“I think art history and a historical awareness of art history is an absolutely essential part of an artist’s background.”
—Ad Reinhardt, ICA London lecture, May 1964
Ad Reinhardt’s commitment to learning about art, on the most global of scales, was unequivocal. Seeing it directly, in person—up close, Leica in hand—was equally critical to him, and between 1949 and 1964 the artist embarked on at least seven expeditions, including three extensive international trips—of which one was a full-blown world tour—in order to satiate his propensity for art historical discovery.
Crucially, Reinhardt was a teacher of art history, as well as an artist, and the images taken on his travels—from 18th-century Pahari paintings to Gandharan sculptures—were collated to form slides for his classes. The artist Robert Morris, who was a student of Reinhardt’s at Hunter College, New York, recalls a teacher devoted to going out in the world and bringing things back: “He went everywhere. All of the slides he showed from Egypt to Angkor Vat or China: he always took them.” Reinhardt’s true vivacity for augmenting his knowledge and experience of art through first-hand encounters also stood out for Morris, who was perhaps used to the more staid approaches of other faculty: “It wasn’t as though he was checking slides out of the Met…they were very personal.”
Reinhardt’s first comprehensive trip took place in 1952, when he travelled to Europe for the first time with his colleague Martin James. The pair spent just over two months on the continent, exploring the museums of London, Paris, and Amsterdam, as well as visiting landmarks such as the Pantheon and Versailles. Reinhardt’s second international excursion, undertaken alone a couple of years later, required him to take leave from Brooklyn College, where he also taught as a tenured lecturer. In a letter to the president of the college, who had requested that Reinhardt report on the activities undertaken during his sabbatical, he discusses his travels to Spain and Greece “to see the Prado Museum in Madrid, the church and monastery at Toledo, the El Escorial, and to visit the ancient sites and museums in Athens, Delphi, Olympia, Delos, Crete and Rhodes.” Prior to reaching Spain, Reinhardt chose to revisit “Amsterdam, London, Paris, Glasgow, Rome, Munich and Nurnberg.” Intensive in their scope and scrupulously planned, Reinhardt’s itineraries confirm not only a voracious appetite for exploration, but also for re-discovery. Such return visits, and second viewings, signal an attitude for reassessing works, and experiencing them anew.
This letter is also significant in its confirmation of Reinhardt’s engagement with non-Western art. Reinhardt taught two classes at Hunter: Art and Architecture of the Islamic world, from Spain to India and Chinese and Japanese Art. At Brooklyn he taught painting courses, as well as a class on ‘Primitive Art.’ He explains that leave was also used to “continue some studies in Art History (of India and China)” whilst alerting his colleague: “trips in the future will be toward the east, Egypt, Istanbul, Persia, India, and when possible, Turkestan and Mongolia, to see the great Buddhist monasteries of Central Asia.” Asian art is known to have impacted the evolution of Reinhardt’s own painting practice, and the artist’s long-standing relationship with this field, both as an individual discipline and subject matter within broader art historical discourse, is particularly interesting.
For an American artist to be interested in Asian Art during the 1950s and 1960s was not unusual. Art and cultural theory from the East had cemented itself within the psyche of artists in post-war America. Several artists aside from Reinhardt, such as Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Calder, and Cage, had expressed a distinct interest. However, whereas these enthusiasms appear based on opportune exposure (Rauschenberg accompanied the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its world tour of 1964, which offered his first visit to India) or motivations grounded in the production of art (Calder spent three weeks undertaking a residency in Ahmedabad in 1955), the catalyst for Reinhardt seems more deliberate, both in duration and intensity. Sam Hunter suggests such differences in impetus when he notes that Reinhardt had been attending Japanese author D.T. Suzuki’s seminars in Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in the early 1950s “before they became fashionable among the New York avant-garde.”
Reinhardt’s fascination with Asian art history was formally registered as early as 1943, when he studied at New York University: “I got interested in all the fantastic subjects that weren’t taught anywhere… (Alfred Salmony) gave the courses in art of India… a course in China and Korea and Japan… those were terrific courses.” He finally made it to India in 1958 as part of a three month excursion around the world which included Egypt, Japan, Cambodia, Burma, and Karachi (keeping true to his plans, as outlined in his letter to the president of Brooklyn College back in ’54). Reinhardt explored the country for 15 days—longer than anywhere else on the tour—seeing the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, Islamic antiquities, medieval sculpture, and the Calcutta museum (“another terrific place”) amongst others. It is clear that Reinhardt’s interest in India was especially acute: beginning in 1952, he applied repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, for teaching and study grants. Ultimately a bank loan had to be secured to finance his journey.
On his return to New York, Reinhardt gave two presentations of his photographs from India at the Artists’ Club, and in spring the following year the Society for Asian Affairs at Brooklyn College hosted a talk by Reinhardt on ‘the Relationship Between Asian Art and Asian History.’
Reinhardt’s elucidations about art from India, and the Eastern regions of the world more generally, mark him out as a distinguished thinker and teacher on such subjects, and, perhaps more significantly, reveal a figure who was not only a deeply curious champion of non-Western artistic cultures, but one who vehemently wished to position them as equal to art from the West. Speaking about traditional Chinese painting, Reinhardt exclaimed his surprise at the approaches being utilized to read such art: “To make out a Chinese artist… loves mist or he’s involved with nature or the great void of Buddhism…that’s absolute nonsense.” Unafraid to be explicit, Reinhardt issued provocations which seem almost prophetic now, in our current climate of globalization and biennales. Discussing the chronicles of art history in 1967, he commented: “the Oriental sections are going to get larger and larger in world art history, and the Western sections are going to get smaller and smaller.”
Allie Biswas is a critic based in London.