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Ad Reinhardt. Abstract Painting. 1963

At the Edge of Visibility

While it appears entirely black at first, Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is composed of an almost imperceptible grid of nine squares distinguished by subtle variations in color. Close examination reveals a red hue in the squares at its four corners, blue at the top and bottom of its vertical axis, and hints of green across its horizontal center...

“Artists who peddle wiggly lines and colors as representing emotion should be run off the streets.”

While it appears entirely black at first, Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is composed of an almost imperceptible grid of nine squares distinguished by subtle variations in color. Close examination reveals a red hue in the squares at its four corners, blue at the top and bottom of its vertical axis, and hints of green across its horizontal center. These nuances, however, reveal themselves only after an extended period of careful looking, and the sustained encounter they demand, in Reinhardt’s view, marks the distance between aesthetic experience and everyday life.

Less Is More

Reinhardt’s paintings are a stark contrast to the dramatic gesturalism characteristic of many Abstract Expressionist paintings. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Willem de Kooning or Robert Motherwell, Reinhardt worked with a limited palette, applied matte pigments in smooth, even strokes, and reduced the composition to an easily repeatable grid.

Reinhardt’s paintings are a stark contrast to the dramatic gesturalism characteristic of many Abstract Expressionist paintings. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Willem de Kooning or Robert Motherwell, Reinhardt worked with a limited palette, applied matte pigments in smooth, even strokes, and reduced the composition to an easily repeatable grid. “Artists who peddle wiggly lines and colors as representing emotion,” he wrote, “should be run off the streets.”

During the last seven years of his life, Reinhardt repeated the reductive schema of Abstract Painting with an unwavering consistency and almost religious conviction. All of his works from this period are similarly dark and gridded, and they all measure five feet by five feet. The only variable in this arrangement is the distribution and saturation of colors.

"Art is Free"

With Abstract Painting, Reinhardt took the tendency in modern art toward abstraction and simplification to the extreme. His writings reveal the artist’s commitment to an aesthetic purism that refused any references to the outside world...

With Abstract Painting, Reinhardt took the tendency in modern art toward abstraction and simplification to the extreme. His writings reveal the artist’s commitment to an aesthetic purism that refused any references to the outside world. For Reinhardt, artistic freedom demanded the absolute separation of art from life. “Art is art,” he famously declared, “and everything else is everything else.” This elimination of both subject matter and subjectivity, he argued, liberated art from the practical demands of both politics and society. “Art is free,” he proclaimed, “but it is not a free-for-all.”

Reinhardt in the 1960s

While many of Reinhardt’s contemporaries ridiculed his purism and regarded his black paintings as an attack on “the very idea of art itself,” he gradually gained a receptive audience among younger artists...

While many of Reinhardt’s contemporaries ridiculed his purism and regarded his black paintings as an attack on “the very idea of art itself,” he gradually gained a receptive audience among younger artists. Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella adopted similar strategies of formal reduction. To many in this younger generation, Reinhardt’s writings and paintings supported their own efforts to blur the distinction between art and life by reducing painting to a blank canvas. Reinhardt always rejected this association, however, stating, “The one thing to say about art and life,” he proclaimed, “is that art is art and life is life.”

Allover Painting

Allover painting refers to a canvas covered in paint from edge to edge and from corner to corner, in which each area of the composition is given equal attention and significance...

Allover painting refers to a canvas covered in paint from edge to edge and from corner to corner, in which each area of the composition is given equal attention and significance. This is a radically different approach from modes of painting that offer specific focal points, such as the sitter's face in the case of a portrait. With an allover composition, our eyes are invited to wander the canvas from the top to the bottom, following lines, shapes, and colors.

New York School

The Abstract Expressionists are sometimes called New York School artists. There wasn't any actual "New York School" where artists took classes; rather, the term is shorthand for a loose association of avant-garde artists...

The Abstract Expressionists are sometimes called New York School artists. There wasn't any actual "New York School" where artists took classes; rather, the term is shorthand for a loose association of avant-garde artists who lived in New York in the mid-twentieth century, and who made art in the Abstract Expressionist style. The New York School artists established a meeting place in New York's Greenwich Village, The Club, which became a hub of Abstract Expressionist debates and activities from 1949 to around 1960.

