“Must see you Monday 18, when is December deadline? Do you have time for colorplates still? Having show at Dwan open in two weeks, need full-page color-plate in Art News. Number Two of Art-as-Art Dogma will be ready next week, can you run it as “R........ paints a picture”? How’s business? Can you send me any money in advance? The more the merrier, love, Ad”
—Excerpt from a postcard from
Ad Reinhardt to Thomas B. Hess
Executive Editor of ARTnews, 1963
The above communication from Ad Reinhardt to Thomas Hess encapsulates some of the cross-currents that characterized the working relationship between a leading New York School artist who was also a prolific, polemical writer, and satirical cartoonist for ARTnews, and ARTnews’s influential executive editor who was also a critic supportive of Reinhardt’s art along with that of the other New York School artists.
Shortly after I came to New York, in the early 1960s, I found myself working in the offices of ARTnews, then in a small building at 4 East 53rd Street. It was my first art magazine job. I was wedged into an anteroom just outside the door to Hess’s office. That door was usually open, and as I worked behind my hulking manual typewriter, I could observe the goings and comings of many of the magazine’s writers, as well as various artists who stopped by to gossip, make suggestions, or complain; I could often overhear what went on. Among the visitors were Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Bill Berkson, Gene Swenson, Jill Johnston, Allan Kaprow, Salvador Dali, Lawrence Campbell, Suzi Gablik, Natalie Edgar, Norman Bluhm, Philip Pavia, and many more. Many of the artists also wrote for the magazine.
A typical Reinhardt-Hess office conversation, easygoing at first, would accelerate to a flurry of pronouncements, rebuttals, and arguments centering on one or another recent art event. As debaters and old friends, both were unyielding in defense of their positions (John Ashbery once called Tom Hess a “sensitive pugilist”), but their jousting was good natured, punctuated by jokes and bursts of hilarity. Things would subside abruptly as they put on their jackets and went out to lunch.
I kept no notes, of course. Fortunately, their exchanges often took written form—from Reinhardt’s side, a stream of witty, acerbic postcards, filled edge to edge with dense italic script so meticulously executed that it resembles an archaic typographical font. Hess kept a couple of neckties tacked to the bulletin board in his office so that artists who arrived for lunch without one could borrow a tie and join him in a good midtown restaurant. Reinhardt, however, always showed up properly dressed. Their lunches were long. Cartoons or various writing projects would result. Reinhardt had spent many years in graduate school studying art history. His wide-ranging studies and subsequent world travels were fodder for his cartoons and diatribes. Even in the ’50s, when the New York art world was hardly awash in money, Reinhardt (from his secure perch as a professor at Brooklyn College) condemned much that went on in the advancement of commerce and careers. He published straightforward critical or scholarly articles, too. He was well versed in Asian and Islamic art. An early article (1954) assessed an exhibition of Chinese landscapes at the Cleveland Museum. When Asia House opened its museum in New York, his coverage, “Timeless in Asia” (1960), celebrated the presence of the Asian art works in the confines of those galleries. The concept of the museum as mausoleum, set apart from worldly distractions, is derided today as museums seek to be all things to all people. To Reinhardt, it was the ideal.
An article on Angkor Wat traced the formal trajectory of Cambodian architecture and sculpture, then propounded a Reinhardtian definition of classic art: “Classic Art is unnatural, unentertaining, non-instructional, burdensome, irreligious, lifeless, soundless, airless, smell-less, motionless, timeless, useless, undramatic, unpoetic, austere, abstract, square, moral, disciplined, traditional, formal, colorless, dark, noble, hieratic, symmetrical, repetitious, invisible, disinterested, complete, rational, conscious, clear.” (Reinhardt might find little in today’s art world to fit that definition.)
Reinhardt’s appearances in ARTnews began when a show of his was reviewed in February 1944. He exhibited at Betty Parsons nearly every year from then on, which meant that he was reviewed pretty much annually. (The frequent reviews were not a sign of unusual favor. ARTnews, at the time, reviewed every exhibition in New York, either briefly or in a substantial paragraph; this practice continued until late 1972.) Hess joined the staff in 1945. He reviewed a Reinhardt show in 1949. Reinhardt’s elaborate, highly opinionated, full-page cartoons of staggering imagistic and referential complexity were published in 1952 and ’54, foreshadowing many more to come. Hess wrote “Reinhardt: The position and perils of purity” in 1953, and in ’56, longer than a review but not quite an article, “Ad Reinhardt, Portraits of Ahab.”
