Ad Reinhardt (2008)

This is the first study of the American artist Ad Reinhardt to provide an account of all major aspects of his life and work. From the outset, my research on Reinhardt has been motivated by a desire to make sense of everything that seemed to be out of place or left out. Rather than mine the certainties that cluster at the heart of what might be called the orthodox view of Reinhardt, I have chosen to examine the anomalies and marginalia that pepper the artist’s life and work. These are treated alongside Reinhardt’s undeniable achievement as a painter, in an effort to add a beginning and middle to the story of an artist’s life and work that is most often presented to us as a foregone conclusion.

From the review by Alexander Adams, published online in The Art Book, vol. 16, no. 2 (2009):
“It is fitting that Ad Reinhardt’s paintings, employing the finest gradations of near black, are not illustrated in Michael Corris’ new study of this under-regarded painter. These images (bane of printers and designers for decades) occupy the heart of this study, as they must for every study of Reinhardt, but they only truly exist when experienced first hand. As the author notes: ‘The “black” paintings constitute a radical reinvention of the art of painting owing to the sheer novelty of the paintings’ unfolding optical effects’.

What is slightly more regrettable is that none of Reinhardt’s cartoons are included in his unillustrated volume, though his sardonic graphic ‘explanations’ of art are well known and can be tracked down in non-specialist volumes. The author’s thorough research has uncovered much information about Reinhardt’s early years as an activist in the New York art scene of the 1930s and 1940s, often in relation to the artist-run organisation, American Abstract Artists. What this study reveals is how overtly political his activities were: production of anti-fascist montages before the Second World War and pro-USA–USSR-friendship propaganda after it, in addition to working on Communist publications. These connections later caused him trouble in the McCarthyite 1950s and he felt they held back recognition owed to him for his abstract paintings. His first major retrospective in America, which took place in 1966, the year before his death, was certainly later than those of his colleagues.

Something noteworthy is how painstaking trawling of microfiche and old journals has not stilted the author’s firsthand response to the ‘black’ paintings, which are actually very dark, matt grey. His observations of the perceptual effects of the art are enlightening and pertinent, as is the discussion of Reinhardt’s engagement with Christian and Zen Buddhist thought.

It is interesting to compare Reinhardt and Rothko. Reinhardt seemed to relish an aura of asceticism and eschewed the use of assistants – in contrast to Rothko’s acclamation, financial success and use of assistants. Reinhardt described his work as ‘art for art’s sake’ in contrast to Rothko’s aspiration to convey ecstasy and doom. This lack of a ‘moral’ dimension was sometimes deemed nihilism, despite the painter’s description of his paintings as ‘pure, … timeless, spaceless … disinterested painting – an object that is self-conscious … ideal, transcendent’. His project drew admirers from the younger generation of Minimalists and Conceptualists, rather than the old-guard advocates of Abstract Expressionism. He was apparently about to commence working in film at the time of his early death (aged 53).

Though this book has its origins in the author’s PhD thesis (over 50 pages of footnotes and sources are included, as well as a chronology and index), it is extremely readable and could have been a comfortable read over twice the length. Let us hope that when further exhibitions and studies of Reinhardt are undertaken, Michael Corris is invited to contribute. The furtherance of art history depends on scholars such as he being willing to get their hands dusty on our behalf.”



Reaktion Books

University of Chicago Press (North American distributors)

Interview with Joan Waltemath/Brooklyn Rail

Irving Sandler’s response to interview with Joan Waltemath

My reply to Irving Sandler

Review of exhibition of Reinhardt at Pace Gallery, NY

Review by Rachel Chatalbash of Ad Reinhardt

Reply to Chatalbash

Other texts on Ad Reinhardt