Ad Reinhardt – Exploring the Essence of Art

Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His work represents an important bridge in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. He is best known for his series of black paintings.

Reinhardt grew up in New York City and studied literature and art history at Columbia University in New York, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1935. He later attended the progressive American Artists School and was briefly at the National Academy of Design. During his student years, he came into contact with many important intellectual movements that influenced his artistic work, such as the philosophy of Zen Buddhism.1

His artistic work was strongly influenced by the artists Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko. In his early works, their influence was still clearly visible, but over time he developed his own style: he began to experiment with color spectra, primarily with red tones and later with blue tones, thus limiting his palette to a narrow chromatic spectrum.

My paintings are the last paintings one can make.

Ad Reinhardt, Ultimate Painting, 1960-66, Oil on canvas, © Photo via Rembrandt Association
Ultimate Painting, 1960-66, Oil on canvas, © Photo via Rembrandt Association
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Blue, 1953, oil on canvas, 142.2 cm x 55.9 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery
Abstract Painting, Blue, 1953, oil on canvas, 142.2 cm x 55.9 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery

In 1937 he then became a member of the American Abstract Artists, an artists’ organization for the promotion of Abstract Art whose members included Louise Bourgeois, Piet Mondrian, and also Robert Ryman. At this time he had his first exhibitions. After a year of military service, he took a position at Brooklyn College in 1947, where he taught until his death.

Since 1953 he created his “Black Paintings,” which he called “meditation panels”2. Upon closer inspection, these black, rectangular paintings reveal minimal variations in pigmentation and subtle patterns. The square canvases continued Reinhardt’s ongoing process of reduction in painting. (MoMa has published an interesting video about one of Ad Reinhardt’s works, watch it here).

Although Ad Reinhardt is often referred to as an Abstract Expressionist, he distanced himself from the emotive, expressive works of his peers. His work marks more of a transition from the expressive gesture of Abstract Expressionism to the reduction and concentration of Minimalism. Reinhardt himself saw his role as an artist as reducing art to its purest, most pristine form by eliminating all outside influences and unnecessary elements.

The only and one way to say what abstract art or art-as-art is, is to say what it is not.

Art-as-art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Red 1953, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 76.2 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery
Abstract Painting, Red 1953, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 76.2 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1956, oil on canvas, 203.2 cm × 177.8 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery
Abstract Painting, 1956, oil on canvas, 203.2 cm × 177.8 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Oil on canvas, in artist's frame, 62.9 × 31.8 cm © Image Courtesy Sotheby's
Abstract Painting, Oil on canvas, in artist’s frame, 62.9 × 31.8 cm © Image Courtesy Sotheby’s

Reinhardt died in New York in 1967. He was ahead of his time and strongly influenced the Minimalist movement, which emphasized formal reduction and objectivity. Thanks to his consistent reduction and search for the essence, he gave painting a new depth and clarity and remains an important figure in the art world.

Further Reading

1 https://brooklynrail.org/special/AD_REINHARDT/ad-and-spirituality/ad-reinhardts-black-paintings-the-void-and-chinese-painting
1 https://www.artstor.org/2015/08/12/the-zen-of-agnes-martin/
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_Reinhardt?oldformat=true

https://www.schirn.de/magazin/kontext/ad_reinhardt_das_ende_der_malerei/
https://www.moma.org/artists/4856
https://www.art-critique.com/en/2019/04/expressionist-or-minimalist-ad-reinhardts-painting/

Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.