Ad Reinhardt, nearing the end of his life, set out on a total revolt of artistic convention. His all-black 'ultimate paintings', created between 1957 and 1967 stood in stark opposition to the modernist artwork that predominated the era.
Reinhardt once proclaimed that, "artists who peddle wiggly lines and colours as representing emotion should be run off the streets." His 'black' paintings (certainly black at a glance) are the ultimate in abstraction, devoid of any form or movement. It is in his quest for artistic purity that he arrived at this conclusion. It was at the end of his life, when these paintings began to surface, that he boasted he had painted the last paintings that were ever needed - there was nowhere to go from there. The 'wiggly lines' of his contemporaries were merely trivialities.
His ascetic approach to art meant that he was as much a philosopher as an artist, in search of meaning that transcended merely the explicable and aesthetic. His powerful brand of minimalism raised many crucial questions - what is art? what can it be?
His monk-like dedication to pondering these questions, the very essence of all of his work, boiled down to one colour. Black. The black was so intense in fact that he'd mix turpentine with the paint and allow it to sit overnight until the paint separated from the liquid components that were used to give it a bit of a sheen. The remaining pigment held a deep black hue, extremely true to its intended colour and with a deep matte finish, leading many to look at his paintings and admire the absorbing texture as well as the content. Their 'suede' like quality lends depth to the audience that allowed the works to be viewed from any angle whilst retaining its rigour. Light wasn't much of a determinant.
Acutely aware of the history of art, the subject that he spent his university years studying, he was also aware of his place in it. His meditations on the purity of art were informed by discussions with a friend, a monk, who was able to give Reinhardt a spiritual depth to his concept. By knowing intimately what had come before, Reinhardt set out to pause the continuum of artistic innovation. His black canvases were something of a full-stop. Like he said, there was nothing else that needed to come after.
The persecution of avant-garde art from Europe, as a result of the Nazi party's strict definition of what constituted art and what didn't (art that didn't was branded 'degenerate') meant that many of these artists flew the nest in a self-imposed exile to the relative safety of New York. The arrival of these artists in the early 40s introduced the city to new styles that would eventually become a 'homegrown' American movement called Abstract Expressionism. Reinhardt was an early adopter.
A lot of these artists fully embodied the kind of styles that Reinhardt grew to clearly dislike. Jackson Pollock's powerful 'splash' art was an almost tribally performed autobiographical account of his troubled mind. Reinhardt fundamentally disagreed with this approach, as well as the outcomes. His idea of purist art formed with the genesis that - "Art is art. Life is life." To compound this phrase, it was his belief that art should reference art, not life and all of its intricacies. It was complicated, if not nearly impossible to abide by. Yet, his insular beliefs of art meant that it was elevated in his mind to an untouchable expression of thought. It was, undoubtedly, a particularly cerebral endeavour that was something that one would not engage with lightly.
No realism, no impressionism, no expressionism, no sculpture, no plasticism, no collage, no architecture, no decoration, no texture, no brushwork, no sketching ideas beforehand, no forms, no design, no colors, no light, no space, no time, no size, no movement, no subject, no symbols, no images and no pleasure.
To attain his transcendent ultimate, the realised version of the seemingly unrealisable, he followed these rules. They spanned from, not only artistic thoughts, but developed into aspects of his personal life. Although he was entirely clear about separating the two, he was also very clear that on one hand to live and on the other to create, one must strive for purity, unsullied by broken hearts and bouts of melodrama. He adhered to his set of maxims and as a result, was on the way to producing his magnum opus.
Reinhardt was a comlpex figure though. Although this all might sound very serious, he was also a great lover of comedy. Whilst his work might be the ultimate reaction to the predominant idea of 'the artist living through the art they create', he might also be developing a parodic style, not necessarily creating an antithesis to their work, rather just having some fun at their expense. The sort of 'hype' that surrounded his contemporaries was anathema to his creative and personal dogma. He was an art historian, all too aware that his paintings would not signal the end of history. Yet he claimed they would, as if he was some kind of fun-loving dictator that could not believe he could have so much fun with a paintbrush.
There are rules to follow and there are rules to break. Ad Reinhardt refused to reconcile which was which. By following some he broke others, yet by breaking those rules he likewise broke the sacred pact that he had created. So was it really valuable at all? Reinhardt tried to create God in his work whilst trying to be God himself. What he actually left behind wasn't the end of art, but a challenge for every artist that would follow on from him to answer those same two questions - what is art? what can it be?
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