Ad Reinhardt, American Abstract Expressionist Painter

ad reinhardt
John Loengard / Getty Images

Ad Reinhardt (December 24, 1913 - August 30, 1967) was an American abstract expressionist artist who sought to create what he called, "absolute abstraction." The result was a series of works known as the "Black Paintings," which consisted of geometrical shapes in subtle shades of black and near-black.

Fast Facts: Ad Reinhardt

  • Full Name: Adolph Frederick Reinhardt
  • Occupation: Painter
  • Born: December 24, 1913 in Buffalo, New York
  • Died: August 30, 1967 in New York, New York
  • Spouse: Rita Ziprkowski
  • Child: Anna Reinhardt
  • Selected Works: "Untitled" (1936), "Study for a Painting" (1938), "Black Paintings" (1953-1967)
  • Notable Quote: "Only a bad artist thinks he has a good idea. A good artist does not need anything."

Early Life and Education

Ad Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, New York, but moved to New York City with his family at a young age. He was an outstanding student and showed an interest in visual art. During high school, Reinhardt illustrated his school's newspaper. Upon applying to college, he turned down multiple scholarship offers from art schools and enrolled in the art history program at Columbia University.

At Columbia, Ad Reinhardt studied under the art historian Mayer Schapiro. He also became good friends with theologian Thomas Merton and poet Robert Lax. The three all embraced approaches to simplicity in their specific disciplines.

ad reinhardt untitled
"Untitled" (1936). The Pace Gallery

Works Progress Administration Work

Shortly after graduation from Columbia, Reinhardt became one of the few abstract artists hired in the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). There he met other prominent 20th-century American artists including Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. His work of the period also demonstrated the impact of Stuart Davis' experiments with geometric abstraction.

While working for the WPA, Ad Reinhardt also became a member of the American Abstract Artists group. They were profoundly influential in the development of the avant-garde in the U.S. In 1950, Reinhardt joined the group of artists known as "The Irascibles" who protested that the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York was not modern enough. Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Hans Hofmann, and Mark Rothko were part of the group.

ad reinhardt studio
John Loengard / Getty Images

Absolute Abstraction and the Black Paintings

Ad Reinhardt's work was non-representational from the beginning. However, his paintings show a distinctive progression from visual complexity to simple compositions of geometrical shapes in shades of the same color. By the 1950s, the work began approaching what Reinhardt called "absolute abstraction." He believed that much of the abstract expressionism of the era was too full of emotional content and the impact of the artist's ego. He aimed to create paintings with no emotion or narrative content at all. Although he was part of the movement, Reinhardt's ideas often ran counter to those of his contemporaries.

In the latter part of the 1950s, Ad Reinhardt began work on the "Black Paintings" that would define the rest of his career. He took inspiration from Russian art theorist Kazimir Malevich, who created the work "Black Square" in 1915, referred to as the, "zero point of painting."

Malevich described an art movement focused on simple geometric shapes and a limited color palette that he called suprematism. Reinhardt expanded on the ideas in his theoretical writings, saying that he was creating, "the last paintings one can make."

While many of Reinhardt's black paintings look flat and monochrome upon first glance, they reveal multiple shades and intriguing complexity when viewed close up. Among the techniques used to create the works was the siphoning of oil from the pigments used that resulted in a delicate finish. Unfortunately, the method also made the paintings challenging to preserve and maintain without damaging the surface.

ad reinhardt black series
"Black Series #6". U.S. Department of State embassy collections

Despite the purging of all references to the outside world in his paintings, Ad Reinhardt insisted that his art could impact society and bring about positive change. He saw art as an almost mystical force in the world.

Legacy

The paintings of Ad Reinhardt remain an essential conceptual link between abstract expressionism and the minimalist art of the 1960s and beyond. Although his fellow expressionists often criticized his work, many of the most prominent artists of the next generation saw Reinhardt as a vital leader pointing toward the future of painting.

ad reinhardt museum of modern art
Ad Reinhardt in Museum of Modern Art exhibition of his paintings. Robert R. McElroy / Getty Images

Ad Reinhardt began to teach art in 1947 at Brooklyn College. Teaching, including a stint at Yale University, was a significant part of his work for the next 20 years until his death from a massive heart attack in 1967.

Source

  • Reinhardt, Ad. Ad Reinhardt. Rizzoli International, 1991.