Reinhardt’s black paintings can’t be reproduced well enough to show their character, so there is no illustration here. Picture a black square, so deep that it absorbs everything around it. No brushwork visible. No variation in color. Fathomless black. For those of you who have seen one, what did you think while looking at one the first time? Did it move you? Did it speak to your inner soul? Did it soak up the reality around it? If you have never seen one in person, go to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. They have one that is 6.5 feet square, not the size that Reinhardt eventually espoused as perfect, but right enough to soak up your thoughts, or, if you are not as easily moved by art, it will at least tug at you. If you have seen a lot of art and are ready to allow it to move you, you are likely to feel a visceral reaction.
In the 1960’s, mathematical theorists were searching for the equations to solve the mystery of black holes. If anyone knows that Ad Reinhardt was aware of this I would love to know. But whether he did or not, the Zeitgeist theory holds strong.
Zeitgeist is a German word that translates literally as “timespirit.” Often German words are combinations of two nouns, so when translating German, it is interesting to allow your brain to consider all of the implications of combining the two nouns used. Sometimes words have an aura of meaning. In this case, spirit of the time and the time’s spirit enriches your comprehension of the German term Zeitgeist, which refers to the collective mentality of a given period in time and culture.
So the Zeitgeist theory is that there is a collective mentality for all humans living in a particular time period within a particular culture. It’s a wonderful concept. It’s what makes studying the history of art interesting. Historians use Zeitgeist to characterize eras, such as the Victorian era, and the Baby Boom is testament that it is probably a solid concept.
But back to Al Reinhardt and his black paintings. The National Gallery painting is signed and dated by Reinhardt himself “Reinhardt / 1954-1958.” However, Reinhardt often repainted his work and dated it both when it was exhibited, and when it was painted, so the date on this particular work is perhaps not accurate. The first exhibition of Reinhardt’s black paintings that we know about was at the Dwan Gallery in LA in 1963. In June of that year, Reinhardt described the perfect black painting, indicating that he had been working with the concept for a while. He wrote in the Iris Clirt Gallery newsletter called Iris Time, reprinted in Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, NY, Viking Press, 1975, pp. 82-3:
"A square 'neutral, shapeless' canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man's outstretched arms 'not large, not small, sizeless', trisected 'no composition', one horizontal form negating one vertical form 'formless, no top, no bottom, directionless', three 'more or less' dark 'lightless' no- contrasting 'colourless' colours, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, freedhand painted surface 'glossless, textureless, non-linear, no hard edge, no soft edge' which does not reflect its surroundings — a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless relationless, disinterested painting — an object that is self-conscious 'no unconsciousness' ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art 'absolutely no anti-art'."
In Reinhardt’s mind, he had created paintings that were nothing but art. Not color. Not light. Without evidence of a human presence but human sized. Timeless. Spaceless. Just art.
As you might imagine, in 1963, critics were merciless. Cartoonists mocked them. Viewers were hostile. Resentment was rife. Some critics and viewers made an effort to see the black paintings from their own perspective and accorded them opinions about art or declared them anti-art. Reinhardt answered them (as quoted in the New York Times, 11.22.13, “An Abstractionism Shaped by Wounded Ideals”):
"I don’t want to ‘open up’ art so that ‘anything goes’ or ‘anything can be art’ or ‘everyone is an artist’ or ‘an artist is like everyone else.’"
Ad Reinhardt continued to work with black paintings until he died August 30, 1967, before the term “black hole” was in general use. Stephen Hawkings quantum field theory wasn’t published until 1974, when the existence of black holes was accepted because formulations had progressed to explain complex relationships between mass, energy, entropy, surface gravity and temperature, all of which was probably too esoteric to even cross the minds of most of the populace. Nevertheless, these brilliant scientists submitted observed data and theory and transformed it all into delineated mathematical equations, the culmination of years of effort throughout the 1960’s. They were working on their formulae while Reinhardt was working on his black paintings, and while social chaos was growing. Both the scientists and Reinhardt used their intellect to simplify complexity, achieving solutions that involved fathomless black.
Think about the 1960’s for a minute. It was a time of brewing change in America with student strikes at many universities, political riots in Chicago, civil rights protests everywhere, the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, unrest demonstrated in Europe with bombings, arson. Social chaos became the norm. Reinhardt was alive and refining his black paintings during the time when dramatic change was building.
Think of the art movements of the 1960’s. A dizzying array of stylistic generalizations fought for recognition: Pop art, Color Field painting, Fluxus, Hard-Edge, Lyrical Abstraction, and Minimalism. Ad Reinhardt wasn’t the only artist who thought of painting monochromatic canvases. Yves Klein painted them in the 1950’s too. By the end of the 1960’s, Post-Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance Art, Installation Art received more attention.
To summarize, it would be fair to say that an enormous number of artistic and social alternatives were being explored during the 1960’s. The paradigm shift culminating in 1968, after Reinhardt’s death, was a rejection of the concept that there was a given direction for art and Modernism’s seemingly relentless progression, and a general consensus was reached that social and political change was necessary. Reinhardt’s black paintings were a part of the development of this realization.
What fascinates me is that people living at the same time, in the 1960’s, Ad Reinhardt with his black paintings and mathematical theorists with their equations, were developing solutions at the same time, and both involved fathomless black. For those of you who understand the black hole theory better than I do, which I’m sure are many, please let me know your thoughts. Think about what is now called the Event Horizon, the place of no return, the place where everything gets sucked into a black hole, disappearing to viewer observation, even sound and light. This is what Reinhardt sought to do. This is how Reinhardt’s black paintings make me feel, as if I am at that Event Horizon.