Ad Reinhardt - Biography and Legacy
Buffalo, New York
New York, New York
Biography of Ad Reinhardt
Adolph Frederick Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, New York, to a family of immigrants. The family settled in New York City soon after his birth. He excelled at school and exhibited an interest in the visual arts from an early age; in high school, he worked as an illustrator for the school's newspaper. An inveterate reader, he set his sights on the elite universities of the east coast and turned down several scholarships from art schools, opting instead for undergraduate studies in art history at Columbia University in New York, which he commenced in 1931.
At Columbia, Reinhardt studied under Meyer Schapiro, an iconic American historian of art. His two majors included literature and art history, giving him a solid background in the humanities, while informing him of the latest trends in visual arts and theory. Schapiro, known for his Marxist views, introduced Reinhardt to radical campus politics, which shaped the leftist views that he maintained throughout the rest of his life.
Upon graduation in 1935, Reinhardt began training as an artist, first at the National Academy of Design and later at the American Artists School on 14th Street in New York. At the AAS, he fell under the influence of two progressive painters, Francis Criss and Carl Holty, who were influenced by the European traditions of Cubism and Constructivism.
Between 1936 and 1941, Reinhardt was one of the few abstract artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the Federal Arts Project (WPA/FAP) in its easel division. While engaged in this work he met other leading artists such as Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, whose friendship would continue to be important to him.
During this period, Reinhardt's works were mainly influenced by the geometric abstraction he had learned as a student. At times his work took on aspects of gestural abstraction, yet his handling was restrained in comparison to that of some of his peers. In concert with this, he also worked as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for several New York publications, including PM and ARTnews.
Reinhardt's mature work is characterized by his search for an absolute form of abstraction. He considered Abstract Expressionism to be plagued with suggestive biomorphism, an abundance of emotional innuendos, and a cult of the ego. In contrast, he sought to create an abstract art that contained no suggestions of narrative or emotion and withheld the slightest reference to anything outside the canvas.
In this regard, Reinhardt was deeply influenced by the art and theoretical writings of Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Suprematist. Malevich's Black Square (1915) inspired the artist to begin using solid fields of color arranged in rigid geometric patterns of squares and rectangles. These experiments in the early 1950s resulted in several series of paintings devoted to a single color - the Red Paintings, the Blue Paintings, and, finally, the Black Paintings (1954-67).
Late Years and Death
From 1954 until his death in 1967, Reinhardt devoted himself exclusively to the Black Paintings. The artist believed in the profound symbolic potency of the color black. For him it was the absolute zero, the end of light, a point so irreducible that painting as a genre was pushed to its limit of expression.
An encounter with one of Reinhardt's Black Paintings (1954-67) is inevitably complex and conflicting. The viewer is stunned by the complete absence of either narrative or coloristic interplay, and yet the canvas is overwhelmingly full of color; a closer look reveals that the ostensibly monochrome surface is composed of various shades of black, from light to dark.
Reinhardt developed a sophisticated technique to create the effects he desired. He siphoned off oil from the pigments that he used to produce a very delicate suede-like finish. His matte surfaces thus further absorb light into their refined darkness. This technique is responsible for the serious conservation issues associated with Reinhardt's Black Paintings (1954-67) today. Their surfaces are so fragile and the original technique so complex that the conservation and restoration of each canvas is always an arduous, expensive, and time-consuming task.
Reinhardt died of a massive heart attack on August 30, 1967, at the age of 53, in his New York studio.
The Legacy of Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt's oeuvre remains a pivotal cornerstone in the evolution from the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s to the Minimal and Conceptual art movements of the following decade. Often ridiculed by his expressionist peers, Reinhardt came to be seen as a priest and prophet figure by the subsequent generation, for whom he provided a bridge back to Constructivism. While it is debatable whether Reinhardt ever managed to completely purge his art so completely of references to the outside world, this aim was identical with that of Minimalists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris.