The art of Ad Reinhardt is balanced precariously between the imperatives of geometry and the ravishments of color. It is predicted upon a highly sophisticated reading of 20th-century cultural realities, as exquisitely poised and tremulously disciplined at that of any great acrobat.
Serene, enigmatic, reticent, and so simple it risks comparisons with student color exercises and canvases painted a solid black, it aspires to an absolutism without illusions, subjects, or associations. It exists solely within the experience of the painting itself.
But art is a hard taskmaster. To aim at the absolute is to risk ending up with nothing. Regardless of his intentions, did Reinhardt succeed or fail?
To help us make up our minds, the Guggenheim Museum here has assembled 34 of his major paintings executed between 1950 and 1967 in an exhibition entitled "Ad Reinhardt and Color." The first museum showing of his work in 13 years, it is not only a major contribution to any study of Reinhardt's art, but also helps pinpoint the art of the late '60s and early '70s.
One of the traditional tenets of art has been that a painting should be aboutm something, that its existence asm art could only be verified in relation to the object from which it derived. Thus a portrait was a painting about a particular man or woman before it was an arrangement of shapes and colors, a landscape was first of all about trees, hills, and sky, and an altarpiece was primarily about religious devotion. Even the creations of such free spirits as Picasso, Matisse , and Miro derived originally from observed reality. Abstract as Miro may appear, his forms are derived from the world around him and are not invented by themselves.
But for over 70 years there has been a continuing attempt to create an art totally divorced from nature, an art existing entirely as an end in itself, as art about art. This mini-tradition has taken two basic paths: geometric and gestural, with Mondrian the best-known exponent of the former, and Jackson Pollock of the latter.
This philosophy of art as a self- contained entity has come to dominate a goodly portion of the nonpresentational art of today. But while it has produced some remarkable paintings, it has also confused may people who are only comfortable with an art drawn from and measurable against something else. Deprived of any reference within which to establish the artistic legitimacy of the right angles and primary colors of Mondrian, or the labyrinthian dribbles of Pollock, such a viewer can only throw up his hands and declare that such a work is not art.
And Reinhardt didn't make things any easier for them. While Mondrian still wanted his art to reflect universal laws and a social order. Reinhardt went one step further and declared his art to be unequivocal and absolute, to be "beyond Mondrian" and "the last paintings anyone can paint."
In his late black paintings he appears to have succeeded in doig just that: There is an air of finality about them. But, as one views them more carefully, that feeling gradually changes to one of surprise and subtle enchantment. A dimly sensed trisection appears, followed by an awareness of the presence of delicate hints of blues, reds, and browns. It is all so fragile and fugitive that one cannot be absolutely certain of what has seen or, to be more precise, sensed. If one pulls back for a moment or blinks, the painting once again appears solid black. Repeated looking results in identical responses, indicating that the artist knew exactly what he was doing and that what he was after had little to do with black or its somber implications.
Art is always paradoxial and that is especially true of the art of Ad Reinhardt. In these late, final, and supposedly concrete classical works, a gentle but growing Romanticism makes itself felt. For all his talk about painting the world's last paintings, he may actually have been pointing to new beginnings.
After experiencing these late "black" works, I returned to the earlier, more colorful paintings and was struck once again by the beautiful logic of his development. Like Mondrian, his evolution consisted of the reduction of form and the gradual elimination of sensuous color. But unlike the Dutch master who then based his symbolic reconstruction upon white canvas, Reinhardt pushed through to black, the ultimate symbolic reality in the light of day. Reinhardt accepted the challenge of the blackest night. Mondrian speaks positively and dogmatically; Reinhardt catches and shares with us only the most fugitive glimmer of something beyond the horizon.
That "something" was picked up and carried forward by a younger generation of painters. Reinhardt served as the prism through which the much of the best art of the previous 50 years was refracted into the art of some of the best painters of the late '60s and early '70s.
Viewing this exhibition was like going back to a significant signpost from an earlier time and being able to say about it, "Yes, it was good that it was there."