It isn’t hard to understand the “abstract” part of Abstract Expressionism. It’s the “Expressionism” part that is more obscure. Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko defined the movement in the 1940s and ’50s (Their work can be viewed at the current MoMA show “Abstract Expressionist New York”). No one thinks that Pollock’s splatters or Rothko’s hovering squares of color are supposed to depict anything else. They are just shapes and colors and splatters of paint. The abstract nature of the paintings is obvious. But what do they express?
Pollock spoke about his paintings as “expressing an inner world — in other words — expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.” I suppose we can conclude that Pollock’s inner world was rather chaotic. Then again, whose isn’t? But I’m not sure his comments about expression are very helpful. And a lot of people have wondered whether there isn’t something dangerously wishy-washy in the idea that abstraction can be expressive at all.
The great Abstract Expressionist Ad Reinhardt wondered about that too. As his career progressed, Reinhardt came to embrace the abstract side of the movement, and became utterly contemptuous of the expressionist side. Reinhardt’s development as a painter also went hand in hand with his development as a polemicist. He wanted to purge people of the idea that art related to anything other than itself. Art is about art, he thought, and other stuff is about other stuff. The idea that art can or should express the way an artist feels made him angry.
In the 1960s, Reinhardt began working on what he thought of as the final paintings that he — or anyone else for that matter — could ever paint. The paintings were black. Just black. He said of them, “As an artist I would like to eliminate the symbolic pretty much, for black is interesting not as a color but as a non-color and as the absence of color.” The art critic Jeanne Siegel once asked Reinhardt in an interview whether it was possible to eliminate all associations from painting completely. Ad didn’t miss a beat. “It is not only possible,” he said, “but it’s been done and it has to be done.”
Reinhardt painted one black painting after another. It was the only way to keep painting pure, the only way to eliminate every possible connection to the world of not-art, which was everything in the universe other than his black paintings. The extreme nature of this idea did not bother Ad for a second. He felt he was on to something — the truth of and realization of painting in absolute blackness — and he was prepared to follow this logic all the way to the bitter end. He said, “My painting represents the victory of the forces of darkness and peace over the powers of light and evil.”
In turns out that there is quite a variety of blackness in those painting by Reinhardt. It is all the more fascinating, then, to look at one up close, like “Abstract Painting” from 1963, currently on view at MoMA. There are three layers of blackness. It is as if Reinhardt was so amazed by all the things that black could do, all the things it could be, that he just didn’t need anything else. It is hard to explain how, exactly, but the painting is moving on a human level because of that. It is an emotional experience to stand in front of that painting and watch the blackness happen, to fall down into its core of nothingness.
It can’t get there, of course. Try as he might, Ad could never figure out how to erase every trace of the brush on the canvas, every aspect of the work that was not just black. He could never erase all the traces of an artist striving for an ideal that cannot, by its very nature, be fully articulated let alone fulfilled. This is the beauty in “Abstract Painting,” a beauty that Ad Reinhardt was able perfectly to express. • 11 January 2010