“Why is there no world history of modern art?” Ad Reinhardt asked in a 1953 talk. He was asking the right question to the right people. He was delivering the talk at the annual meeting College Art Association, the guild organization of college and university teachers of art history and studio art.
My guess is that, in 1953, it would have come as a surprise to many of his listeners to have someone suggest that there WAS a modern art being produced in Africa, Asia, and South America, nevermind enough of it to warrant an historical account. Even now, despite the currency of terms like “global modernism” and “multiple modernities,” the idea has scant functional mainstream credence. Look how little, astonishingly little, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has done with it.
But when Reinhardt said “world” he meant world—globe, the whole thing. And when he said history he meant a history or histories in the academic sense: serious, on-the-ground-researched, fact-checked account. His own world travels were still a few years in the future in 1953. But he was a person and artist of global consciousness.
How did that develop is case? I don’t know, but I know one way it can: you go, hungry, to big, encyclopedic museums—best to start young, though any entry point is good—and look at everything. Just by being omnivorous you’ll soak in a world of cultures, and chances are very good, especially if are our own guide, that you’ll get a sense of the equivalence in value of those cultures.
Maybe that was the process for Reinhardt. Maybe it was what led him to the idea of filling art up but emptying it all—a big all—out, and the other way around. Well, he was a prophet in many ways. And 60 years later, his 1953 question—which was, of course, a political question—is just (barely) beginning to be answered.
HOLLAND COTTER is an art critic at the New York Times. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.