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Ad Reinhardt’s Emblematic Drawings In Their Moment

Once one of my students told me in an office hour that on a recent plane ride she sat next to a lawyer who gossiped with her about a divorce he was arranging for one of my teachers; even though I didn’t want to hear about it, she needed to talk; fortunately for the principals, both of whom I deeply respected, the divorce never went through. I recall this now, confronted by an interesting exhibition of manuscript letters and cards as well as caricatural drawings and a classic print, by Ad Reinhardt, under the title “In the Minds of Me: Drawings and Thoughts on Paper (1946-1967)” at the Woodward Gallery, 133 Eldridge Street, on the Lower East Side, through December 27th, because only a Mr. McGoo could manage not to notice that most of what is on view is keepsake documentation of a long-term extra-marital romance that Reinhardt maintained with a former student, Olga Sheirr, during the last twenty years of his life.   

Ad Reinhardt,
Ad Reinhardt, "Drawing," 1946. Courtesy of the Woodward Gallery, NY

Maybe it isn’t hopelessly uncool to wonder what marriage even meant to this artist who, in the famous chronology which he composed in 1966 for the catalogue of his Jewish Museum exhibition, lists first “Paints water colors in Virgin Islands, waiting for divorce” (1949) and then “Daughter born” (1954), without prior mention of a partner in either case. Not that this disqualifies Reinhardt’s acknowledged spiritual side, which for better or worse seems to have been something quite else, something which pertained to the sublimated world of men. As here in many of the mailings on view, and with the same blocky “unical” of sorts, mixing capitals and lower-case letters in run-on inscriptions filling out blocks of text, in writing to the long-term men friends with whom, later in the same stretch of years, he shared an explicitly religious spirituality—notably the Trappist monk and peacenik Thomas Merton and the poet Robert Lax—he often indulged a ludic reduction of communication to a hum of cosy, even unselfconsciously silly, sheer reassuring contact. O.K., but there is much to say about situating this material in the already surprisingly remote artistic culture of its time.    

Aside from the purely verbal texts, inscribed with one of those broad, flat-nibbed fountain pens which were facilitating a widespread interest in writing in a boxy “italic” calligraphic hand at the time, there is a type of non-verbal but schematized, wiry, quasi-abstract, “hieroglyphically” stick-figural, though not really figurative, caricatural, or, maybe better, emblematic, drawing, executed with the same kind of pen, and standing categorically between Reinhardt’s famous conceptual cartoons about art and his so utterly “pure” abstract or non-objective paintings. While the cartoons are didactic and even story-board structured, these image-devices already present themselves somewhat enigmatically in strong frontal stasis. Of this interesting type the Woodward exhibition shows five never before seen sheets, two initialed and dated 1946 with one such figure apiece, another dated 1946 but with three figures, and two undated double-figured sheets, one curiously “signed.” While the gallery has given them seemingly sympathetic titles with terms borrowed from Reinhardt, rather than risk imposing meaning I prefer only to describe them sufficiently specifically to tell them apart while also establishing their categorical identity-—beyond the fact that each is as flat and linear as a cattle-brand and all but one are as woodenly symmetrical as clothespins.

One, with a small cross on the forehead or atop the head, has upraised arms and might even be jumping rope, to go by two large arcs that curve up and down across the figure. A second, with a cross above the head in extension of the axis of the nose, also has upraised arms but with spirals for underarm hair, asterisk hands and feet, little circles for eyes and nipples, and a little cross in a pubic triangle. A third dated sheet has two such figures of the same type, both with little crosses, one standing upon and the other levitating just above a crescent, and a third figure which is uniquely asymmetrical, with a three-dimensional and rather Picassoid head. 

As for the undated sheets, one has two of the clothespin-like figures side by side, one with up-raised arms, a cross above a wavering curve over the head, a cross for a face, and another cross on the torso; the other, down-turned arms, jagged “mountain”-like points above a cross over the head, with an arc passing through, and crosses at the neck and beneath the feet. The last sheet has two almost identical figures with triangles for heads, each transfixed by an up-turned curve and with a T-shaped device above, but one with down-turned arms and a cross on the torso, and the other, up-turned arms; oddly enough, it is signed with a supposedly made-up name that Google informs us was actually the name of an artist contemporary with Reinhardt who has only recently died, Albert Radoczy (1914-2008).  

