Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting 1960-1965 Essay, Research Paper
Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting1960-65
Ad Reinhardt’s painting, Abstract Painting 1960-65, is at first glance’ a black square canvas. The subject matter seems to be just what it is, a black painting. There are no people. No event or action is taken except for the fact that Reinhardt has made the painting. The title only provides us with the information that we are looking at an abstract painting. The only other information that the artist gives you is the time period, in which it was conceived, 1960 to 1965. In the least amount of words possible, we could describe the painting as an abstract color field. It is possible that a narrative is expressed through the piece, although, we can not be certain what it is. There is nothing narrated through conventional means in any way.
The composition of the painting takes place with the square of the canvas. The square is approximately 5′ x 5′. A black frame surrounding the painting protrudes approximately 4″ off the canvas. There is a 1″ inlay between the canvas and frame. From this square, Reinhardt breaks the composition into six equal squares in three even rows. Texture is no where to be found in the painting. No visual indication of the artist’s brush stroke is present. No varnished glare is given off by the piece. The entire work, including the frame, is completely matte. The squares take up the entire canvas in a checkerboard type arrangement. Each square is a slightly different shade of blue-black. It almost becomes impossible to see the difference between each square. The middle squares in the top and bottom rows shift more towards blue than the rest of the squares. The division of these middle squares become more obvious than the others. When the painting is looked at from a distance, it is almost impossible to see any of the squares at all. When looking from a far, all a viewer can see is a blackish blue canvas. As you stare longer into the painting, a halo begins to form around the corners of the canvas, creating a circle inside the square. Once you look away from the canvas, the circle is gone. With this observation in mind, we could say that the painting most definitely relies on the viewer. A viewer is required to look at the piece for its full affect. We could say that the squares in the painting are self-contained. On the other hand, the squares create a visual effect that isn’t even on the canvas. They create an experience and shape that?s completely opposite of the paintings overall form and composition.
Reinhartd’s painting is abstract, expressive and analytical. We can recognize the abstractness as the idea of a black on black square. The expressive quality becomes evident when we realize that Reinhartd’s hand can not be seen. The amount of self-containment and painstaking labor needed to make such a flat painting is immense. This labor can be recognized as Reinhartd’s expressive nature through paint. As we dig deeper, the subject matter lends itself to analyticity. The plane on which we view Ad Reinhardt’s painting is much higher than first perceived. To understand the subject, the viewer most also understand Reinhardt’s philosophy of painting. Reinhardt’s painting goes further than the visual “black square”. Within this black square is the end of all painting and the start of a new.
Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting 1960-65 (history and context)
Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting 1960-65, was created over a span of five years. This painting, as well as many of Reinhardt’s paintings is considered to be the end of painting. The nothingness of painting. In 1959 painters such as Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Joseph Albers and Willem de Kooning were showing exhibiting regularly and thought to be in their prime. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City was showing a Miro retrospective. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum had just opened in New York, offering a new collection a chance for artists to show work. As the 60’s came, so did a new president and a war. John F. Kennedy was to be the new president. A young, energetic, All-American male from Harvard. He gave a new image to the presidency and the country. The Vietnam War was beginning and the government was developing new weapons.
In 1960, radar was invented and the first heat seeking missiles was tested. The Museum of Modern Art had exhibited Jean Tinguely’s, Happening, a self-destroying sculpture. In 1961, the U.S. Airforce sent a chimp into space to orbit the earth. The Civil Defense officials distributed 22 million copies of the pamphlet, family fallout shelter. In 1962-63, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings are shown. Alber’s exhibits his, Homage to the square. Digital marketed the first Mini-computer. John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the earth. 250,000 march for Civil-Rights in Washington, D.C. President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In 1964-65, U.S. planes bomb North Vietnam. China explodes its first A-bomb. The first U.S. combat troops land in Vietnam. 1,3500 U.S. troops were killed in Vietnam and 5,300 were wounded.
In the five years during the creation of this painting, a tremendous amount of serious events took place. New work was being created. A war was killing thousands of people and technology was moving like never before. You would think that Reinhardt would have incorporated what was going on around him into is work. The opposite is true. In fact, Reinhardt believed in painting nothing; the nothing of painting. Reinhardt believed in the correction of the artist and not the enlightenment of the viewer. For Reinhardt, painting was all about the artist; the viewer was secondary if even considered. Reinhardt had said, “An artist who dedicates his life to art, burdens his art with his life and his life with his art.” Reinhardt believed that art was “out of time”, and that there was no real placement for art in periods etc. Reinhardt writes of the 25 lines of words on art: Statement (1955), (a few examples from the text)
1. Art is art, everything else is everything else.
9. Painting as “not as a likeness of anything on earth.”
22. The most common mean to the most uncommon end.
25. The most universal path to the most unique. And vice-versa.
Reinhardt claimed his work was about painting and only painting. It is possible that this was his reaction to all the negative events going on in the world. His concentration on the painting as a painting and the painter was absent of politics and technology. Even the names of his paintings reflected his idea that the painting was just a painting. It seems appropriate that he would choose to paint this way in this time. He chooses to ignore the worlds happening and dig deeper into the meaning of painting itself.
