The Threshold of Perception: Ad Reinhardt’s Blue Paintings
Ad Reinhardt: Blue Paintings at David Zwirner Gallery
September 12 to October 21, 2017
537 West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, davidzwirner.com
Perception is a function of rods and cones adjusting in the retina. Waking in the middle of the night, everything is black at first and only slowly more colors begin to emerge. It takes patience and acute attention to make sense of the new reality.
To see Ad Reinhardt’s paintings one must slow down the pace of everyday life. In the Blue Paintings gathered recently at David Zwirner Gallery, dating for the most part from 1950 to 1953, so much medium has been removed from the paint as to provide the opportunity to perceive color directly. These are among the most matte surfaces to be experienced in canvases emanating from the Abstract Expressionist circle in which the artist moved: there is no gloss, there is no reflection on the surface. The paint qualities associated with AbEx are almost entirely lacking in Reinhardt. His use of color is so subtle that it is on the very threshold of perception.
Reinhardt was an oppositional figure: he believed one could find as much meaning in what painters refused to do as in what they actually did do. In relation to the viewer, his void-like canvases inspire trust in the invisible through a viewer’s relationship to their own experiences.. .
Adolph Friedrich Reinhardt, born in Buffalo, New York in 1913, to an immigrant family, attended Columbia University to study art history in 1931. His tastes shifted towards European movements like Cubism and Constructivism. The historical avant garde created new qualifications first of convention and then of institution, through such specific symbolic acts,as when the Russian Constructivist Aleksander Rodchenko presented three monochrome canvases in red, blue, and yellow. In this gesture, he proclaimed the logical conclusion of painting Reinhardt went through several singular color periods in his career, and yet his fidelity to the primaries and, most famously black, actually represents a rejection to Rodchenko’s declaration. Paintings in this exhibition force the eye to slow down and see that there are actually several different hues of blue or green in each work. These elegantly considered paintings act as Rorschach tests for the brain. These somber monochromes — highly considered grids — reward the patient viewer with a site of peaceful contemplation. In a deep negotiation with ourselves, we are seeing rather than looking at art in a gallery transformed into a space of meditation. Experiences that might transcend the normal bounds of what we know through voids, monochromes, and windows could be perhaps paralleled with the revelation and exaltation of a deep spiritual experience. Perhaps this is why such artists as Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor have artworks that double as spaces of spiritual or religious pilgrimage.
Ad Reinhardt was very interested in such spiritual qualities: he sought to purify art and the way we experience it. He also had a desire to keep art and business separate, and while this body of work is hardly a critique of capitalism, he took great pleasure in the fact that these paintings were almost impossible to reproduce photographically. As with most avant-garde art, we must recalibrate our idea of value and redistribute who holds the keys and who does the work. Reinhardt challenges his audience to do more work than the artist, investing forms with their own feelings rather than discovering those of the artist. In this respect, Ad Reinhardt walks alongside Yves Klein as an early instigator of conceptual art. Defying conventions of their times, each produced a kind of determinism for new artistic sensibilities.