For many years, I have started my Art Since 1945 survey with Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America,” first published in the summer of 1946 in PM. I use other panels of his PM “How to Look” series as well—“How to Look at a Cubist Painting,” “How to Look at Low (Surrealist) Art,” “How to View High (Abstract) Art,” “How to Look at a Mural.” The cartoons encapsulate the issues and choices for painters in his moment, and, for many students, function still as remarkably effective guides for looking. Their formal and historical lessons lend themselves to discussions of Reinhardt’s abstract paintings and collages of the late 1930s with their generic, rule-bound quality; the black paintings, too, have rules, but in the 1930s the rules are public, generative, and shared. The black paintings are another teaching problem entirely; first there is their near unphotographability, and then there is the question of how to think their renunciations alongside, or mostly after, the helpful loquaciousness of the cartoons.
The image of the black paintings I have relied on over the years is not an image of any given work but a black-and-white installation shot of the Jewish Museum exhibition of the black paintings in 1966—identical dark gray squares along the wall, one after another. It has long been understood that Abstract Expressionism is a movement without stylistic determinants, without a center, despite Jackson Pollock’s large head at the center of the “Irascibles”; understood, too, is that Reinhardt’s relationship to Abstract Expressionism, whether as a style or a collection of artists, was fraught, despite his presence in that august assembly in Life in 1951, or at the table in the Artists’s Sessions the previous year. Reinhardt is an exemplary artist, but an example of what it is hard to say; I find it telling that I cannot find the center of Reinhardt’s work, at least in front of a classroom, and that what I show may in fact lie outside it, at its beginnings, say, and as it virtually trails off at the end, spread along the museum wall. One could ask what the relationship is, after all, between the cartoons and satires that continued up into the 1960s and the black paintings: what constitutes the center of his work, and which the ancillary, illustrative material? This is likely not the best way to pose this question (and some have found perfectly satisfying answers), but no one insisted more on the borders of art, on interiors and exteriors, than Reinhardt did: “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.”
Reinhardt was a lifelong teacher, an “educational shopkeeper” at Brooklyn College from 1947 until his death in 1967, but in 1954, in the pages of the College Art Journal, he was scathing about the “artist-professor and traveling design salesman, the Art-Digest-philosopher-poet and Bauhaus exerciser...the holy-roller explainer-entertainer-in-residence.” By 1954, Reinhardt is naming names—Joseph Albers, Robert Jay Wolff, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman—and although “explainer-entertainer” might well describe the PM cartoonist of “How to Look,” Reinhardt didn’t think to include himself. The names of his peers first appear in the cartoons in 1946, as leaves on his tree of Modern Art in America; after 1950 they become low hanging fruit. After that, the proper name and the list are central to his cartoons and satires and they determine the black paintings—or have come to determine my reading of them. But let me stay for a minute in the scene of teaching, and introduce an assignment Reinhardt gave his Brooklyn College students in the 1950s. Reinhardt would ask his students to make self-portraits in pencil and charcoal on fine paper and then, when the drawing was finished, he would direct them to erase it and start over, a process continued on the same piece of paper throughout the term. There are many lessons a student or art historian might draw from the exercise—the importance of process over product, say. Perhaps it was a lesson in self-abnegation, or self-destruction, in giving up the ego. This is, after all, one way to read the black paintings (alongside his correspondence with Thomas Merton maybe), as a laying down of the ego, a renunciation of ambition. The question then might be: whose ambition is Reinhardt asking his students to renounce?
About the same time that Reinhardt published his brief against “educational shopkeepers” in the College Art Journal, he offered “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” in the pages of Artnews. One of those rules was “No chess-playing.” Reinhardt may have written the rule with Duchamp’s retirement and the readymade in mind; part of the same rule is “no mindless working or mindless non-working.” But it may also have had a blunter message: no game-playing, no letting on that paintings are made in relation to other paintings, as positions and takings, no acknowledgment of the board or field. The black paintings are illustrations, indeed instantiations of the rule; their chessboard grids are reduced to near invisibility: there are no other positions, no other squares to occupy, no other artists allowed. Last paintings may always be aggressive: these are the last paintings that can be made—the only paintings—and I am making them. And Reinhardt was remarkably clear about this, taking questions from the audience, from Willem de Kooning, following a debate with Milton Resnick at the Artists Club in 1961:
Reinhardt: I’m talking about a series of names: Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, so on and so forth—
de Kooning: They’re good artists. Yeh, they’re very good artists.
Reinhardt: Well, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not separating you from those at all. I’m talking about all of you in a straight line—
de Kooning: What are you worried about?
Reinhardt: with an etc. on the end…And, you know, I don’t want to be part of that ‘etc’…Now, if this series of names is not oppressive then what the hell is?
Howard Singerman is Caroff Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Hunter College. He is the author most recently of Art History, After Sherrie Levine, published by the University of California Press in 2012.