Ad Reinhardt
Lars Bang Larsen

The abstract and graphic work of Ad Reinhardt (1913– 1967, US) is still fresh and alive with his polemical strategies for conceptualising art and politics, and the relationship between the two.


Going one step further than predecessors such as Malevich and Mondrian, for whom abstraction was a matter of spirituality, Reinhardt adhered to a brand of abstraction that seemed like a blueprint for a better world: a visual logic that might reflect a future civilisation ‘more delicate and subtle than any we know’, as he put it; or embody the idea of art in its pure state.[1] This position eventually developed into one of more explicit negation, and for the last decade of his life Reinhardt only painted black monochromes. This was not only a renunciation of imagery but also a refusal to inflate art into a spectacle – a refusal that Reinhardt took to the point of subverting the possibility for the artwork’s reproduction. His black monochromes had to be seen in order to perceive their texture and discover them as visually active grids. In a book or in the pages of a magazine, one black monochrome would simply look the same as another. In this way even the part of his production that could be perceived as being the most withdrawn from the world was involved in a polemic – against the reproduction of certain notions of art that Reinhardt considered facile, but also against any affirmative political stance of art. His art was at the same time anti-meaning and anti-meaninglessness.  Art – autonomous and comparable to a foreign language or science – thus turns its back to any ‘protest’ imagery and refuses to take part in struggles for visibility. Painting does not need “any other ideas outside [of itself]”, as Reinhardt put it.[2]

In this exhibition Reinhardt is considered for what he called his ‘separate selves’. In this way Reinhardt’s satirical cartoons and montages about art and the art world are also well known. On top of this he was a prolific writer about art and aesthetics, and a commercial artist; he worked as a freelance art director, and produced cartoons for the New York daily newspaper PM (PictureMagazine). Moreover, in the 1930s and 40s he was an organiser of pickets and contributed illustrations, vignettes and satirical drawings to the Marxist publication New Masses and to Soviet Russia Today (published by the Communist Party, USA). Never one to toe the line of any party, however, Reinhardt stated that “I don’t see eye to eye with Stalin on aesthetic matters”. [3] Nor, presumably, did he do so on political matters. Thus the Communist Party reprimanded him for his ‘bad politics’ when it too came into his satirical line of fire.


This multiplicity of Reinhardt’s roles complicates the easy reading of his abstract work in terms of a classic modernist segregation between art and life. Instead his unforgiving stance against the corruption of art (by market, institutions and art that he considered ‘too available, too loose, too open, too poetic’) was formulated on the basis of dichotomies such as citizen and artist, fine art and applied art, mass culture and high culture, activist engagement and timeless artistic practice. In other words, Reinhardt rendered these oppositions productive not by excluding one side or by resolving them in any kind of hybridity, but by exacerbating them as dialectical unities: between his ‘separate selves’, each position within these dichotomies was in this way sharpened to its logical conclusion, and set to work in parallel with the other. The purpose was a self-reflexivity and self-criticism that would sometimes reach the point of paradox. One could perhaps formulate the complementarity of his ‘separate selves’ in this way: art was interesting to Reinhardt because of its absoluteness. This is unlike satire, which is dependent on pre-existing events, but that may enable a discussion about our behaviour around art. And while activism was never meant to provide a ‘solution’ to art, it represented the possibility for the citizen to make a first move in the social realm.

The epithet of ‘artist’s artist’ is in Reinhardt’s case more than a cliché, and he has been a direct or indirect inspiration for other artists in ‘A History of Irritated Material’. When Sture Johannesson started to make digital graphics in the early 1970s after the closing down of the Cannabis Gallery, it was with reference to Reinhardt’s famous Sentences on Art; and Joseph Kosuth, a former student of Reinhardt who wrote about the painter’s influence on the rise of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, is represented in this exhibition through his collaboration with Group Material.


For the exhibition, the artist Gorka Eizagirre has interpreted one of Reinhardt’s drawings (You’re a menace to civilization!, originally a contribution to New Masses in 1940.) Eizagirre has also versioned Reinhardt’s 1956 art-world satire A Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala and put it in dialogue with contemporary artistic production.



Ad Reinhardt, ‘Five Stages of Reinhardt’s Timeless Stylistic Art-historical Cycle’, in Art-as-Art. The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p.10.


[2]. Unpublished tape-recorded interview with Ad Reinhardt by Dr Harlan Philips, 1966, p.7. Transcript generously provided by Anna Reinhardt.


[3]. ibid., p.10.