September 19, 2006

What Not To Paint

The idea of the “academy” of art in the seventeenth century, of “aesthetics” in the eighteenth, of the “independence” of art in the nineteenth, and the “purity” of art in the twentieth, restate, in those centuries in Europe and America, the same “one point of view.” Fine art can only be defined as exclusive, negative, absolute, and timeless. It is not practical, useful, related, applicable, or subservient to anything else. . . The art tradition stands as the antique-present model of what has been achieved and what does not need to be achieved again. Tradition shows the artist what not to do. . . The first rule and absolute standard of fine art, and painting, which is the highest and freest art, is the purity of it. The more uses, relations, and “additions” a painting has, the less pure it is.(1)

In his 1953 essay, ”Twelve Rules for a New Academy”, Ad Reinhardt made his defiant, arrogant and sometimes contradictory stand against the “New York School,” the dominant model of abstract expressionism. He envisioned a new direction for painting, based primarily on negation and reduction, stating that a painting’s frame “should isolate and protect the painting from its surroundings” and that “space divisions within the painting should not be seen.”(2) With his infamous “black square paintings,” Reinhardt would define “space” as the elimination of color, where color becomes an ancillary property, a non-essential element expressed as negation.

In his “black paintings,” Frank Stella closed the gap between literal shapes and depicted shapes, as his “stripes” appear to be generated by the framing edge, an image interdependent to the object. This denial of balance and ordering (“relational painting”) was a conscious avoidance of the traditional ideas about a painting’s composition held-over from an older European rationalism and rejected by “early minimalists” like Stella:

“I had to do something about relational painting, i.e., the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry – make it the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration symmetrically placed on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionistic space. The solution I arrived at . . . forces illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”(3)

To many observers, Stella’s stripes and Reinhardt’s squares seemed “empty,” engineered and impersonal, prompting art critic Richard Wollheim to describe these new paintings’ monochromatic and obdurate direction, as having “minimal art content.” The label stuck.

Sol Lewitt’s contribution was the module. Lewitt saw the potential for serial repetition of a modular unit and began a series of cube-based drawings and sculptures. The module precludes that other conceit of traditional art – taste – as it allowed an arbitrary formal arranging of the individual parts. As an ordering principle, the module does away with relational, momentary and whimsical decision-making.

Carl Andre would continue the exploration of the module’s possibilities with his own self-imposed modular system, i.e., one and only one kind of object (brick, zinc plate, railroad tie) was used as a module and modules were “arranged” rather than composed, one thing after another, the exact nature of the “finished” artwork unknown before-hand.

Readings for 27 September: Ch. 7 introduction, Process; from Ch. 7: Eva Hesse’s Letter to Ethelyn Honig, Untitled Statements (1968, 1969, n.d.) and Richard Serra’s Rigging; PLUS: Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” in his Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998.


1. Ad Reinhardt, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1975, p. 204.

2. Ibid., p. 206.

3. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 113.


Russell Kelbaugh said...

I think Ad Reinhardt's statements about painting in 1953 were contradictory because there was no other place for painting to go progressively (meaning different). I think he was choose to point this out by using contradictory statements. This seems to begin the "painting is dead" phenomenon. In Reinhardt's eyes no painting was good enough thus no painting was worthy as art thus painting as fine art was dead.
In addition to his statements, his biggest contradiction was his own paintings that did not live up to his standards because he repeated himself and if I read correctly the biggest his reason for these rules is because everything else had been done.

emma said...

Though I understand Reinhardt's theory about painting in 1953, what he failed to see was his lack of concept was in fact a concept in and of itself. He spent so much time outlining the "rules" of painting; what NOT to do that he ended up putting limits on something that was supposed to be limitless, conceptual art. If "painting is dead" and therefor no painting was good enough, then why paint at all? Why did the reduction stop at the monochromatic? Why not reduce it to nothing? But, Reinheard couldn't do that because Klein just had. Like Russel said, the reason for these "rules" is because everything had been done.

Rebecca Jones said...

Art criticism seems to yeild a lot of superfluous words for simple ideas and decisions by artists and overly strict compartmentalization within the organic progression of art. At it's best this gives the readers mental exercise in the art creating/viewing/contemplating scene. At it's worse it confuses (therefore hinders) and puts extra pressure on the artists to follow the criticism. This follows suit with earlier discussion about the unfortunate amount of power critics hold.
As I see it, the minimalist art that emerged at the time of Reinhardt's writing was simply the same sort of resistence to the established practice that has always occured in art and in socio-political behavior for that matter. Reinhardt just chose to write about it so definitively and arrogantly for the attention probably, but it was completely unnecessary because, as is usually the case, the art itself says quite enough. I mean what did Reinhardt really accomplish or bring to the table with his essay that wasn't already there besides a lot of subsequent redundancies....

mm said...

art critics like Clement Greenberg are judging works of art according to personal taste. this seems unfair considering the wide range of styles and purpose for creation in art. Greenbergs aesthetic veiwpoints and personal prejudices about the appearence of artwork is most certainly a product of the time he grew up in and the lifestyle he has. but is it really possible to condition yourself to lose taste? nothing else in the world is veiwed without personal bias, it seems like it might be an unreachable goal

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Not to attempt closure of this topic, but to address individual questions, problems and discussion concerning Reinhardt. . .

Russell: I think we can see commitment from Reinhardt to his own paintings at least, since he outlines fairly well what painting cannot do and attempts to follow his “rules,” albeit failing in certain respects, i.e., no shapes, no color. Furthermore, I disagree that Reinhardt failed to “live up to his standards because he repeated himself.” Although he does not address repetition or seriality, I consider his personal credo as a “machine that creates the work.” A good idea can be repeated.

Emma: I don’t believe that Reinhardt’s work should be critiqued as having “lack of concept.” In 1953 there was no “conceptual art.” His establishment of limits for painting was a continuation of reductive tendencies but that does not imply that “painting is dead.” On the contrary, what he asked for was significant commitment to new ideas for painting. Moreover, comparisons to Ives Klein are inaccurate, as Klein’s “void” was not “empty” but filled with his “immanence.”

Rebecca: I believe Reinhardt’s words are necessary to comprehend his work. They were theoretically “black” paintings,” which is fairly difficult work to “understand” without some supplementary information. His writings set a precedent for artists to be articulate about their work and, further still, to position themselves in the discourse.

Mia: Although Greenberg’s critiques were certainly subjective, he pursued a rationale that was an extension of Modernist theories concerning art. If we consider formalist views of reduction and space, then we see that his ideas were historically informed and do extend the historic trajectory concerning painting.