Ad ReinhardtI've written several times about the last desperate moments of the Modern Art era. I've recounted the struggle Abstract Expressionism faced as it matured in the late 1950s and began showing its age in the early years of the 60s. I've covered the challenges it faced from the first seminal stirrings of Postmodernism as represented by the Pop Art movement. And I've covered in some depth the lives and lessons of those in the forefront of these movements. Yet few people have either names or faces to connect with the last gasps of Modern Art as it flat-lined into Minimalism in the late 1960s. Let me try to remedy that. I can't draw you a face, but I can provide a name and a written description of one of the last champions of Modern Art.
His name was Ad Reinhardt (Ad was short for Adolph at a time when that name was none too popular). He was born in 1913 in Buffalo, New York though his family moved to New York City when he was two. There he grew up to study art history at Columbia and then move on to painting at the National Academy of Design. His early influences came from Stuart Davis and Piet Mondrian. After the war, he fell neatly into the so-called New York School with Pollock, Gottlieb, Kline, de Kooning and the rest. But where Reinhardt differed from these was in a yearning to push the limits beyond their typical action painting unto a more sublime, ethereal level. Unlike the others, Reinhardt (except perhaps for some student work) had never been a representational painter. He was unique in this respect. He split from the gestural clique of abstract expressionists and allied himself with the evolving colour field painters, and then gradually began to move beyond even them. Perhaps he's most famous for his "Black" paintings, a series in which the only image presented on canvas amounts to subtle variations of warm and cool blacks. Like Malevich's White on White from 1918, Reinhardt's negative equivalent was about as close to nothingness as art might hope to aspire.
Reinhardt preached formalism at the expense of all else. He claimed art should have no message other than its own existence: "When you've nothing to say, then say nothing, over and over again, with countless, meaningless variations." Reinhardt saw meaninglessness as a virtue. And thus evolved Minimalism with Reinhardt not just its chief practitioner but its "godfather," his influence far outweighing his own work in this style. Ad Reinhardt died in 1967 at a time when his art theories were at their zenith. And just as Pollock's death in 1956 seemingly started a slow leak in the Abstract Expressionist balloon, a similar case could be made for Reinhardt's demise having the same effect on Minimalism. And with the passing of "nothingness art," the whole Modern Art era quietly drew to a close. There were those to mourn its passing, to try and deny its death, to try and prolong its existence with all manner of life support. There were those with a tremendous financial stake in its place in the art world. The last rites were long and tearful. In effect, Reinhardt and Minimalism marked the end of a thousand years of gradual, logical, technical, and theoretical progression in art. It seemed to many like the end of the world. If art had nowhere to go, if art could make no further "progress," if art was defined by new developments and new ideas, and all that was new had already been brought to light, then could true art continue to exist? Was there to be an Act II?
Contributed by Lane, Jim
23 June 2001