Ad Reinhardt’s paintings have been generally understood to be aligned with modernist purification. His thought, however, as revealed through his writing, was significantly more expansive than his paintings appeared. Interestingly, Reinhardt was an art-as-art painter, using his writing to distinguish his position on abstraction, defining it in a stream of refusals and juxtapositions.
We now accept that artists can be fluent in a multiplicity of disciplines, but Reinhardt as an artist-writer-cartoonist-photographer-student of art history-hybrid was advanced for his time. There are contemporary artists, some abstract painters, who are established as serious writers. Some that come to mind are Nora Griffin, Peter Halley, Christopher K. Ho, Loren Munk, Seth Price, and Stephen Westfall. Moreover, I recently visited Amy Sillman’s retrospective at the ICA Boston. Towards the end of the retrospective is a display case with several drawings chiding artworld opening reception phrases and lists of philosophers helpful for artist practices, as well as several Xerox fanzines Sillman made (a couple even quote Reinhardt and one reproduced How to Look at Modern Art in America). While many of the paintings could have been done anytime in the past 50 – 100 years (abstractions often resembling Matisse or Diebenkorn), the voice in her writing was contemporary, giving the work new context and vitality.
Why is Reinhardt’s writing so important in understanding Reinhardt’s paintings? The writing anchors the work in a network of the artist’s ideas and thoughts, as well as those particular moments and within a continuum of art history with which he was continually engaged. Curiously, as much as Reinhardt argued for a morphological history of objects, his writing expands (rather than contracts) his paintings into a nexus of activities, inquiries, and philosophies. It is time to see Reinhardt’s activities as a whole rather than just the paintings dissociated from his other activities, which has largely been the case.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.