Ad Reinhardt Life and Art Periods

"As an artist I would like to eliminate the symbolic pretty much, for black is interesting not as a color but as a non-color and as the absence of color."

Ad Reinhardt

AD REINHARDT SYNOPSIS

Ad Reinhardt was a prominent American abstract artist, writer, critic, and educator. Although commonly associated with the Abstract Expressionists, his work had its origins in geometric abstraction, and, increasingly seeking to purify his painting of everything he saw as extraneous to art, he rejected the movement's expressionism. Although he was in turn rejected by many of his peers, he was later hailed as a prophet by Minimalists. His Black Paintings, which occupied him from 1954 until his death, are regarded as his crowning achievement, while the many cartoons he created that made fun of the art world brought him fame as a wry commentator.

AD REINHARDT KEY IDEAS

Ad Reinhardt is one of the few major American artists to have explored geometric abstraction and, unlike many of those Cubist- and Bauhaus-influenced artists who did, he firmly opposed attempts to put abstraction in the service of design - be it for the purposes of decoration, industrial design, or advertising.
His most famous series, the Black Paintings (1954-67), are all uniform, five-foot squares and are composed such that a ghostly Greek cross hovers, barely visible, in a mist of barely distinguished black and gray hues. Reinhardt felt they represented the ultimate in abstract painting - paintings that were concerned with art alone and bore no reference to anything outside themselves - not even to the hints of soul and angst in Abstract Expressionist pictures.
Although Reinhardt sought to remove all references to the external world from his pictures, he remained convinced that his art had the potential to affect social change. He also maintained an interest in various types of mysticism - something the viewer might appreciate in the struggle to comprehend the barely delineated forms in his Black Paintings (1954-67).
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AD REINHARDT BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Adolph Frederick Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, New York, to a family of immigrants. The family settled in New York City soon after his birth. He excelled at school and exhibited an interest in the visual arts from an early age; in high school, he worked as an illustrator for the school's newspaper. An inveterate reader, he set his sights on the elite universities of the east coast and turned down several scholarships from art schools, opting instead for undergraduate studies in art history at Columbia University in New York, which he commenced in 1931.

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Early Training

At Columbia, Reinhardt studied under Meyer Schapiro, an iconic American historian of art. His two majors included literature and art history, giving him a solid background in the humanities, while informing him of the latest trends in visual arts and theory. Schapiro, known for his Marxist views, introduced Reinhardt to radical campus politics, which shaped the leftist views that he maintained throughout the rest of his life.

Upon graduation in 1935, Reinhardt began training as an artist, first at the National Academy of Design and later at the American Artists School on 14th Street in New York. At the AAS, he fell under the influence of two progressive painters, Francis Criss and Carl Holty, who were influenced by the European traditions of Cubism and Constructivism.

Mature Period

Between 1936 and 1941, Reinhardt was one of the few abstract artists employed by the WPA/FAP project in its easel division. While engaged on this work he met other leading artists such as Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, whose friendship would continue to be important to him.

During this period, Reinhardt's works were mainly influenced by the geometric abstraction he had learned as a student. At times his work took on aspects of gestural abstraction, yet his handling was restrained in comparison to that of some of his peers. In concert with this, he also worked as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for several New York publications, including PM and ARTnews.

Reinhardt's mature work is characterized by his search for an absolute form of abstraction. He considered Abstract Expressionism to be plagued with suggestive biomorphism, an abundance of emotional innuendos, and a cult of the ego. In contrast, he sought to create an abstract art that contained no suggestions of narrative or emotion and withheld the slightest reference to anything outside the canvas.

In this regard, Reinhardt was deeply influenced by the art and theoretical writings of Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Suprematist. Malevich's Black Square (1915) inspired the artist to begin using solid fields of color arranged in rigid geometric patterns of squares and rectangles. These experiments in the early 1950s resulted in several series of paintings devoted to a single color - the Red Paintings, the Blue Paintings, and, finally, the Black Paintings (1954-67).

Late Years and Death

From 1954 until his death in 1967, Reinhardt devoted himself exclusively to the Black Paintings. The artist believed in the profound symbolic potency of the color black. For him it was the absolute zero, the end of light, a point so irreducible that painting as a genre was pushed to its limit of expression.

An encounter with one of Reinhardt's Black Paintings (1954-67) is inevitably complex and conflicting. The viewer is stunned by the complete absence of either narrative or coloristic interplay, and yet the canvas is overwhelmingly full of color; a closer look reveals that the ostensibly monochrome surface is composed of various shades of black, from light to dark.

