One of the first museum exhibitions I ever saw, flush at age 12 with my new found passion for modern art, was Americans 1963 at MoMA. Pop artists such as James Rosenquist and Marisol and obscure, independent-minded figures such as Sally Hazelet Drummond and Michael Lekakis (not to mention Richard Anuszkiewicz and Lee Bontecou) were represented. A decidedly lively bunch, all jostling the eye in some manner or other, a pre-teen’s delight. In their midst, however, was a quiet room full of monochrome paintings, each isolated behind a stanchion that discouraged, as effectively as the guards, contact with the paintings’ surfaces. The enforced distance also obscured at first the fact that each painting was not quite uniform, but composed of nine equal-size squares, tic-tac-toe boards across which the color (or lack thereof) modulated with breathtaking delicacy. The challenge was to my eyes to spot the differences, not to my mind to accept or reject the paintings themselves. I was too young or too deferential to the authority of a museum to believe these paintings were “not art.” I don’t remember how soon after visiting MoMA I read that Ad Reinhardt claimed these paintings “were the last paintings anyone could paint”—perhaps that claim is in the show’s catalogue—but it made perfect sense to me anyway, appealing to my parallel love of Dada (and, soon, Fluxus).
As I was to find out, what amused me bemused the art world. As I discovered more about Reinhardt’s oeuvre, I liked it more and more—precisely because it built up to those “last paintings” through an entirely coherent process of simplification, one that often set a feast, austerely rendered but deliciously colored, before the eyes. When I visited the newly built Los Angeles County Museum of Art with my parents two years later, only to be greeted with a survey of old “friends” from the New York School, I delighted most in an unusually large, even mural-like Reinhardt composed of a brick like structure whose components spanned a spectrum greater than Mondrian’s or Malevich’s. I realized then that Reinhardt had come out of the European geometric tradition, and that the black paintings to which his constructivist trajectory had led were not manifestations of Dadaist nihilism or even Abstract Expressionist anxiety, but the logical conclusion of that purist tradition.
Reinhardt remained prominent in my art experience. His three-gallery show of one-color paintings taking place the next year (and providing me the one opportunity to meet him, by chance, in Betty Parsons’ elevator); his untimely death startling me the year after; his deification in the increasingly prominent Minimalist discourse (following the ridicule—or, more often, condescending indulgence—his New York School peers had heaped on him while alive); and, not incidentally, my discovery while at Columbia University of a small trove of Jesters, the school humor magazine, edited by Reinhardt when attending Columbia a third of a century earlier. I’d seen examples of his early cubistic caricatures (not to mention his later collage-cartoons, whose extravagant art-historical indulgences, leavened with snark, revealed his mischievous side), but not those featured on the Jester covers. I was entertained most by an especially vibrant, Léger like cover rendering Hitler, Mussolini, and at least one other dictator (Stalin?) that betrayed Reinhardt’s engagé cool.
By then I’d figured out that Reinhardt, like so many of the protagonists in modern art whose work tickled and impelled me, was not simply a provocative thinker, but a thinking provocateur. He wanted to keep his peers, his audience, those who would judge him and those who could learn from him, unsettled. He was an enemy of complacency. And his commitment not just to doing something different but saying something different was not just a personal ideal but a social ideal—and a philosophical ideal, and even scientific ideal. Reinhardt was at least as devoted to art as a means of changing minds as anyone of his time; his art-as-art creed (by then disseminated in various art publications and soon compiled into a book) seemed to dictate an emphatic gulf between art and life—in contradistinction to that of, say, Allan Kaprow—but recognized (thereby!) that art was as universal as life and could thus benefit living. As monkish as Reinhardt’s pronouncement-prone contrariness made him seem, he was as deeply dedicated to improving life with art as any of his modernist forebears.
In particular, Reinhardt was deeply dedicated to influencing perception about art and its potential—and was so in great part because, as his not-quite-monochromes demonstrate, he saw the potential of art, even the reason for art, to be in great part its impact on our perception. It could make us see things differently. It could make us see seeing differently. He had, after all, taken the convention of the painted picture, modestly framed, neutrally proportioned, and carefully “rendered,” and divested it of its mirror-or-window options. It was now a thing and a place, an icon without an image, an infinite surface, rid once and for all of reference or decorative appeal. Its blue or red or even black might please, but wasn’t designed to do so; rather, with color apotheosized and composition suppressed, the painting challenged not just painterly norms, but painterly goals. It pointed beyond those, to a place too many in Reinhardt’s audience regarded as religious, for better or worse, or at least spiritual, but which was really about seeing and its relationship to knowing. The “last paintings anyone could paint” brought painting kicking and screaming, directly and thoroughly, no looking back, into the realm of epistemology.
Having lived for the last quarter century in the town where I first saw Reinhardt’s late-Modernist (as opposed to post-Modernist) masterpieces, I’ve noted that among Los Angeles’ great contributions to contemporary artistic discourse is an emphasis on perception—physical perception, an emphasis that valorizes the tendencies of the eye and the brain to misapprehend and presume. The eye is a gullible organ, this aesthetic of “perceptualism” posits and the brain even more so that art can make us aware of this by taking advantage of visualization in ways at once pleasurable, illogical, and subversive, even threatening. In the hands of southern California artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler—not to mention a host of sculptors, painters, and object makers whose tradition now extends into several generations in whose work the immaterial becomes material, material dematerializes, light becomes object and being becomes (incredibly) light.
I don’t know or remember offhand what influence Irwin et. al. may have attributed to Reinhardt. But the Californians certainly knew his art and his reputation. When their own aesthetics were gelling, in his elevated standards and passionate argumentation, Reinhardt must have had an impact. Indeed, Irwin’s refusal to allow his intricately modulated paintings and light-moored works to be reproduced during a crucial phase of his career echoes Reinhardt’s own resistance to the reproduction of his all-black paintings.
It was a principled stand. Both artists recognizing that the experience of their paintings could not possibly transmit to reproduction given the camera technology then available—and the purposes of their paintings to begin with. But it underscored their apparent diffidence, making both Reinhardt and Irwin seem eccentric troublemakers. Fortunately, such tough-minded troublemaking still retained currency in the art world at the time, so both artists benefited as well as suffered for their obduracy; their “difficult natures,” while generally regarded as self-important, were seen by some, at least, as heroic.
Indeed, from our vantage we can see how the feisty reputations of both Reinhardt and Irwin enhanced their persuasiveness in the long run even as it compromised their careers in the short. They both proved a point by sticking to that point. After all, it makes sense for Irwin and Reinhardt to have deeply questioned the credibility of reproduction, and to have done so by questioning its purpose and its relationship to the reproduced. Reproduction is a “para-practice,” integral and yet dangerous to perception. As their colleague and sometime intellectual ally, Frank Stella, posited, “what you see is what you see,” a tautology too many people read as reductive. It’s not. It leads to Irwin’s postulation that, in essence, what you see is how you see. And it comes right out of Reinhardt’s decades-long effort to deflate avant-garde convention, to refute the potency of both image and process, and to insist on the autonomous power of the artwork—and by extension art—to exist and be known.
PETER FRANK is a Los Angeles-based critic.