt reviewed it enthusiastically in ARTnews. He singled out a number of Kubler’s conclusions and quoted them, apparently because he agreed with them. Among Kubler’s statements quoted by Reinhardt as especially significant were the following:
Perhaps all the fundamental technical, formal, and expressive combinations have already been marked out at one time or another, permitting a total diagram of the natural recourses of are.
Instead of our occupying an expanding universe of forms…we would be seen to inhabit a finite world of limited possibilities, still largely unexplored.
Envisage a future with limited room for changes and these types to which the past already yields the key.
That abstract painting is both a finite and a mature tradition at this advanced stage in its development is a possibility many artists are considering today. Unquestionably, Reinhardt was the first to come to such a conclusion; indeed, the black paintings are a statement regarding the finite possibilities of painting. Paradoxically, although they represent an acceptance of limits they also challenge limits, particularly with regard to the limits of vision.
For Reinhardt, painting was about seeing. Deliberately straining vision beyond its normal limits by creating nearly invisible works was a means to extend the range of visual art, not in the direction of the dramatic apocalyptic statement, but in the direction of the nearly imperceptible nuance—an extreme that had not been investigated nearly so thoroughly. The extreme of perceptual nuance represented by the black paintings has, however, attracted more and more artists since Reinhardt began exploring this area of visual experience.
Looking at the black paintings, we realize it requires an immense effort to see them at all; but that this effort is absolutely essential to the kind of experience they afford. For unless one is entirely committed to experiencing them, one has no experience at all, since Reinhardt intended to require of the spectator a commitment as total as that given by the artist. No passersby or window shoppers will have any sense of the black paintings which require, to be properly seen, an amount of time that grows increasingly precious in our harried lives. Today quite a number of works require a certain amount of time to be seen: when Reinhardt first painted the black paintings however, they were unique in this respect.
Reinhardt deliberately used a matte surface instead of a glossy finish so that nothing from the world outside the painting could be reflected on its surface to act as a distraction. His intention was to make the hermetic world within the painting as different from the hum-drum world outside as possible. Wishing to oppose the chance element that plays so large a role in life with the unchanging authority of an absolute art, Reinhardt banished from his work anything accidental, capricious, or fortuitous.
Because everything regarding the black paintings is both consistent and necessary, all inconsistencies of form, of execution, all irrelevancies, external elements, contingency, and chance have been eliminated. In eliminating such elements Reinhardt was able to make a monistic statement of indissoluble unity and demonstrable necessity. It is, moreover, just these qualities of consistency and necessity which lend the black paintings their conviction. In this light one can see Reinhardt’s goal of irreducibility not as a negative posture but as a search for a position—no matter how minimal or how reductive, how bare or how uningratiating—a man might take with any sureness. In the black paintings, Reinhardt assumed an extreme stance; in repeating them he made explicit his refusal to abandon that position, which became the only one he could hold with total conviction. The difficulty of finding such a stance may be clearer if we remember that the black paintings were produced during a period in which all conventional values were being questioned and precisely at a time when many lost conviction in painting, abandoning it for other modes of expression.
That the black paintings are not actually monochrome is also of the utmost importance, for in focusing the image we do actually undergo something having to do with the process of viewing the paintings. Because of this process and the emphasis on the very act of seeing, the black paintings are not merely objects or inert surfaces as are merely monochrome works; rather they are the means for having a special kind of experience. In this respect, that the black paintings appear to absorb rather than to transmit or reflect light is also crucial. As opposed to the harsh optical effects of recent high-color contrast painting, in which the image sometimes appears as if projected away from its background, the black paintings hold the wall. Clearly frontal, uniformly painted, and nearly uniformly colored in values too closely related to set up recessional planes, they reject both Cubist and optical illusionism.
