The Ad Reinhardt You Never Knew

Ad Reinhardt. Walt Nettie Walt Nettie Walt Nettie Merry Xmas Happy New Year 55! Best Wishes. Postcard, 1954. Courtesy Anna Reinhardt.

At the MoMA Library we recently unearthed an intriguing box of ephemera by artist Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). The material was gifted to the Library by Walter and Nettie Wittman, who were friends of the artist. The letters, photographs, tear sheets, and some original commercial illustrations form a vignette of the artist’s professional and personal life, glimpsed from the perspective of Mr. Wittman, a lawyer residing in New Jersey.

Reinhardt and Walter Wittman met as students at Columbia University. We get a taste of their initial friendship with a 1931 notebook page documenting Reinhardt’s translation efforts in freshman German class (“In paradise what have I to do win?”)

The pair corresponded during at least one summer break. Reinhardt’s subject ranged from philosophical reflections to dating prospects. Regarding the former, in one undated note Reinhardt declares, “I haven’t been perverted to a mere materialist—I changed from an emotional, artistic romanticist to an intellectual, objective idealist, an Emersonian idealist….” According to Reinhardt this philosophy “is in a book, my book, an anthology of famous quotations and very subtle sayings—the title is ‘Dreamdust’—the dust of the dreamers, the stars that shine, illuminate the dark past.”

After graduation we find the artist starting a career—and a family. For example, the artist and his son Jed are featured in a newspaper photo essay titled Life with Junior. “Prepared in consultation with nursery school experts,” the article advises, “If a child balks at bedtime, try some of these ideas,” such as bedtime stories, duly illustrated by photographer Mary Morris.

In the 1940s, Reinhardt created a series of drawings on the theme of How to Look. Describing a tear sheet of How To Look at Picasso’s Guernica mural, Wittman accurately describes how the artist “marinated his profound knowledge of art history in the searing sauce of satire.”

In 1947 Reinhardt joined the faculty of Brooklyn College. By the late 1950s, anticipating the summer break, he describes “trying to be casual about a round-the-world…trip,” in which “I find myself getting increasingly out of control and even a bit excited.”

By the late 1950s the correspondence finds Ad and his wife Rita beginning to plan for the future, asking Wittman for help to “make a will or whatever one does (the pact I made with the devil, once, does not involve you, does it?)”

The last item in the box announces a show of Reinhardt’s landmark black paintings at the Galerie Iris Clert in 1963. Reinhardt sent the announcement to Wittman from Paris, where the artist presumably attended the opening. On the envelope, Reinhardt has arranged the stamps playfully, showing that despite the apparent sobriety of the black paintings, he maintained the lightheartedness of his earliest encounters with Wittman.

At this point the correspondence ends. Though elliptical, this small trove of material retains a sense of Reinhardt as a student, traveler, artist, husband, parent—and especially as a friend.

Please feel free to search for more Ad Reinhardt materials in Arcade,  a powerful new online catalog that unites the collections of the Frick Art Reference Library and the libraries of the Brooklyn Museum and The Museum of Modern Art, three of the founding members of NYARC (New York Art Resources Consortium) which contains more than 800,000 records and  provides access to research collections spanning the spectrum of art history, from ancient Egypt to contemporary art. These resources, many uniquely held, include exhibition and art collection catalogs, monographs and periodicals, rare books, photograph collections, artists’ books, files on artists, auction catalogs, archives (textual and visual), digital resources and specialized databases. Arcade was launched in January 2009.