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Black Paintings

Time is (Not) Money

It takes time to look at Reinhardt’s paintings, especially his black paintings. As your experience of one of the black paintings unfolds and your eyes adjust, a grid of subtly differentiated black hues appears—a grid made up of two intersecting bands of black mixed with very small amounts of red, blue, or green pigment, which trisect the five-foot square canvas in either direction. By most accounts, the ability to perceive this grid is your reward for paying attention: in return for your time, focus, and concentration, you receive this figure.

August Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1893, marble, 127 cm. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though indispensible, accounts of Reinhardt’s late paintings that focus on time in this manner leave off, I think, just a moment too soon. Before saying more about this leaving off, I would first point out that the appearance of a black painting does not change over time because of something the viewer actively does.

It changes by virtue of an involuntary process of vision. Beyond holding still and looking in the direction of the painting, no calculable effort is involved. So, if the viewer were reallypaying attention to a black painting, the currency spent would be simply time, that is, time free of labor. But, in the end, the viewer does not pay, even with his or her minutes, and I say this not just because in one of Reinhardt’s lists “time is money” follows fast on the heels of the “devil” and “filthy tricks.”        

Having invested your precious time in watching a figure (a grid) slowly emerge from blackness, you feel satisfied that the process has reached something of an end. You decide it is time to walk away. You move on to other paintings in the gallery, but before leaving the room entirely, you glance back over your shoulder at the black painting to which you had patiently devoted yourself, maybe hoping to take home something of its elusiveness. But when you turn to look, you discover that the painting has returned to being the black monochrome it was when you first laid eyes on it; the figure has disappeared. You discover, in other words, that your experience of it did not leave a trace, at least not on the painting. If the literature on Reinhardt’s black paintings tends to overlook this moment of loss, concluding before it occurs, Reinhardt’s own writings suggest that it is the prize. And it costs you hardly any of your time.

For Reinhardt, experience is always an accretion to be stripped away: “The painting leaves the studio as a purist, abstract, non-objective object of art, returns as a record of everyday (surrealist, expressionist) experience (‘chance’ spots, defacements, hand-markings, accidents—‘happenings,’ scratches), and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negating the negation of art), again and again, over and over again, until it is just ‘right’ again.” Reinhardt did, in fact, regularly repaint his paintings, restoring them when they were damaged during exhibitions. This happened with some frequency, since he worked with paints so drained of oil that they eagerly absorb the oil of human hands, and people seem to want to touch Reinhardt’s paintings.

Along with these literal reviewings, the Orpheus moment in which the viewer glances back over her shoulder before leaving the gallery is also a repainting of sorts. In this moment, you lose the figure that you slowly acquired during your earlier course of viewing and you realize that the time it took to perceive it was not time invested but simply expended. For what counts, in the end, is this moment of “getting rid of,” when the painting returns to what it had been before you were there—as if your experience of it had never happened.

“And Orpheus received her, but one term / Was set: he must not, till he passed Avernus, / Turn back his gaze, or the gift would be in vain.”1 I don’t mean to suggest that Orpheus’s glance back in defiance of the terms set for Eurydice’s release from the underworld is a perfect analogy for the viewer’s turn back to look (once more) at one of Reinhardt’s black paintings. Though imperfect, it might still help us understand what happens to the subject, if she or he risks a backward glance before leaving the gallery. In both the Orpheus myth and in the experience of a black painting, it is clear that the glance causes the object of the gaze to disappear: “He, afraid that she might falter, eager to see her, / Looked back in love, and she was gone, in a moment.”2 It is less obvious how this backward glance “gets rid of” the gazing subject as well. Ovid hints at the disappearance of Orpheus along with Eurydice when he asks: “Was it he, or she, reaching out arms and trying / To hold or to be held, and clasping nothing / But empty air?”3 Rodin’s alignment of the lovers’ arms seems to pose this question as well.

According to Maurice Blanchot, when Orpheus turns back, he not only loses Eurydice but also “frees himself from himself and, still more important, frees [Eurydice] from his concern.”4 For Reinhardt this double loss (the freeing of the self from the self and the object from one’s experience of it) is pure gain—pure because unearned. A final glance over your shoulder at one of the black paintings shows you a world in which you never existed. In this world that seems to predate you, you cannot pay with any currency, certainly not with your time. Rather than rewarding you for investing your precious minutes in the contemplation of art, Reinhardt’s black paintings bar you, if only momentarily, from “spending” your time, as if it were capital.


  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955), pp. 235 – 36.
  2. Ovid, Metamorphoses, p. 236.

  3. Ovid, Metamorphoses, p. 236.

  4. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 175.


Amy Knight Powell

Amy Knight Powell is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (2012) and Picture Box: A Small History of the Easel Painting (forthcoming).


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