At some time in the ’80s I gave a lecture about American painting between the world wars at a space the Whitney Museum had on Wall Street, where they put on shows and had people come and give talks at lunchtime. Afterwards I was introduced to an elderly man who said he’d taken Ad Reinhardt on his first trip to Europe—I think this would mean he was Martin James, but do not recall. He told me that all the time they were there—they went to Paris and then to Cologne—Reinhardt drew in little sketchbooks. On the way back home his companion asked if he was going to show him what he’d been drawing. Reinhardt was happy to do so and to his friend’s surprise the books contained, exclusively or almost exclusively, drawings of metal grids: grating grids, ventilation grids, whether from walls or streets, all dark, all geometric depths in which the space receded back into invisibility within the grid—proto-Reinhardts.
The well-known fragility of Reinhardt’s black paintings is a technical result of trying to force paint to look black rather than dark gray, by leaching out much of the oil a tube of paint contains. We are never able to see the absolutely black as other than a depth, which we can only look into rather than at. Reinhardt’s blackness is in that the un-color of a picture plane that cannot be a plane but can only be a depth. I think the implications of Reinhardt’s ending his career with paintings made out of groundless depths recall those recorded by Piet Mondrian when he used a color (red) instead of black to make a line, and found it undermined the picture plane. This undermining in turn reminds me of Cézanne’s assertion that painting’s white ground is always already deep, the painter has only to carve it out. If Mondrian’s white (often cracked, perhaps because of a struggle to make it really white) is freed from regulation by the grid by making a line out of color, I think Reinhardt’s black performs a similar liberation by substituting an abyss for a ground, unfathomable depth instead of a plane that gives security. This is because we can’t see blacks, any more than whites, as only surfaces but instead see them involuntarily as infinite depths unless encouraged to do otherwise. In Reinhardt it’s not one color disrupting a grid, it’s a collection of colors so dark there is not one of them that can ground the others: no field, only figures; when a field works as a frame, another kind of figure. Nothing stands still because everything moves everything else, almost imperceptibly.
I don’t think either Mondrian or Reinhardt got the point of what they’d done. I think Barbara Rose was right in thinking Reinhardt dramatically innovative, but perhaps not as right as she thought she was. Comparably, Clement Greenberg was wrong in his reservations about Reinhardt and his use of black, and it is to the point here that he was wrong in a way that almost exactly reflects his reservations about Stella, despite the latter’s black paintings being quite unlike Reinhardt’s. Greenberg was wrong about Reinhardt because he couldn’t see, for a reason his criticism of Reinhardt doesn’t make explicit, that his very slow and close in tone blacks activated the surface of the painting enough to make its flatness be complicated by an apparent movement which would, necessarily, imply space—without which there can’t be movement. Likewise, he once said to me that Stella wasn’t really painting but sculpting. Totally missing the point, in my view, of the work’s use of a subdivided black to activate the space the painting—as both surface and object—shared with its viewers. I see Greenberg’s resistance to both Reinhardt and Stella to be a sign of a commitment to the ground plane that now makes him look more irreversibly committed to a representational starting point than he seemed at the time. I think no one got the point until quite recently, probably because of the lesson presented by the imagery of the video screen, ungrounded light as space that pulses. I only had the thought because of seeing it in the work of Rebecca Norton, a painter not born until much later. I think the thought depends on being at a greater distance from the early 20th century, that while Reinhardt and everyone else could not imagine abstraction (whatever he may have said to the contrary) other than as a struggle to find what an abstract as opposed to a representational painting really might be and do, is no longer the case. By 1960 the picture plane had implicitly come to belong to the past, but that would not be clear to either the artists who performed the closure or the critics who loved their work, nor had it become any clearer by 1972, when Greenberg described Stella’s painting as poor sculpture rather than remembering Mondrian’s remark about how paintings don’t take place on the surface but in the space between and around itself and its viewer. I suggest it is clear now.
Too much of a Derridean to think there can ever be an ending, as opposed to a deferring, I have never taken seriously Reinhardt’s (or anyone else’s) admonition about the end of painting. It was just the way the New York School (and its immediate predecessors) thought about art. Everything had to be not something. Realizing the potential Reinhardt’s work offers could include having done with painting being not something. It never was dead and now has the opportunity not to be trapped in a struggle it long since won. An end to preoccupation with escaping a past, then, and instead the pursuit of painting without the lingering presence of what it no longer is—which, put like that, doesn’t sound all that far from what Reinhardt wanted.
JEREMY GILBERT-ROLFE is a British-born painter, art critic, essayist, and professor at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.