In May 1956, Reinhardt’s “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” appeared. Reinhardt embarks on a theological note: “Evil and error in art are art’s own ‘uses’ and ‘actions.’ The sins and sufferings of art are always its own improper involvements and mixtures, its own mindless realisms and expressionisms.” He goes on,“The conception of art as ‘fine,’ ‘high,’ ‘noble,’ ‘free,’ ‘liberal,’ and ‘ideal’ has always been academic.” (For him, “academic” is a high compliment.) He concludes with “The Twelve Technnical Rules” for artists: “1. No texture. ... 2. No brushwork or calligraphy. ... 3. No sketching or drawing. ... 4. No forms. ... 5. No design. ... 6. No color. ... 7. No light. ... 8. No space. ... 9. No time. ... 10. No size or scale. ... Large sizes are aggressive, positivist, intemperate, venal and graceless. ... 11. No movement. ... 12. No object, no subject, no matter. ... .” (Each proscription includes more detail, and there are a few jokes: Rule 12 ends with “no chess playing.”) It was this kind of thing, rather than his mid-’50s art, that inspired parody. A month later ARTnews published Elaine de Kooning’s “Pure Paints a Picture,” a somewhat affectionate yet pointed satire the subject of which—lightly veiled as “Adolf Pure”—is unmistakable.
He would live for another decade. Starting in the ’60s, his art received increasingly widespread critical coverage in the U.S. and international press. His black paintings had for years drawn a degree of popular ridicule along with denunciations from conservative critics. But by the mid-’60s he was getting respectful attention beyond the sector of the art world that had been his base of operations. Tom Hess observed, in an obituary at the time of Reinhardt’s sudden death in 1967, that “his friends are deprived of the chance to watch how gracefully he would have dodged the corruptions attendant on a growing fame.”
The paintings, the cartoons, the writings on art, and his famous slide shows that drew upon his own travel photos and his encyclopedic art-historical interests are generally viewed as very distinct endeavors, so unrelated as to be paradoxical. Yet there’s a family resemblance among them in their durational requirements. The black paintings demand sustained looking to be really seen; the eye must adjust to their tonal subtleties. Time and effort are needed to take in and decipher the cartoons; the slide shows, too, call for prolonged attention. Not to mention the difficulty posed by the modernist/Joycean puns, fanciful deformations of proper names and incantatory reiterations and rhythms in the art-as-art declarations, especially when the latter are reproduced in his black, handwritten script, the words forming a resistant geometric block on the page. They ask to be absorbed word by word and savored as a visual entity at the same time.
In the catalog of his 1966 retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, his first museum solo and the only one during his lifetime, Reinhardt writes a chronology interspersing key personal events with milestones in the history of abstraction. He traces his life very explicitly as a parallel to that history. He begins, “1913 Born, New York, Christmas Eve, nine months after Armory Show… 1913 Malevich paints first geometric-abstract painting… 1918, Malevich paints ‘White on White,’” and some years later, “1929 Georgia O’Keeffe paints ‘Black Cross, New Mexico.’” Regarding his 1915 black square painting, Malevich (like Reinhardt, an artist/writer/teacher) declared, “the square is a living royal infant.” Reinhardt speaks of his square black paintings in similarly dramatic terms—“ultimate,” “the last paintings anyone can make”—but the implication is different. Malevich’s “royal infant” launched Suprematism in Russia, and opened up a century’s worth of possibilities elsewhere. Reinhardt’s “ultimate” paintings were not the end of anything, despite his claim (doubtless calculated and ironic). They, too, contained their own future, setting forth possibilities and establishing an intellectual framework for a brilliant subsequent phase of art-making.
ContributorElizabeth C. Baker
ELIZABETH C. BAKER is a writer and editor. She edited Art in America for thirty-four years.