Born and raised in New York, Reinhardt vehemently believed that a liberal arts education was “absolutely necessary for an artist.” Naturally, his studies of art history and philosophy at Columbia University greatly shaped his outlook not only as an artist but also as an intellectual. According to Yve-Alain Bois, Reinhardt would recall in his paintings Negation Theory, which was used to comprehend the Divine by indicating everything it was not. His deep friendship with the poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton influenced his perspective to reject any external factors by thoroughly fusing Eastern and Western traditions. The intellectual challenge of both Zen Buddhism and Marxism lies in their cyclical implication that “the end is the beginning,” a favorite concept of Reinhardt’s. Claude Levi-Strauss poignantly commented that Buddhism “bears witness, rather, to our natural gifts, raising us to the point at which we discover truth in the guise of the mutual exclusiveness of being and knowing.” This intention by his painting had a larger philosophical assertion of the role of art in history; it was a rebellion against nineteenth century materialism and the increasing commercial influences of the market, and therefore a concept that united art in all periods. His inclination towards pure abstract art was characterized by his first rule in Twelve Rules for a New Academy (1953): “The absolute standard of fine art, and painting, which is the highest and freest art, is the purity of it. The more uses, relations, and ‘additions’ a painting has, the less pure it is.”
Similar to Rothko, whom Reinhardt was friends with and admired on an intellectual level, Reinhardt saw that pushing the boundaries of color, abstraction, and reduction were the only ways that an artist could create an image that liberates the viewer from the conventional associations of color and form in order to evoke new emotional responses to them. Both artists were represented by Betty Parsons and together led color-field painting in a new distinctive direction within Abstract Expressionism. Rather than experimenting with Surrealist-Expressionism as many of his contemporaries did at the time, Reinhardt chose to focus on a more simplistic composition. The color-brick paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s are largely influenced by the Cubist orientation of the 1930s. In No. 12 which he executed in 1950, Reinhardt clearly favors reductionism by leaving colored rectangles lined up across a surface with angular overlapping lines. The juxtaposition of the brightly-hued orange and darker somber gray tones is reminiscent of his later more mature work of single-colored paintings. What might first appear to be monochromatic rectangles slowly take on form as the viewer contemplates the painting, with planes of light delineated by slight shifts in hue or tonality. Reinhardt’s use of a contrasting palette is further emphasized through the visible variety in light, in which chiaroscuro continues to add dimension. The present work is a beautiful example of how light emanates from motionless rectangles and balances the composition. In spite of their radical simplicity, Reinhardt’s paintings in these forms are highly evocative and create a startling sense of space and light on the canvas. His sophisticated ability to produce the variations and intervals between the bricks is where Reinhardt’s true ingenuity is expressed.
Given his deep commitment to pure abstraction, Reinhardt epitomized this reductionist visual vocabulary focused on color and depth in No. 12. The astounding variety and beauty he created with it defined his work for the rest of his life. By focusing on color, Reinhardt brilliantly introduced a new style of abstraction that would link modern art to ancient mythic and transcendent art forms that reach out to the infinite. Not only does it depict his contributions to the Minimalist art movement by simplifying the complexities of art, but it also shows how his work continues to evoke emotionally rich and spiritual responses to create an inimitable experience for the viewer.
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