Ad Reinhardt
Biography of American Abstract Painter, Minimalist Black Paintings.

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Ad Reinhardt (1913-67)


Early Life and Training
Reinhardt's Style of Painting
The Black Paintings (1954-67)

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Something of a prophetic figure in postwar abstract art, Reinhardt is often associated with abstract expressionist painting, although he is best seen as an apostle of concrete art, whose works bridged the gap between the Abstract Expressionism and Hard Edge Painting of the 50s, and the Minimal art of the 60s. As a purist of non-objective art, Reinhardt was sometimes marginalized by art critics and other spokesmen for American art, however, like other pioneering abstract painters and sculptors, including Frank Stella (b.1936), Donald Judd (1928-94), and Robert Morris (b.1931), he is now regarded as a major contributor to contemporary art of the mid-20th century. His "Black Paintings", a series of works which occupied him from the mid-50s until his death in 1967, are traditionally considered to be his greatest abstract paintings, and it was in these works that Reinhardt sought to achieve his lifelong aim of eliminating all possible worldly references, suggestions or motifs from his art.

Early Life and Art Training

Born Adolph Frederick Reinhardt in Buffalo, New York, to a family of Russian/German immigrants, he became interested in painting and illustration while in high school. At the age he won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York, where from 1931 to 1935 he studied the history of art under the Lithuanian-born scholar Meyer Shapiro. In 1936-7 he took painting lessons with Carl Holty - a European modernist influenced by Cubism and Russian Constructivism, whose geometric style works were more hard-edged than expressionist - while also absorbing portrait art under Karl Anderson at the National Academy of Design. After college Reinhardt managed to get work from 1936 until 1940 for the Federal Art Project, where he made friends with many soon-to-be members of the New York School, including Arshile Gorky (1904-48), and Willem de Kooning (1904-97), and the influential American Cubist Stuart Davis (1892-1964). In addition he joined the American Abstract Artists group, with whom he exhibited for the next decade. Over the next two decades, as well as practicing fine art, he also wrote about it and earned money from the commercial illustration and caricature art which he produced for a host of New York newspapers, magazines and periodicals, including ARTnews and PM.

Reinhardt's Style of Painting

During the 1930s, Reinhardt painted in a precise, boldly contoured geometrical style, that borrowed elements from both Picasso's Analytical Cubism, Piet Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism and Van Doesburg's Elementarism. During the 1940s he went through a phase of allover painting, which owed something to the calligraphic style of Mark Tobey (1890-1976), before moving close to the gestural painting of Robert Motherwell (1915-91) - with whom he edited Modern Artists in America (1950). During the 1950s, under the influence of Josef Albers (1888-1976), a fellow member of the Yale Arts faculty 1952-3, Reinhardt began producing monochromatic paintings. This was to facilitate his ambition of purifying his concrete art by eliminating all references to the external world.

Reinhardt was a regular exhibitor. He showed first in group exhibitions at the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, before having his first solo exhibition at the Artists Gallery in 1943. After this he was represented by Betty Parsons, showing first at the Wakefield Bookshop, the Mortimer Brandt Gallery and then, from 1946, at the Betty Parsons Gallery on 57th street. Reinhardt had regular solo exhibitions yearly at the Betty Parsons Gallery beginning in 1946. In addition, during the 1940s and 1950s, his canvases were shown regularly at the Annual Exhibitions held at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Black Paintings (1954-67) and Minimal Art

In the 50s Reinhardt began a serious quest to create the perfect example of non-objective art - a work completely devoid of external references: that is, no Pollock-style narrative, no Rothko-style angst, no Newman-style cosmic mysticism, no Motherwell-style political statements, Nicolas de Stael-style lyricism. In short, nothing but art. Why? Because Reinhardt believed in art-as-a-visual-experience, and insisted on the primacy of direct observation untainted by any literary or naturalistic association. In this quest, he was strongly influenced by the work of Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), inventor of Suprematism, whose Black Square (1915, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) inspired Reinhardt to create paintings devoted to a single colour. At first he employed blue or red, then from 1954 until his death he devoted himself to all-black canvases - typically five-foot square canvases containing nine virtually identical black squares (or other patterns of squares, oblongs or rectangles), none perceptibly differentiated in value. Why black? Because for Reinhardt black was the absolute zero, the end of light: the irreducible limit of expression. It was the first unmistakable example of minimal art.

These Black Paintings - see, for instance, Abstract Painting, Black (1966; Tate, London) - are completely empty of 'content', and yet on closer inspection, their single-colour surface is riven with differing shades of black. Furthermore, Reinhardt removed some of the oil from his colour pigments in order to create a delicate suede-like finish. At the same time these matte exteriors absorb more light than normal, thus creating a denser 'black-hole' mass.

To begin with, these Black Paintings were seen by other modern artists as an extreme and uncompromising form of avant-garde art, rather than a serious attempt at innovation. But with the onset of minimalism in the 60s, Reinhardt began to be viewed as a prophet of postmodernist art.

Sadly, just as he was being talked about as one of the first genuine postmodernist artists, he died from a heart attack in his studio on August 30, 1967, at the age of 53.

Retrospectives of Reinhardt's signature-style abstract painting were held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1991); Guggenheim Museum New York, (2008); the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat, Bottrop, Germany (2010-11); and the David Zwirner Gallery, New York (2013).

Abstract pictures by Ad Reinhardt can be seen in a number of the best art museums around the world.


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