Reinhardt wanted his paintings to not reflect its surroundings: “a pure abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting- an object that is self conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of nothing but art.” Reinhardt would continuously work on a painting, forever restoring it in the same manner he painted. The paintings were returned to his studio and restored to the way they where when they left. Reinhardt’s paintings are “non-entertainment, not for commerce or mass-art publics, non-expressionist, not for oneself.”
Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting 1960-1965: Research
“Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings are often initially greeted with hostility by viewers. The balanced geometric divisions, often in the shape of a cruciform, and the subtle variations in form are at first impossible to discern. These inert black squares have the quality of an Egyptian mirror that forces one’s image back to oneself. The black paintings seem then truly to achieve Reinhardt’s goal to push painting beyond its thinkable, seeable, feelable limits, to a highly physical and psychological
condition (Abstraction: Geometry: Painting).”
That is how Reinhardt’s painting were perceived and how they’re still often seen. Ad Reinhardt’s Paintings, as well as the paintings of Joseph Albers, Brice Marden, John McLaughlin and other “color field/minimalist painters, were often greeted with great hostility and misunderstanding. Especially when they were exhibited for the first time. Hostility seems to be a reasonable reaction to most color field painting due to frustration. The frustration of not being sure what you’re seeing. You could almost feel conned by assumed simplicity of the canvas and paint. The paintings seem to be nothing more than shapes of color. Many viewers of Reinhardt’s paintings, even today, will blurt out a harsh comment in passing through the museum’s contemporary wing. They’re not sure if they should stare at the canvas or the floor, or keep walking.
When Reinhardt was working on these geometric paintings, gestural abstraction was going in full force. Artists like De Kooning, Raushenburg, Pollack and Johns were all working in the abstract expression. The New York School of painting was at its prime. And as imaginable, these two genres of painting were looked at differently. Some favored gestural and others went towards the geometric abstractions. There was definitely some influence on both sides. Within the artists world at that time, there was much controversy. In Abstraction: Geometry: Painting, Reinhardt’s position in the New York scene as a geometric painter is brought to light with a remark by Morton Feldmen, a composer who was involved with the New York painters.
“The scene was not as it appeared, at least in the press. The party line was that these guys were like a fraternity of gorillas with paint-filled squirt guns. It was a lot more considered and not as “expressionist” as it might appear. Barney [Newman] wasn’t flinging any paint for Christ’s sake. He was tight, very considered, essentially geometric. He’d roll over in his grave if he heard me say that. He thought of himself as an expressionist, but I think for strategic reasons. The press was more interested in and could make more hay with the expressionist angle. That?s just politics, right? He was an expressionist, but of a different kind. Reinhardt was different but in a different way
(Abstraction: Geometry: Painting).”
In the researching of Ad Reinhardt’s work, I found that his work could also be looked at in a spiritual context, although Reinhardt would have never admitted that. Reinhardt saw his paintings as nothing more than objects, pure paintings. In the book, The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985, Allen Watts looks at the way a viewer could possibly perceive a black Reinhardt in relation to that of Zen thought and meditation. “What is form that is emptiness, what is emptiness that is form?To study a black painting by Ad Reinhardt involves a process similar to Zen meditation -a deceptively similar affair that consists only in watching everything that is happening, including your own thoughts and your breathing. Granting one’s vision sufficient time to perceive the resonant hues and shapes in a painting by Reinhardt is equivalent to the assumption of a meditative position. Then the painting seems to yield its essence all at once? (The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985).”
It is possible that Reinhardt saw his work in this manner but chooses not to speak of it. I doubt that the “average” viewer would take Zen into consideration when looking at Reinhardt’s work. Although it could be the way in which the work was made. Ad Reinhardt may have felt a deep connection spiritually to his work. Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman as well as many other painters welcomed the spiritual into their paintings. In some cases, especially with Rothko, the spiritual was the driving force behind the painting. In Reinhardt’s case, it seems that the simple geometry and bareness of the painting is all that matters. Reinhardt released his paintings into the world as nothing. He expected no more. The rest is up to the audience to figure out, spiritual or not.
Auping, Michael: Abstraction: Geometry: Painting: Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Harry
N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1989
Daval, Jean-Luc: History of Abstract Painting: Hazan, Paris, 1989
Gordon, Louis and Allan: American Chronicles, Six Decades of American Life,
1920-1980.pp.382-435. Atheneum, New York. 1987.
LACMA: The Spiritual In Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985: Aberville Press Pub., 1986
Stiles/Selz: Theroies and Documents of Contemporary Art, a sourcebok of artists
Writings. Pp.86-91 University of California Press. 1996.