As a historian of Chinese art, I find it hard to know just how to respond to Ad Reinhardt’s essays on the subject. When he writes in “Cycles through the Chinese Landscape” (1954) that, “some [Classic Chinese paintings] are formless, lightless, spaceless, timeless, with no explanations, no meanings, nothing to know or feel,” the sentiment is beautiful and part of me wants to believe him. But he might as well be describing his own paintings. I don’t know of any Chinese paintings like this. When he continues with a similar train of thought in “Timeless in Asia” (1960), “if there is one thing to say about Asia’s art then, it is about its timelessness, its monotony, its inaction, its detachment, its expressionlessness, its clarity, its quietness, its dignity, its negativity,” again, the only kind of painting I would describe this way is Reinhardt’s.
Reinhardt wasn’t the first or last American artist to study the arts of Asia by passing over its unfamiliar features in order to find his own reflection. It would be easy to defensively deploy the flaccid accusation “Orientalism!” and then leave it to the historians of American modernism to make meaning out of his thoughts, listed as they are in thousands of pages of adjectives and phrase-lists that range in content from the “art-as-art” mantras to cryptic notes like, “Chinese academy painting, ‘with charming friends and slender concubines’” or “‘we all go into the dark’ (Eliot).” His notes are peppered with references to philosophical and religious texts from across South and East Asia, but it is impossible to weed out a coherent understanding of Reinhardt’s ideas on any single topic, like “Chinese painting,” from these notes; they are a commingling of paeans to pure art, excerpts from the Dao De Jing, pull-quotes from Western literature, sardonic barbs aimed at his art world contemporaries, and sometimes endless lists of word association. By design, there is no apparent hierarchy or narrative, only proof that some ideas are universal.
Yet the contradictory positions that exist within these potpourri notes show that Reinhardt was happy to both establish and obliterate normalized chronologies or schemas of stylistic development. On one page of notes there may be a semi-farcical description of his career development (“Timeless Stylistic Art Historical Cycles, Five States of, Reinhardt’s”) and on the next a full and accurate chronology of the transmission of Buddhist art from India to Japan with (seemingly sincere) stylistic descriptions of sculpture in each age and location.These tensions must have pervaded Reinhardt’s work as a teacher. Unlike some of his painting contemporaries, Reinhardt wasn’t only using Asian art and texts sources for inspiration, he also taught class on the histories of Asian art at Hunter College Graduate School in the early 1960s.
Based on the thoroughness of these class notes, and also on the syllabuses for the Asian art courses that Reinhardt took from Alfred Salmony at the IFA in the late 1940s, the essentializing of Reinhardt’s published essays was intentional, part of a larger strategy to promote his own ideas about contemporary abstract painting by means of paintings from a foreign past. It almost seems ridiculous to have to call Reinhardt an essentialist, as the drive to find an art that was essentially true and yet content-less was exactly what motivated him. Furthermore, he applied his essentializing force across cultures. The opening line to “Timeless in Asia” reads, “The one good thing about the Art of the East is that it is one thing, just like the Art of the West.”
Rather than expect his citations of Asian philosophy and art history to accurately describe the history of Asian art, it is more interesting to ask how Reinhardt’s paintings can be used to introduce Asian art to audiences that are familiar with Reinhardt but not with Asian art. Imagine a viewer with no background in Asian culture walking through a gallery of Buddhist sculpture or Chinese painting. The forms are strange, the words are illegible, and the stories make no sense. The sculptures look like “endless figures of Buddha that have become really very empty images,” and the paintings are “just the endless repetition of conventions and traditions of painting, that's all there is” (as Reinhardt described them in a 1964 interview with Harlan Phillips). To make sense of classical Asian art in a Western museum, and arguably in most modern Asian museums, a lot of explanation is necessary. Reinhardt’s painting can provide a bridge to that explanation.
As an example, the Ad Reinhardt painting I most remember, the one that first insisted from across the room that I pause to stop and look at it, is the large dark canvas Untitled, 1960, in the Princeton University Art Museum. In its most recent rotation this painting sits in a gallery among its minimalist contemporaries: a stack of copper-faced wall-mounted boxes by Judd and a pyramid of open and interlinked cubes by LeWitt. But I remember first seeing Untitled, 1960 hanging at the far end of the low-lit Japanese gallery, flanked by two 10th-12th century wooden bodhisattva sculptures, representations of Buddhist deities who achieved enlightenment but chose to stay in the phenomenal world to guide man.
Like other paintings from the black series, Untitled, 1960 stands at the height of a person, and from a distance it is an impressive monochromatic slice of deep night color, a void with a gravitational attraction. Approaching closer, there is a moment for every viewer where the monochromatic whole of the square shimmers in one last unified instant before breaking into a grid of nine equal and subtly differentiated squares in shades of midnight blue and purple. This moment destabilizes our trust in what we see, replacing it with an exciting uncertainty toward all of our perceptual abilities. As the bodhisattvas stood facing one another across the dark void of Reinhardt’s canvas, smiling the slight and beatific smiles of their kind, they seemed to be always already aware of each viewer’s oncoming visual realization of the perceptual instability of the world.
By juxtaposition, and not a text panel, Untitled, 1960 immediately taught viewers something about bodhisattvas that a room full of Buddhist sculpture might struggle to impress. In turn those bodhisattvas taught viewers more about the spiritual depths of Reinhardt’s void than a room full of minimalist art might. Each activated an aspect of the other in a way that likely would have pleased Reinhardt in his ambition to create universally meaningful images.
The advantage of mid-century modernism to an art historian of Asian art located in a Western environment is that it pervades the Western visual world. We understand the languages of modernism the same way a Buddhist devotee would have understood a Mandala or a Confucian literatus the brushwork of a landscape painting. By accessing the ideas of the Orient that are present in works by Reinhardt and his contemporaries, an Asian art historian can use the familiar to explain the foreign.
MICHAEL HATCH is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Art & Archaeology at Princeton University.