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The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters

Abstract Painting

Ad Reinhardt
(American, 1913–1967)

1963. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60" (152.4 x 152.4 cm)

At first glance, Abstract Painting may appear to be a monochromatic black canvas, but a careful look reveals that this painting is a three-by-three grid with squares in varying shades of black. Ad Reinhardt once said, “There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.”1 To create the work, Reinhardt mixed black oil paint with small amounts of red, green, or blue and allowed the paint to sit for several weeks in order to separate the pigment from the solvent. He would then pour out the solvent and use the remaining concentrated paint to apply a completely smooth, matte surface that left no trace of the artist’s brush. Reinhardt explained that he hoped to achieve “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.”2

Reinhardt shared with his contemporaries an interest in experimenting with the process and materials of painting as well as a concern for the viewer’s perception of the painting. However, his simple geometric compositions stand in stark contrast to the more expressive form works of action painters, and in fact many Abstract Expressionists ridiculed his later paintings. Still, Reinhardt would prove to be a great influence on the Minimalism of younger artists, including Donald Judd and Frank Stella.

Ad Reinhardt, “Black as Symbol and Concept,” in Barbara Rose, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York: University of California Press, 1953), 86.
Ad Reinhardt, “The Black-Square Paintings,” in Barbara Rose, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York: University of California Press, 1953), 83.

A paint in which pigment is suspended in oil, which dries on exposure to air.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

Having a single color. A work of art rendered in only one color.

An artistic movement of the 1960s in which artists produced pared-down three-dimensional objects devoid of representational content. Their new vocabulary of simplified, geometric forms made from humble industrial materials challenged traditional notions of craftsmanship, the illusion of spatial depth in painting, and the idea that a work of art must be one of a kind.

A term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. In many of these paintings the movement that went into their making remains visible.


VIDEO: The Painting Techniques of Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting

VIDEO: From the Curator: Ad Reinhardt