Reinhardt developed a sophisticated technique to create the effects he desired. He siphoned off oil from the pigments that he used to produce a very delicate suede-like finish. His matte surfaces thus further absorb light into their refined darkness. This technique is responsible for the serious conservation issues associated with Reinhardt's Black Paintings (1954-67) today. Their surfaces are so fragile and the original technique so complex that the conservation and restoration of each canvas is always an arduous, expensive, and time-consuming task.

Reinhardt died of a massive heart attack on August 30, 1967, at the age of 53, in his New York studio.

AD REINHARDT LEGACY

Ad Reinhardt's oeuvre remains a pivotal cornerstone in the evolution from the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s to the Minimal and Conceptual art movements of the following decade. Often ridiculed by his expressionist peers, Reinhardt came to be seen as a priest and prophet figure by the subsequent generation, for whom he provided a bridge back to Constructivism. While it is debatable whether Reinhardt ever managed to completely purge his art so completely of references to the outside world, this aim was identical with that of Minimalists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris.

Original content written by Ivan Savvine
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AD REINHARDT QUOTES

"Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else."

"The only way to say what abstract is, is to say what it is not."

"Painting cannot be the only activity of a mature artist."

"My painting represents the victory of the forces of darkness and peace over the powers of light and evil."

"As an artist I would like to eliminate the symbolic pretty much, for black is interesting not as a color but as a non-color and as the absence of color."

"I want to emphasize the idea of black as intellectuality and conventionality."

"My paintings are the last paintings one can make."

Ad Reinhardt

Ad Reinhardt Influences

Interactive chart with Ad Reinhardt's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.

Modern Art Information Stuart Davis
Josef Albers
Josef Albers
Josef Albers was a German-born American painter and teacher. Celebrated as a geometric abstractionist and influential instructor at Black Mountain College, Albers directly influenced such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Ray Johnson.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Josef Albers
Francis Criss
Francis Criss
Francis Hyman Criss (1901 - 1973) was an American painter whose style is associated with the American Precisionists. Criss taught at the leftist American Artists School in the 1930s, influencing a whole generation of young artists, some of which, such as Ad Reinhardt, developed Criss' principles of painting into their own unique aesthetic.

Modern Art Information Francis Criss
Meyer Schapiro
Meyer Schapiro
Meyer Schapiro was an important art historian and theorist who wrote on the social and political dimensions of art and its historiography. He made seminal contributions to the fields of Romanesque and medieval art as well as to theories of modernism, abstraction, and Abstract Expressionism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Meyer Schapiro
Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton (31 January 1915 - 10 December 1968) was a twentieth century American Catholic writer. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist and student of comparative religion.

Modern Art Information Thomas Merton
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Suprematism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Purism
Purism
Purism, an offshoot of Cubism, was a style advocated by architect Le Corbusier and artist Amadee Ozenfant. Frequently abstract, Purist works contain smooth geometric forms, even paint application, and machine-like shapes.

Modern Art Information Purism
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Barnett Newman
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
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Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Thomas B. Hess
Thomas B. Hess
Thomas B. Hess was an art critic and historian, and a proponent of Abstract Expressionism. He served as editor of the influential magazine ART News.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Thomas B. Hess
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Monochrome Painting
Monochrome Painting
Monochrome painting is an influential modernist genre that aims at the exploration of one singular color and its various hues within a single pictorial surface. It has proven to be a durable idiom of contemporary art from the middle of the twentieth century onwards.

Modern Art Information Monochrome Painting
Hard-edge Painting
Hard-edge Painting
Hard-edge painting, emerging in the 1950s and '60s, departed from the gesture and scrawl of Abstract Expressionism to favor blocks of color with well-defined edges.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hard-edge Painting
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric abstraction refers to nonobjective art that is based on reductive and geometric principles. At its purest, it seeks to strip art down to its most fundamental shapes and lines. Artists in many different movements and time periods have worked in this mode.

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Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Bauhaus
Carl Holty
Carl Holty
Carl Robert Holty (1900-1973) was an abstract painter who was born in Freiburg, Germany and came to the United States as an infant. He is known for brightly colored paintings in both the geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism genres.

