Art history textbooks don’t typically mention that Ad Reinhardt was a charismatic weirdo, but that’s usually what I’m thinking when I’m standing in front of one of his paintings. He would probably hate that. “Art-as-Art, and Life-as-Life.” He was a zealot and a neat freak: everything in its proper place. It’s surprising that someone with so much personality would spend his life advocating for his own disappearance. For me, his work is largely about his failure to accomplish that goal.
He wrote exclusively in calligraphy. He probably had special pens. His letters, often exuberant cascades of spazzy poetry, are more inspiring than most people’s artwork. They showcase his dizzying intelligence and flair for the absurd with rhymes, made-up lingo, and perfect comic timing. My favorite is an existential pep talk that both literally and thematically spirals around a letter from a dejected friend. It comes as no surprise that he was the editor of Columbia University’s humor magazine (which makes me wonder how many potentially great artists are instead writing for The Simpsons these days). He published cartoons and illustrations aimed at helping people better understand how to look at modern art, always with pointed jokes and a strong bias toward his abstract agenda. He was so single-minded that he would even edit and rearrange other people’s writing about his work, negating their subjective projections. He was politically engaged, taught art history, and travelled the world; always building his case for the enlightened object. Ultimately, he decided that the only artistic solution was to give it all up—almost—and spent the last 14 years of his life painting faintly perceptible matte black crosses on black square canvases.
All his charm, defiance, grandiosity, and curiosity were focused on the cause and bottlenecked into the creation of what he called “the last paintings.” They are a concentrated expression, the opposite of minimal. And it seems to me that their energy flows both ways—that the art isn’t just the paintings, but also the man on a mission.
Mathew Cerletty is an artist based in New York. Recent exhibitions include Kitchen Island at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and Test Pattern at the Whitney Museum of American Art.