Without purporting to de-code these highly schematic but not necessarily symbolic figures, I find the numerous crosses, especially on the face or head, suggestive of figure markings in Malevich’s “post-suprematist” work, while drawings of this kind find their place in Reinhardt’s wider production. If his chronology notes only later, under 1953, “Gives up principles of asymmetry and irregularity in painting,” here he was constructing playful figures evincing a studied, if pliant, symmetry a good decade earlier than that. And besides the sheets there are also, among the accompanying documents, a letter and six postcards with related hieroglyphic or emblematic forms, one of the latter, from the summer of 1963, holding interest as contemporaneous with the artist’s corresponding in the same calligraphic way with Merton, who would have been interested in its sequences of “Greek-cross” patterns in several rows: four in little squares, five in ovals, and three in diamonds, followed by three of special interest in larger ovals. The very last show Reinhardt thinking analytically about the Maltese-cross device, first as two crossing lines punctuated by ‘Vs’ on their tips, then negatively by means of a cluster of four circles or “holes,” and then as something similar with the circles opened up like four “U’s,” up, down, left, and right.  

Despite the fashionable invocation of “high” and “low” cultural distinctions often enough only to stage gratuitous transgressions, I first want to make a general but overlooked point about the art-historical context of hieroglyphic or emblematic form in the postwar “high” culture—that art-historical culture of which Reinhardt was a rather spectatorial student on the G. I. Bill—before making a different sort of observation, also as far as I know overlooked, on the supposedly “low” side, though literally ethnologically based. 

For the first I have in mind the appearance in modern English of The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, in the great Jung-attuned Bollingen Series, in 1950, as translated by George Boas, whose history-of-ideas introduction raises in the question, inherited from Ficino and Renaissance Neoplatonism, but obviously urgent in the challenging context of abstract as ostensibly meaningless to many, of whether the basic import of the hypothetical ancient hieroglyphic was to hide meaning as coded, arcane knowledge or else to show it forth as self-evident, at least to the sophisticated. But though Boas’ purview extends down to Freud and surrealism, including even Ernest Fenollosa’s Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, as edited by Ezra Pound and still in print at City Lights Books, Reinhardt’s somehow quasi-hieroglyphic image also related to a lively contemporary interdisciplinary interest in that verbal-visual crossover of precociously “conceptual” ilk, newly appreciated in literary culture of the 1950s: the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century “emblem-book” which renders visible things as conceptual as virtues and vices by illustrating situations as well as personifications accompanied by symbolic attributes. When I was a graduate student under Wittkower one had to pay one’s respects, on this subject, to a new exhaustive, if impossibly long and complex, entry, on ‘Emblem, Emblembuch,’ by William S. Heckscher (and Karl-August Wirth), in a big German art-historical Reallexikon volume that appeared in 1959; but by the early ‘60s there was already plenty of discussion of the emblem in English and comparative literature as well as in art history. By the end of the decade everybody in the artworld had a copy of the new Icon paperback edition of Panofsky’s related Idea: A Concept in Art Theory (1922), though we weren’t quite sure what to make of it, mainly because it didn’t have much to offer our sense of the conceptual.     

Later, as editor-in-chief of Artforum, when I commissioned for publication the first photograph of the small “Black Painting” (Small Painting for T. M.) that in 1957 Reinhardt painted for his friend Thomas Merton’s monastic hermitage, I also included in my article, of December 1978, a sheet of hieroglyphic or emblematic Reinhardt drawings sent to Merton, I thought possibly in 1963. This trail–blazing pioneer article, by the way, though reprinted in my Historical Present (1984), is never cited, though later articles obviously dependent upon it now are, dating back as it does before computerization. Roger Lipsey, who has taken the Merton-Reinhardt connection much further and published an engaging book on Merton’s art (2006), has more definitively dated the drawing in question to 1956, i.e., to a time before 1960, when Merton himself began to produce more orientalizing “calligraphic marks and signs” under the influence of the painter Ulfert Wilke (according to Lipsey in The Merton Annual, 2005).  This brings it back closer in time to the newly discovered emblematic drawings on five sheets, three of which are dated a decade earlier still; but also to something I have long thought very interesting in view of Reinhardt’s wiry caricatural or emblematic “hieroglyphics” of 1956. 

