The philosophy and methodology with which Ad Reinhardt approached both his treatises on art making and his own artistic production culminated in his masterful paintings of the 1950s including Abstract Painting from 1957. Throughout his prolific and contemplative career, Reinhardt insisted that a painting be first understood for what it was—a work of art—with any idea, influence, or theme put sharply second. Although Reinhardt is legendary for his deeply conceptual—almost spiritual—obsession with abstraction, this clear schism between the idea of art existing for art’s sake and the meaning behind his work is in fact the very root of the philosophy that he nurtured and solidified over the span of his entire career. Comprised of three horizontal and one vertical overlapping bars of varying hues of the color black, Reinhardt skillfully explores the range of this single color, allowing the different blocks to interact with one another directly on the surface of the painting. Yves-Alain Bois explained this visual experience saying, “and you see first, let’s say, a vertical bar, which is made of three and three, with something interrupting in the middle. You see six squares…and then it disappears after one second and you see instead a horizontal band in the center, made of three squares, and then it disappears and you see something at the four corners. It’s extraordinary, when you spend some time looking, to see how fleeting glimpses of surfaces submerge again. In the end you don’t know what you are seeing; it’s quite mesmerizing” (Yves-Alain Bois quoted in MoMA, No 8, “Making a Difference: Yves-Alain Bois on Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Black’ Paintings,” 1991, p. 4). What is so unique about Reinhardt’s handling of paint is his ability to darken the value of adjacent squares of different colors to the threshold of sameness, without quite crossing it to make the faint presence of the boundary between them hum.
At the time Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting was painted in 1957, the New York art world was still reeling from the breakthrough of the Abstract Expressionist movement by artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Together these artists were influenced by the same movement away from figuration towards a method that was about the materials of paint and canvas, action, and above all, color. Reinhardt’s most notable trope throughout his work is this search for equilibrium of value in color. In time, Reinhardt focused his attention on capturing the various tones of a single color, allowing him to become closer and closer to his sought after equanimity. Following the first full review of his work at the Betty Parsons Gallery, critic Thomas Hess explained the effect, stating “the hues, too, are distributed evenly…contrasting colors are often adjusted to equivalences…which make your eyes rock…But despite their variety, flatness is positively asserted in all the pictures: there is no overlapping, no play with illusion of dimension. Reinhardt’s work might be called mural, except that this word suggests a too palpable materiality. Similes for the surface energy released could be the scream of a bat (which our ears cannot hear) or the sound the snow makes falling on snow. Yet the energy is here, and is apprehended easily” (Thomas Hess, quoted in Lucy Lippard, Ad Reinhardt, New York 1981, p. 93).
The present work was first acquired by Theodor Ahrenberg from Iris Clert’s revolutionary group exhibition in 1961 titled 41 Portraits of Iris Clert in celebration of the gallerist’s new exhibition space. Galerie Iris Clert at 3 rue de Beaux-Arts in Paris was one of the most significant stages for European avant-garde art in the post-war decades including Yves Klein’s exhibition Le Vide and Arman’s Le Plein. Robert Rauschenberg was traveling in Sweden for the installation of another exhibition at the same time and forgot to submit a portrait as promised so delivered a telegram stating "THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO." The famed telegram was a purely conceptual contribution that destabilized all conventions of traditional portraiture, proclaiming identity as a subjective condition following Neo-Dada spirit of the time. Clert first encountered Reinhardt’s work during a visit to New York City and later described her experience of seeing the artist’s iconic Black paintings at the Museum of Modern Art: “At first, the painting seems to me black, monochrome, but after a few minutes of concentration, I see emerge a cross of black more intense. It is painted upright and yet it gives the impression of a deep space. Although monochrome, it is the antithesis of Yves Klein’s painting. This one suggests the space outside the man, that suggests its interior space” (Iris Clert quoted in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 145, No. 1207, “An American in Paris: Ad Reinhardt’s Letters (1960-66) to His Dealer Iris Clert,” October 2003, p. 717). In June 1960, Iris Clert held the first solo exhibition of Reinhardt’s red, blue and black works in her Paris gallery and went on to hold ten solo exhibitions for the artist between 1946 and 1960. Reinhardt’s decision to offer his first show in Paris was partly prompted by his disappointment with the American art establishment for not extending him the recognition he felt he deserved. Reinhardt even went as far to tell Clert that she could say, “I’ve shown everywhere. You can say you even discovered me even though I may be known” (ibid., p. 718). It is greatly to Iris Clert’s credit that she presented Reinhardt’s work to the French public for the first time in 1960 and was persistent enough to carve a place for Reinhardt’s black paintings on the international stage following initially skeptical reviews.
Reinhardt’s Black paintings remain among the most austere and compelling statements of faith in the sufficiency of "art-as-art," to invoke the incantatory phase, and the artist’s uncompromising statements continue to challenge those who insist on making art "relevant" or interpreting it according to non-artistic criteria. In Reinhardt’s essay “Art-as-Art from 1962," he wrote, “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. The one assault on fine art is the ceaseless attempt to subserve it as a means to some other end or value” (Ad Reinhardt quoted in MoMA, No. 8, “Making a Difference: Yves-Alain Bois on Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Black’ Paintings,” 1991, p. 4). Abstract Painting captures Reinhardt’s smooth fluid motions of the brush, equanimity of color, and the pure existence of materials on canvas as the purest understanding of art for art’s sake.
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