“Art is art. Everything else is everything else.”
Ad Reinhardt was one of the most relentless defenders of the purity of abstraction. “The one object of fifty years of abstract art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else…making it…more absolute and more exclusive—non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective,” he argued in 1962. For Reinhardt, this manifested as an evolving effort to strip his paintings of everything external to the fundamental fact of paint on canvas. His unyielding stance and the work it generated situate him as an oppositional, often antagonistic, member of the New York School.
Born and raised in New York, Reinhardt studied art history and philosophy at university in the 1930s, and began painting around 1936. His aesthetic and conceptual foundations include Cubism, Constructivism, and the austere compositions of de Stijl co-founder Piet Mondrian. While many of his peers experimented with figurative work influenced by Surrealism, Reinhardt, by contrast, worked in an abstract mode from the very beginning of his career. In the late 1940s, he became deeply interested in Chinese and Japanese painting, Islamic art, and, importantly, East Asian philosophy.
Except for his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Reinhardt earned much of his living as a teacher. He read, wrote, and traveled extensively. Possessor of a mordant wit—which he turned on himself and his fellow artists—and great draftsmanship skills, he also produced cartoons satirizing the art world or expressing his socialist political views.
Reinhardt felt that art should be divorced from everyday life and viewed art making as a pure, disinterested, and ethical pursuit. His early painting and collage features bold, geometric shapes and patterns that he pared down into allover compositions of staccato marks in an increasingly limited range of colors. These eventually led to monochromatic blue and red paintings ordered by strict geometric arrangements and, finally, to his Black Paintings. These paintings appear to be unmodulated fields of black, but are in fact subtle compositions incorporating intensely dark shades of red, blue, and green. Reinhardt continued refining his Black Paintings until his untimely death in 1967, considering them the resolution to his quest for “the strictest formula for the freest artistic freedom.” His focused body of work and his emphasis on restrained and repeating compositions make him a progenitor of Minimalism and Conceptual art.
Karen Kedmey, independent art historian and writer, 2017
Note: opening quote is from Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 51.