Here I want to call special attention to an overlooked first-generation expressionist source for corroboration, at the least, of just this sort of device (the very notion of the hieroglyphic having connected expressionism back with German Romanticism). For in the early diaries of Paul Klee there is an entry from 1903 in which the old expressionist gives four emblematic figures in a row, at least the last two, or two and a half, more stylized and, as such, uncannily like the humorously labeled devices of Reinhardt’s 1956 sheet. Interestingly, Klee notes that he copied these curious figures “from the Hefte für schweizerische Volkskunde (‘Journal of Swiss Folklore’),” as “tramps’ signs (authentic),” following them up immediately with something verbally akin that likewise interested him, probably in the same source: a vocabulary of dialect words (The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918). Now if Klee’s reference might seem recondite, it also allows of a Brechtian accessibility. Only after having long ago been directly fascinated myself by such “hobo signs,” left behind so that the next needy person can know what to expect from a particular household, as still occurring even in New York in the ‘50s, as I, as a boy, saw, chalked on sidewalks in front of houses in Queens, Reinhardt’s home borough, have I been led to highlight Klee’s definitive adducing of just such signs in the German expressionist context. Today, I would add, something of the sort may even be found in the hieroglyphic or emblematic, much more than caricatural, motifs of Matt Mullican’s markedly conceptual abstract paintings. 

It is worth considering that even caricature in the broad, popular sense can raise the issue of abstraction or non-objectivity. It has, after all, a certain kinship with abstract art in the tricky way it can “present,” as it were, things, even quite earthy things, supposed to be unrepresentable—not only as visually elusive but even as illogical. In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant entertains as quite beyond doubt “the proposition [that] . . . with . . . two straight lines . . . alone no figure is possible.” Evidently unbeknownst to him, Hogarth had already managed to do as much, if not by “enclos[ing] a space,” which Kant presumed necessary, nevertheless evoking one (which might be more): in a drawing something like a barroom trick Hogarth proffered a single vertical line with an acute angle attached above to the left above a little hooked curve poking leftward, this as enough to amount to an image of “a sergeant carrying his pike, entering an ale-house, followed by his dog, all in three strokes” (J. Parton, Caricature, 1877). 

Anybody who wants to object to Hogarth’s curl as a third line (though not a straight one), can just forget about the dog; but the reason I bring this up is also because, while Reinhardt’s hieroglyphic-emblematic mode was under way there was also, in America, the wide popularity of “Droodles,” as they were called: shaggy-dog drawings that were essentially visual puns, performed on live television as of 1954, as well as published, by the cartoonist Roger Price. In one, a vertical rectangle with a loop projecting top right was identified as, among other possibilities, “Man Playing Trombone in Phone Booth.” The virtually Hogarthian popularity of Price’s shaggy-dog visual puns would no doubt have been groundless without the popular notoriety of abstract art, especially of abstract expressionism as a supposed highbrow hoax. 

But we need not conclude that Roger Price is effectively the equal of Reinhardt or Klee, let alone Hogarth; though in a curious way the extraordinary sometimes seems co-dependent on the commonplace.  Something that can perhaps be said with greater conviction than before is that the Klee-affiliating primitivism of Reinhardt’s quasi-figural hieroglyphs is a welcome link with original expressionism, considering the way Reinhardt has never quite fit into the American abstract expressionist movement except perhaps one of a few special cases in its consolidating phase. Then even if the textual calligraphies shown here were conceded to be of only contextual interest, the emblematic drawings, intellectually grounded in one of the intermodal art-and-literature obsessions of the 1960s, stand in the end as much more than the visual jokes with which caricature is too easily satisfied. Just as Reinhardt himself was wittily serious in his written texts, and in his cartoons, these quirky, sometimes even almost goofy, drawings had their own way of advancing the cause of Reinhardt’s dead-serious commitment to “pure” abstract.



Joseph Masheck

JOSEPH MASHECK is an art historian-critic whose most recent book is Texts on (Texts on) Art (Brooklyn Rail Press).


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