Indeed, in terms of space, the illusion created by the black paintings is minimal; they are rather definitively flat, even though that flatness is coupled with a soft atmospheric quality as opposed to a hard surface. The illusionism of the black paintings is involved, ironically, in that they are non-chromatic, with a color experience. Since black represents the absence of chromatic color, however, this experience is utterly removed from the optical vibrations and impact of high-color contrast. In the late square paintings Reinhardt creates a particularly mysterious illusion of a kind of grey haze or impalpable film that veils the image, which becomes increasingly difficult to discern.
In other words, it is literally impossible to see them given our normal state of consciousness and insensitivity to perceptual nuance. To bring their barely distinguishable pattern into focus and discriminate their minutely varying values, it is necessary to shut out the din and roar, the visual and aural shocks and cacophony of our mundane world of sensory overload.
Perhaps one could describe the act of concentration required to focus the black paintings as a kind of spiritual exercise. Although Reinhardt disclaimed any religious sentiment in his work, he was drawn to the hypnotic pattering of Islamic decoration, which induces such states of intense concentration and withdrawal from the external world. Reinhardt said he was attracted to Islamic art precisely because it had no professed religious or symbolic function. Yet we know there is some connection between Islamic mysticism and Islamic art, although it is not the direct iconographical connection familiar in Western art. Rather it resides in the effect that Islamic decoration has upon the viewer of inducing a certain frame of mind, a kind of suspended consciousness that might properly be described as mystical.
Yet more hazardous than speaking of Reinhardt’s humanism is any allusion to mysticism in the work, since very little if anything one might say about such an intensely personal and subject matter is verifiable. Analyzing our response to the black paintings—withdrawal from the world, an almost hypnotic contemplation of a monistic void, a sense of detachment from normal time and space perception, an increased awareness of self—we realize that such responses conform closely to description of both Western and Eastern mystics.
Within the context of Eastern mysticism, the function of the black paintings as objects of disinterested contemplation—demanding not merely a different order of perception by including a qualitatively different state of consciousness from normal consciousness—becomes clearer. They are in a sense icons without iconography; that is, they include a state of detachment—an experience of both oneness and the void that is identifiable with states of consciousness described by various mystics, without, however, being in the service of any specific sect, pantheon, or deity.
In their impersonality, passivity, stasis, and altered sense of time particularly with regard to prolonged duration, the black paintings appear closer to Eastern values than to traditional Western thought. Within this context the issue of the time taken to experience the black paintings is revealed as central to their meaning. It is in direct contrast to recent American art in which instant and immediate impact have been sought after. The black paintings seek the opposite: an attention span much longer than that we are usually accustomed to giving art. In a very real sense they are literally demanding. They cannot be partially experienced; they must be engaged with actually to be seen at all. Perhaps this will become clearer if we examine them more closely.
Since they contain no detail or fragments, the black paintings conform to the canon of single image or central image painting. Their development from the vertical formats of the early ’50s, with their relatively higher value contrasts, to the uniform symmetrical square format to the closer valued works of the ’60s underscores this holistic quality. Given that they contain only a single image, one would expect the image of the black paintings to be as immediately communicated as the images in other recent abstract paintings. Because they are virtually monochrome, however, the black paintings have little immediate impact. All one perceives initially is that they distinguish themselves from their surroundings by being differently colored from the wall.
Undoubtedly, the black paintings, particularly the nearly identical late square ones, constitute a related series of works. In this respect they also touch on a development central to ’60s art, i.e. the preponderance of serial paintings. Once Reinhardt arrived at the trisected square format however, the nature of his involvement with serial painting changed and became something quite different from that of other serial painters. No longer, variation on a single theme like Monet’s poplars or cathedrals, or a set of linked formal problems and solutions like Mondrian’s plus and minus series, the black paintings became a series both unique and paradoxical—a series of nearly identical works difficult if not impossible to distinguish from one another.
