Some 35 years ago, when I became editor of Artforum – with a drawer almost bare of manuscripts – I jotted down some subjects I thought it might be well to do as part of the history of modernism in These Parts. Of these, one which concerned the college relationship between Ad Reinhardt and the eventual peace-nik monk Thomas Merton, interested me owing to my own intellectual formation, including Columbia. It has issued in a certain number of texts by me since I first explored this subject in 1977 to down to 2011, during which time, however, there were changes in attitude with respect to religion as such in the New York artworld. (By the way, only one other of my jottings was a religious topic: someone had said that the Dadaist Jean Crotti, brother-in-law of Duchamp, had painted some church murals in Brooklyn; nothing ever came of it.)
None of my concern with Merton and Reinhardt intellectual commonality, I think, would ever have occurred to me had I not always thought of my city of New York as an open ecumenical city, even as a child in the Public Schools. My own philosophical development probably dates to this, as only a special interest in an otherwise commonplace subject, certainly not eccentric at the time. Obviously, the main thing was ‘tolerance,’ but I remember being taught in eighth grade that that should not be considered good enough. No; as soon as I became aware of it, the point was to see how people could accord one another theological respect without just lapsing into syncretism (in my case this probably also carried over into competing styles of art); with this then positively nurtured at Columbia, in 1959-63. Indeed, one of the things I really liked about the place was my friends with varieties of all faiths and, very few, with none; and I can imagine Reinhardt and Merton in that context a generation earlier.
That must be why I’ve never understood what has become a mystique about Merton, who always seemed pretty regular-Columbia to me, whereas I’ve always been like a private-detective on the case of the abstract painter. Eventually, this would come to a head when one of the penultimate versions of my most recent essay appeared in the Church of England publication Art and Christianity, which I sometimes write for, under the blurb “Joseph Masheck discusses the influence of Thomas Merton on the art of Ad Reinhardt” (Autumn 2011). This puzzled me at first. Soon enough I realized why: my friends from the church side couldn’t conceive of Reinhardt’s influence as having anything to teach the spiritual writer!
Anyway, back in 1977 I read about the lifelong relationship of these two friends and wanted to know about small Black Painting painted by Reinhardt for Merton’s monastic cell: this would turn out to be a small Latin cross (unlike the Greek crosses of the other black squares). By mail, needless to say, and telephone, I got a very obliging Louisville photographer, Lynn Caulfield, to go and take a picture of the ‘icon’ that Reinhardt eventually did paint in Merton’s hermitage at the monastery. This I recounted in ‘Five Unpublished Letters from Ad Reinhardt to Thomas Merton and Two in Return,’ in Artforum for 1978; and at the same time, an introduction by me discussing the relevant letters (itself later reprinted in my Historical Present; Essays of the 1970s, 1984, but without the photograph). By the way, because things that come before circa 1982 tend to be consigned to the mists of time before digitalization, I remain thankful that the great Merton scholar, and all around scholar of spirituality and art, Roger Lipsey, has the publishing history of this early article on in his Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton (2006), and other places.
With the ‘80s, however, the money people came to town. By 1986 my heart had to go out to Maurice Tuchman’s whose amazing 1986 ‘The Spiritual in Art; Abstract Painting 1890-1985’ was never allowed to penetrate the walls of New York – bent, now, it increasingly became clear, on nothing but the bourgeois materialist cult of wealth. The shunning of Tuchman’s show was particularly egregious here, for the Guggenheim Museum, from its very founding as the Museum of Non-Objective Art, was intended to hold high the values associated with Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). Gee, somehow in 1987 it was O. K. for people from Los Angeles to Chicago, not to mention the Geemente Museum, in the Hague, to see this wonderful exhibit without undue harm. But not New York, now: bad for today’s thirty-something kids.
Ten years ago, in 2003, I was reviewing my Artforum article in a ‘Values’ seminar for Fordham seniors. (At Fordham I had myself produced a round table on abstract painting for a 1992 Vatican conference on contemporary dialogue with modern art, thanks to Richard Kalina.) One of my students came up to me after class, saying that she was an art history major just then applying to graduate school, and maybe she could write her paper on this I could tender a recommendation. Sad as this was to decide, I walked around that beautiful campus, up at Rose Hill, having to tell her that she would get nowhere if I did this. I felt a responsibility to warn her of the antipathy toward non-eccentric Western religion in the artworld. Eastern religions could get away with being harmlessly subjective. (Hey, what’s this about religion as a private affair, I thought Durkheim said religion is essentially social!). So if I were to recommend her to graduate school, I would have to remain mute about just what she most wanted to do. What a long way this was from the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg back at Columbia talking religion in the West End Bar.
So much was the story until, just a few years ago, when a couple of friends of mine on that side of the fence thought it might be good for me to lecture the International Thomas Merton Society, New York Chapter, in 2010. The whole thing seemed fated when the mistress of ceremonies told me to tell the audience what abstract art is about in 15 minutes. I should have left it at that, because by the time I was onto my new thinking about Reinhardt and Merton an agreed 45-minute prehistory of abstract art was already considered my allotted time! However, in May 2011, at St. Edmund’s College, in Cambridge University, where I was a visiting fellow, I did give my definitive lecture on Merton-Reinhardt as college chums. A briefer version of this text was the one that my got mangled as to the “influence” from artist to spiritual writer. Finally, this led to the most definitive version of the piece, ‘Where Thomas Merton’s Friend Reinhardt Was coming From,’ in my Brooklyn Rail book, Texts of (Texts on) Art (2011).
JOSEPH MASHECK, art historian and critic, has been awarded the 2018 "Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art" by the C.A.A.