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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. But his simple geometric compositions stand in stark contrast to the more expressive works of the action painters, and in fact many Abstract Expressionists ridiculed his later paintings. The artists associated with Minimalism, however, found resonance in Reinhardt’s works, and he would prove to be a great influence on them.

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).

A substance capable of dissolving another material. In painting, the solvent is a liquid that thins the paint.

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

In painting, a color plus black.

A substance, usually finely powdered, that produces the color of any medium. When mixed with oil, water, or another fluid, it becomes paint.

A work of art rendered in only one color.

A primarily American artistic movement of the 1960s, characterized by simple geometric forms devoid of representational content. Relying on industrial technologies and rational processes, Minimalist artists challenged traditional notions of craftsmanship, using commercial materials such as fiberglass and aluminum, and often employing mathematical systems to determine the composition of their works.

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

The dominant artistic movement in the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the first to place New York City at the forefront of international modern art. The associated artists developed greatly varying stylistic approaches, but shared a commitment to an abstract art that powerfully expresses personal convictions and profound human values. They championed bold, gestural abstraction in all mediums, particularly large painted canvases.

A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

Art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted using bold gestures that engaged more of the body than traditional easel painting. Often the viewer can see broad brushstrokes, drips, splashes, or other evidence of the physical action that took place upon the canvas.

Multimedia

VIDEO: The Painting Techniques of Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting

VIDEO: From the Curator: Ad Reinhardt