This element of irony or paradox is consistent with Reinhardt’s moral stance. In the ’60s many, including myself, viewed the black paintings as the precursors of minimal art. One focused on that which they lacked or eliminated with regard to older art. In the context of the rampant commercialism and vulgarity of the post-media art world, they appeared an ultimate statement of negation. Reinhardt’s own words emphasized the refusal to collaborate with the various forces attempting to reduce art to just another level of sensation. Often he posed as the naysayer in the world of the acquiescent, a Moses who would rather present blank tablets to the populace which would worship the golden calf rather than the Law.
The ethical content of the black paintings is manifest in their recent patent inaccessibility. A moralist who loathed the rhetoric of morality, Reinhardt insisted on an art that was literally fragile and, because it was unreproducible, impossible for the media to absorb. Insisting on integrity of craft as the overt proof of the artist’s integrity, he spent long hours repainting works, brushing out imperfections and effacing brushstrokes. Indeed, the contradiction between the care and difficulty with which they were executed and the apparent simplicity of their statement is another of the paradoxes presented by the black paintings. While an extremely personal vision, their style and technique emphasizes the impersonal; overtly positivistic objects, they yet produce a response that has analogies with mystical experience. The work of a man who presented himself to the world as a hard-headed, unsentimental objectivist, they nonetheless have qualities suggestive of the religious and the romantic.
Reinhardt aspired to nothing less than the total union within a single work (or more properly group of works), of traditional polarities. For example, the black paintings, although they are trisected, their relationship to the hard-edge cannot properly be defined within the limits of geometric abstraction. Geometric paintings of Malevich and Mondrian are complex. As opposed to hard-edge classicism, Reinhardt creates an edge that is not hard or clear because it is barely perceptible. Where rectangle touches rectangle in the black paintings, we get no sharp definition of line as in any classical, linear, or geometric painting, but a subtly blurred demarcation or boundary. The line which separates adjacent areas of shades of black so similar as to be, especially in the later works, virtually indistinguishable, hence does not conform to traditional drawing. Indeed, the linear quality of any geometric style linking it to earlier classical styles is virtually absent in Reinhardt’s paintings of the ’60s.
We may explain Reinhardt’s deviation from geometric abstraction in terms of the lyrical all-over paintings he produced in the ’40s, a period during which he entirely reformulated his style, forcing out the Cubist elements of space and design in favor of a misty atmospheric image. This all-over image was both reminiscent of ancient Chinese painting as well as prophetic of the hazy quality of the late black paintings, in which mist is no longer depicted but results from an actual blurring of vision. It is true that Reinhardt learned a lot from the monotone tradition of classical Chinese painting, as he readily admitted. But he used black neither as the ancient Chinese did, nor as grisaille was used in Western painting. Rather he used blackness as a particular type of color experience which permitted the creation of an edge simultaneously blurred like the soft edges of painterly colorism, yet as regular as the bounded forms of the linear styles. The result is that we cannot speak of Reinhardt’s style as being “linear.” Indeed, we must consider as a vital part of the intention of the black paintings the elimination of such conventional categorical distinctions.
We consider the expressive possibilities of black as well as the range of attached meanings it carries—of which Reinhardt was obviously aware. Although he might have used another dark color to create the same type of visual effect he achieved with black, Reinhardt deliberately confined himself to black. For black represents not only the absence of color—a symbolic void in mystical implications in both the Western and Eastern traditions—it also has certain inescapable allusions to romanticism Reinhardt might have denied. Black is, for example, the color of night, of shadows, of mystery. Thus the rigorous asceticism of a reduced image and format is played against the romantic allusiveness of the blackness itself. Once again polarities are reconciled.
In reconciling the traditional polarities of Western art, the black paintings represent at the same time both the end of a long tradition as well as the possibility for a new direction, an art—not of decorative design or symbolic equivalents, or psychological catharsis—but of perceptual nuance and Eastern withdrawal. It is a direction being taken up by an increasing number of younger artists growing up in a changed world with changed needs, both in art as well as in life. The future of Reinhardt’s paintings is today more significant than the past he wished them to subsume and transform.
Originally published inAd Reinhardt: Black Paintings 1951 – 67 (New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1970.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.
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