After almost a decade of mainly group shows at various galleries around New York, in 1946, Ad Reinhardt entered into a relationship with the Betty Parsons Gallery that would last just over 20 years. It was also the year in which he was honorably discharged from the United States Navy after two years of active service.1 Reinhardt’s time in the Navy is often given short shrift in chronologies of the artist’s life, where it is summarily mentioned within a passing sentence or two,2 but it was as critical to the development of his career as was his relationship with Parsons. From 1944 to 1946, he was removed from the vibrant artistic and intellectual communities in which he had participated by virtue of his membership in American Abstract Artists, not to mention his own downtown studio, and immersed in the strategic preparations and bureaucratic procedures of active duty even if he did not see battle himself. (In fact, in a 1966 interview with Mary Fuller, Reinhardt winkingly credits the atomic bomb with saving his life.3) Although Reinhardt was officially inducted into the Navy in April 1944, just over a year before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he had been corresponding with various departments and officers as early as 1940 in the hopes of qualifying for special service by putting his art historical training and editorial experience to work. After being turned away from several divisions, Reinhardt was ultimately sent to Photography School in Pensacola, Florida and Photo-Lithography School in Anacostia, Maryland before being stationed as a Photographer’s Mate on the Salerno Bay aircraft carrier off the coast of Washington state 4
Several unpublished photographs by and of Reinhardt exist from his time on the Salerno Bay.5 The ones by Reinhardt are largely close ups, quintessentially “modernist” images that depict things like a plant, drying laundry, a workbench, a construction site, canteens, and mechanical equipment as a series of geometric shapes, lines, and forms. Likely these photographs were not part of his official business (Reinhardt mentions having been trained in aerial photography6), nor has his naval work been identified. While Reinhardt’s naval photographs and his training in aerial photography, in particular, certainly warrant further exploration, for now, I want to focus on a series of incredibly uncharacteristic, unpublished ink drawings that he executed on board the Salerno Bay, which more readily relate—if by contrast—to the work that the artist left behind when he was drafted. Brush and ink on approximately 6 by 7 inch white paper, the drawings (11 in all) are much more abstract than the satirical cartoons that Reinhardt did for PM, and much more figurative than the “all-over” paintings he had been producing in the early ’40s or the black paintings yet to come. They look like Chinese calligraphy blown up and gone wild: erratic gestural marks that, nonetheless, in most cases, can be decisively identified. We see a nearby ship from above, the bow of a boat from its mast, indicators of the horizon line even when the forms upon or within the ocean it defines cannot be deciphered, and perhaps even a figure at work. Most striking, though, are two alternate drawings of what look to be the same ship, sailing toward the artist and, by extension, viewer. One is composed of a series of thick gestural lines that double back upon themselves and descend from the top of the mast through to the waves the moving ship produces. The other is much more reserved: an elegant accumulation of horizontal and vertical lines as well as choice dots that, together, suggest the mechanical beauty of the ship as it slices through still water. On its own, each drawing captures a different aspect of its subject—its brute force and technical precision, respectively. But, in concert, they reveal the foundations as well as stakes of this rather anomalous body of work. Unlike the figurative illustrations Reinhardt made for PM, these drawings are based in observation and, unlike his black paintings, they revel in the hand-made mark. The drawings are fully subject to the contingencies of the moment, the artist, and his materials—pictorial practices that Reinhardt would come to denounce in his later writings.
Given their undeniable charm, quick execution, and small number, the drawings could easily be written off as the mere doodles of an artist at rest—no different than a scrap or sketch that would be overlooked if found on the studio floor. But a landscape photograph that includes a ship not unlike the one in Reinhardt’s drawings serves as a vivid reminder of the explicitly martial (if disconcertingly convivial) context in which they were made, its distance from “real life,” and, so, the relationship between Reinhardt’s professional and personal work in the Navy and the philosophies and paintings that came later. The photograph was taken from a ship, whose hull intrudes upon the image from the left. Sailors jump from its side and swim in the waters below, while another ship—not dissimilar from the one in Reinhardt’s drawings—passes along the horizon line in the distance. By way of these hulking vessels and the community of sailors around them, this one image conveys both the massive operations and quotidian practices of wartime preparation. The photograph thus locates Reinhardt—in a way he hoped his paintings never would be—within a distinct time, place, and effort. In so doing, it clarifies what it meant for his paintings to be—or try to exist—outside of, or beyond, any temporal, geographic, or practical distinctions.
Reinhardt was so eloquent and insistent in crafting an artistic philosophy and advocating for a division between art and life that he has largely been taken at his word.7 As such, his oeuvre has been understood as a hermetic project and a strictly self-reflexive process, whereas Reinhardt’s relationship to contemporary politics has remained opaque. The naval drawings reveal what was at stake for Reinhardt in the autonomy of art and the ways in which that desire for autonomy inevitably participates in broader cultural concerns. The naval drawings are unmistakably tied to the political moment in which they were made. This fact is even truer for the cartoons Reinhardt executed for PM, whose commentaries on period minutiae fly over the head of today’s reader. In this sense, they serve as the negative—to use a key strategy in Reinhardt’s philosophy8—of his paintings. As he evacuated any and all contingency from painting, Reinhardt distilled the medium’s most enduring and stable strategies in order to render his work “timeless.” But, in opposition to the contingency of the naval drawings, his statement is not to be understood, as it has been,9 as the absence of history, but, rather, as its palpable, material presence. By asserting the dichotomy between art and life, Reinhardt tried to establish one between history and politics—a valiant goal that could only have emerged at the conjunction of them in 1940s America.
My sincere thanks to Michelle Lim and Tessa Paneth-Pollak for their insightful comments and questions on this text.
1. See “Artist’s Chronology” in Michael Corris, Ad Reinhardt (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).
2. Lucy Lippard offers the most comprehensive discussion of Reinhardt’s time in the navy in Ad Reinhardt (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1980: 42 – 44). Perhaps taking a cue from Reinhardt’s own chronology, others tend to gloss over this moment in his life and career.
3. Barbara Rose, ed. “An Interview with Ad Reinhardt (1966-1967),” in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York: Viking Press, 1975): 25
4. Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927 – 1968 [digitized]. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
5. My deepest thanks to Anna Reinhardt for bringing these materials to my attention as well as Anna Gray at David Zwirner Gallery for making them accessible to me, and Kara Carmack at the Ad Reinhardt Foundation for contextual information.
6. “An Interview with Ad Reinhardt (1966 – 1967),” in Art-as-Art, 25.
7. See, for example, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” (1957) in Art-as-Art.
8. See, for example, “Art-as-Art” in Art-as-Art, in which Reinhardt defines art, in part, by what it is not.
9. In the catalogue for Reinhardt and Color (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1980), “timeless” is defined as “ahistorical.”
NIKA ELDER is a lecturer in the Princeton University Writing Program.