In addition to describing visual artists, the term "New York School" has also been applied to a group of poets that included Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, and a group of composers that included John Cage and Morton Feldman. Less directly, it can refer to many dancers, choreographers, prose writers, and jazz musicians. Many of the key figures in each of these circles formed close personal and aesthetic relationships, collaborating and sharing creative influences across different mediums.

Paint

Paint is most often a combination of pigment, binder, and solvent. Pigment is the colored portion of the paint. It is often a finely ground material that is either found in nature or artificially produced...

Paint is most often a combination of pigment, binder, and solvent. Pigment is the colored portion of the paint. It is often a finely ground material that is either found in nature or artificially produced. Binder holds the individual grains of pigment together. In oil paint, the most common binder is linseed oil, which typically dries to the touch in about one week. The binder in most acrylic paint is an acrylic resin; the binder in watercolor paint is a natural resin called gum arabic. Solvent is a liquid that thins the paint. The most common solvent in oil painting is turpentine. Water is the solvent for acrylic emulsion and watercolor paints.

Palette Knife

A palette knife is a type of spatula typically used to mix paint on the palette...

A palette knife is a type of spatula typically used to mix paint on the palette. It can also be used to apply paint directly on the canvas and to remove it from the canvas.

Scale

By the end of the 1940s, most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were working on canvases that were taller and/or wider than a human being, that is, on a large scale...

By the end of the 1940s, most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were working on canvases that were taller and/or wider than a human being, that is, on a large scale. Large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings envelop the viewer and saturate his or her field of vision. Besides radically changing the relationship between viewer and painting, large-scale Abstract Expressionist canvases served as literal announcements of the grandeur of their makers' ambitions.

Murals had been created for centuries, but such historically grand-scale works were designed to tell a story, using recognizable figures. Rather than telling a particular narrative, the large-scale canvases of Abstract Expressionism often vibrate with creative energy and trigger feelings, emotions, or sensations in those viewing them.

The Irascibles

The Irascibles is the label given to a group of Abstract Expressionist artists who wrote an open letter to the president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art...

The Irascibles is the label given to a group of Abstract Expressionist artists who wrote an open letter to the president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, protesting the museum's exhibition American Painting Today 1950. The exhibition included no examples of Abstract Expressionist painting, and the group believed that the show's curators promoted only the most conservative kind of American painting and were "hostile to advanced art." In 1951, fourteen of the artists were assembled for a now iconic photograph, published by Life magazine in an article called "Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show."

Tint, Shade and Tone

In painting, a tint is a color plus white, a shade is a color plus black...

In painting, a tint is a color plus white, a shade is a color plus black, and a tone is a color plus gray.

Turpentine Burn

A turpentine burn is made by soaking a rag in solvent and scrubbing the canvas directly...

A turpentine burn is made by soaking a rag in solvent and scrubbing the canvas directly. This technique removes paint and leaves a stain on the canvas.

Add to My Collection

Ad Reinhardt (American, 1913–1967)

Abstract Painting

Date:
1963
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
60 x 60" (152.4 x 152.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Morton J. Hornick
MoMA Number:
143.1977
Copyright:
© 2014 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 243

To the hasty viewer, Abstract Painting must present a flat blackness. But the work holds more than one shade of black, and longer viewing reveals an abstract geometrical image. Reinhardt has divided the canvas into a three-by-three grid of squares. The black in each corner square has a reddish tone; the shape between them—a cross, filling the center square of the canvas and the square in the middle of each side—is a bluish black in its vertical bar and a greenish black in its horizontal one.

Works like this were strongly influential for the Minimalist and Conceptual artists of the 1960s, who admired their reductive and systematic rigor. But the poetry of their finely handled surfaces, and their deeply contemplative character, tie them to the Abstract Expressionist generation of which Reinhardt was a member, if a dissident one. Insisting on the separation of art from life, Reinhardt tried to erase from his work any content other than art itself. In the late black canvases that include Abstract Painting (he called them his "ultimate" paintings) he was trying to produce what he described as "a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art."

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