Modern Art Information Carl Holty
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Robert Morris
Robert Morris
Robert Morris is an American artist whose early L-beam and column sculptures were key works in Minimalism. His work also includes felt and fabric pieces, performance, body art, and earthworks, often with an emphasis on process and theatricality.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Morris
Study for a Painting
Study for a Painting

Title: Study for a Painting (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This early composition by Ad Reinhardt exhibits the artist's profound interest and understanding of the Cubist art of Pablo Picasso and George Braque. The palette is typical of the style and is comprised of four colors essential for a Cubist painting: black, white, brown, and gray. The abstract shapes are dynamically arranged on the flat surface where the biomorphic curves intermingle with hard edges and straight lines. This small gouache presents Reinhardt as a talented young artist with a gift for absorption of the most relevant styles of painting of the time.


Gouache on paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Painted in the same year as the Cubist gouache, this canvas presents quite a stark contrast with Reinhardt's earlier artistic pursuits. Here he is obviously quoting Stuart Davis, the American artist who was a key influence on young Reinhardt. The booming palette employed by the artist has turned this arrangement of rectangular shapes into a feast of color - hot pink, orange, yellow, and red comprise a luminous symphony that inevitably engages the viewer. Later in his life Reinhardt abandoned such bright pigments. This example yet again testifies to the amazing versatility possessed by the young artist in terms of adopting and adapting various styles of modernist painting.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Abstract Painting, Red
Abstract Painting, Red

Title: Abstract Painting, Red (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is one of the paintings belonging to the Red Series. Here the artist immersed himself completely into the exploration of the color red, one of the most expressive among the primary colors. This composition is abstraction par excellence; the squares are arrayed into a rigid pattern with the variations of red hues defining its strict geometry. The artist himself maintained throughout his life that these paintings were completely free of narrative. One cannot help but wonder, however, whether a list of references could be decoded in this canvas due to its expressive palette, impressive size (9'x3.5'), and the almost totemic outline of the squares.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Abstract Painting, Blue
Abstract Painting, Blue

Title: Abstract Painting, Blue (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Blue Series followed the Red Series of paintings and this is one of its most successful examples. The rectangular shapes of various shades of blue and green are suspended within a resplendent azure surface. They are solid blocks of color and yet they seem quite mesmerizingly weightless. It feels as if the artist attempted an abstract revision of the famed Water Lilies series (1899-1926) by Claude Monet, creating a harmonious, modernist peace. The velvety surface, construed by the application of numerous layers of oil pigments, further softens the stern geometry of the floating blocks.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Abstract Painting
The Abstract Painting

Title: The Abstract Painting (1960-1966)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The artist devoted his late years almost exclusively to the creation of the Black Paintings (1953-67), the canvases of bewildering power that brought him the most fame. For Reinhardt, the color black in itself was an absolute point of abstraction. The purity of blackness consumes every other shape or color. The primary inspiration for the Black Paintings was the work of the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, particularly his famed Black Square of 1914. None of the Reinhardt's Black Paintings (1953-67) were ever completely black, but, rather, consisted of a careful arrangement of tonalities that were meticulously applied in multiple layers. In this particular example, the blackness of the canvas is dissected by two rectangular shapes, which form a cross. The superimposed silhouettes carry the shades of gray and indigo blue. Reinhardt believed that his Black Paintings (1953-67) were the absolute zero of art. He developed this concept further in his theoretical writings, connecting it to such complex philosophies as Negation Theology, Neo-Platonism, and Zen Buddhism.


Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

How to Look at Modern Art in America
How to Look at Modern Art in America

Title: How to Look at Modern Art in America (1946; re-printed in 1961)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In this famous cartoon of 1946 Ad Reinhardt tried to encapsulate the essence of the artistic modernism with its history and inherent conflicts within the American context. The tree of modern art has its roots deep in history - the Greeks are here, and so are Persian miniatures and Japanese prints. The roots represent the four pillars of Post-Impressionism: Vincent Van Gogh, George Seurat, Paul Cezanne, and Paul Gauguin. The tree is burdened by the weights of "subject matter" and "business as art patron," and a cartoon within the cartoon mocks the perpetual debate of representation versus abstraction. By juxtaposing business and art, Reinhardt aptly comments on the situation of the avant-garde in the United States, where the public and, more importantly, the patrons were rather biased against the abstract art, often calling it "degenerate" and "subversive."


N/A - Originally printed in P.M. in 1946; Re-printed in ARTnews in 1961

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.