During the summer of 1966, at Cuenca, a beautiful medieval city in the middle of Spain, the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art was inaugurated. At the time, it was the unique and most advanced modern art museum in this country, and it had a great success. Alfred H. Barr, former director of the MoMA came to visit it and wrote to Fernando Zóbel, who founded the museum along with Gerardo Rueda and Gustavo Torner, “What you have done in Cuenca is surely one of the most admirable, indeed brilliant, works of art . . . a remarkable balance of painting, sculpture and architecture.” Fernando Zóbel, the cousin of Alfonso Ossorio, was a very intense painter and a great intellectual who graduated from Harvard University. He had important links in USA and endowed his institution with a significant modern art library, current catalogs, and subscriptions to art magazines like Art International among others. Above all, a crucial group of advanced Spanish abstract artists established a rich environment of discussions and approaches to international art during the time of Franco. In that context, I became assistant curator of the museum. There it was easy to learn and be up to date with the latest trends and works of leading artist like Ad Reinhardt.
Through photos, reproductions, catalogs, and Reinhardt’s writings I began to connect with the structure of his mind. I found he had given us the path of a great radical esthetic advance. In a way he offers a profound vision of an infinite space, a subtle way to acquire a sense of successive layers of viewing reflected in the frontier of emptiness. In his intelligent “compositions” (even when he didn’t accept the traditional concept of composition), in the black paintings, he uses the essential, basic spatial directions, and planes, vertical, horizontal, a cross-form, Malevich’s last Black Cross from the late 1920s, but in the case of Reinhardt with a much more static energy, a kind of energy perhaps connected with his Asian concept of art ethic. A short article by John Crosby “A Few Notes on Art” the New York Herald Tribune, June 21, 1963, [see reproduction on page 18] introduced three graphics, representing three artists, one for Rothko, a square divided in two equal parts by a horizontal line, another square for Newman with a vertical division, an the third for Reinhardt with both horizontal and vertical dividing the square. These were the representation of the basic spatial positions, or composition, the beginning of our spatial perception projected on a painting which is essentially a square or a rectangle, that is vertical-horizontal.
Soon after my stay at the Museum of Cuenca, I could travel a lot, mainly in the USA, visiting museums and galleries where I saw directly the work of Ad Reinhardt. Like with every form of art, prints and reproductions do not convey the emotion of the real thing—especially with those three magnificent artists.
Reinhardt’s sense of color in his black paintings was a revelation: the impressive subtle nuances, which you must form in your brain because you don’t see them directly at the beginning. You must reinvent them, and then it’s a sublime state of affirmation of the complexity of our universe, a kind of generous enlightenment. In spite of his “Nos,” his no colors, because “colors are barbaric, unstable, suggest life, cannot be completely controlled.” For me, on the contrary, his paintings suggest light and colors although of course they don’t appear initially.
Later I could compare some of my impression related to his work with another artist’s achievements and philosopy, some who made me react in a similar or complementary way, for instance, the German Wofgang Leib, born in 1950, deeply involved with a profound relationship with nature, simplicity, purity like some Eastern philosophies and poetry, his large yellow-pollen squares have more sacred and mystic implications than Reinhardt, but at the end both participate of an eidos or essentiality in capturing the universal form or idea underlying all experience.
Reinhardt’s statements inhabit my mind and accompanied the growth and form of my artistic desires, “Art is art. Everything else is everything else,” or when he describes his black paintings: “No composition, formless, no top, no bottom, directionless, lightless, colorless, glossless, textureless.” His sense of time—“No time” and “Art should be still”—reminds me the famous poem, Burnt Norton, from T. S. Eliot, “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.” Reinhardt says, “A work of art is always present.”
Curiously for me, he even gives some instructions or regulations to be followed by artists: “No easel or palette. No noise. The brush should pass over the surface lightly and smoothly, and silently.” Moreover he finished saying that an artist should have a fine mind, “free of all passion, ill-will and delusion”—evidence of his interest in Asian forms of art and philosophy. He also attended conferences and seminars of D.T. Suzuki about Zen Buddhism, which were so important for a variety of artists and inspired a growing interest in Asian art. This interest arrived in Spain during the ’60s, mainly through Fernando Zóbel and the rich intellectual ambience created around his abstract art museum. Following his teachings, I myself made an “initiatory” trip to Japan to visit the most famous Zen gardens and temples.
Needless to say that at the end, if we analyze seriously the “Nos” of Reinhardt in his late black paintings, we understand his intention to dissolve any relationship with the Euclidean geometry, the Renaissance sense of space. Nevertheless, all of his works have color (delicate, suggestive, merging, little by little), texture (flat, matte), order, regularity, arrangement, left and right, that is form (since its is a square), and so on . . . Nonetheless in his work, art really happens in the present, and in the spirit of the most profound, intense experience ever.
His work and philosophy of painting have been, and still are, the most important references in my imaginary museum and actions as a painter.
ContributorJosé María Yturralde
JOSE MARIA YTURRALDE is a painter who lives in Valencia, Spain and shows in New York.