The end of the New York School is one of the most important phases in 1960s American painting and had a far-reaching impact. At now famous events such as so-called “Philadelphia Panel” in 1960, Ad Reinhardt and Philip Guston in particular contributed towards ending this episode in art history. These two artists undertook the exit from the singsong of abstract expressionism and opened a space of possibility for painting that can still be activated and taken advantage of today.
Philip Guston abandoned the intertwined surface interventions with which he became famous to move in the direction of a “new figuration.” He created a set of motifs that he moved like an actor in the theater of the pictorial stage: hands, brushes, easels, canvasses, nails, shoes, the sun, light blubs, heads, etc., and promoted the “impure” in painting, a dictum that anticipated the advocates of “bad painting” in the 1980s.
But Ad Reinhardt took a different approach. He radically cut his abstractions by obliterating almost all colors and compositional elements and beginning his final ride with the so-called Ultimate Paintings, based on certain works by Malevich or visual programs by Mondrian. In the triad of his collages, which are commentaries on the art world (1940s), the performative series of slides on the formal constellation of the world of art, religion, nature, and architecture (from the late 1950s), and these Ultimate Paintings (beginning in 1960), he opened a path towards minimalist and conceptual art. (Joseph Kosuth, as he assured me, was a constant guest at Reinhardt’s studio as a young artist).
If the panel picture was once the site of unique visualizations and painterly self-creation, now both Guston and Reinhardt dragged it through a process of devaluation, albeit not at the same time and in very different ways. By rethinking the role of the image and making it into a construction set, it becomes a surface outfitted with information. The canvas is now an operative field that reveals the status quo and in so doing becomes much more than a mere aesthetic event created with brush and paint.
While in the late 1960s Guston repeatedly executed his motif groups, his “actors,” inherent to the picture, in ever new ways, treating the panel like a director treats the stage, at age 47 Reinhardt narrowed his field to “last paintings” with only one “figure.”
He began painting exclusively his series of Ultimate Paintings. He titled each of these black paintings, five by five feet, Abstract Painting. In an extreme way, he reduced his visual vocabulary to shades of black and purified it in formal terms.
He painted constant layers of black glaze, where the high pigment density allowed him to create highly differentiated nuances. It is only in slowly comparing the colors of the darker temperatures that the beholder notices the cross motif. In so doing, he is able to give the surface a charge that simultaneously confronts and animates.
The cross as a figure is of decisive importance for his composition and stands for the relationship of figure and ground. “Cross as figure” always refers to the basic question of all abstract painting and Reinhardt constantly sought to show and to balance this. He usually painted two beams of the cross figure as broad paths with the brush, whose margins are precisely defined using a brushstroke, the edges drawn freehand as in calligraphy.
All these painterly steps in his “empty, black paintings” transgress all monochromatic approaches.
Or perhaps the anti-art performances of Robert Rauschenberg were still going through his mind: Rauschenberg, who already dealt with ensembles of empty white canvases in the early 1950s and, highly effectively, erased a de Kooning drawing? For that was about “genuine” emptiness.
The concentration on this “figure against a backdrop” is placed in a special light. As said above: until his death in August 1967, he created only these square, black paintings with a cross, and from then on this remained his only format and motif. Important as well: in this series too, Reinhardt always argues as a painter. On top of his first violation, his decision to “devalue the individual painting” to the series, a second violation insinuates itself that in my eyes is much more radical for the state of painting.
After his highly delicate paintings with their confrontational impact were returned touched or damaged to his New York studio, often from being touched or the like (six paintings from New York and Paris in 1963 and ten paintings from London in 1964), Reinhardt began to paint over these returned paintings. “The painting leaves the studio as a purist, abstract, non-objective object of art, returns as a record of everyday (surrealist, expressionist) experience (‘chance’ spots, defacements, hand-markings, accident-‘happenings,’ scratches), and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negating the negation of art), again and again, over and over again, until it is just ‘right’ again” (Ad Reinhardt, in: Americans 1963, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1963).
For me, this act of over-painting is not an act of restoration. A painter of his stature must have realized, besides all critique of the art world and its institutions, that the gesture of this special act of over-painting the image with itself, or the over-painting of the motif with itself, contained an additional informative value; that, while it ultimately remained invisible in the newly finished painting, it was nonetheless fundamentally branded into the painting. I call this over-painting a second violation. Is Ad Reinhadt a painter who masks his paintings? Who over-paints his paintings with themselves, not at a loss, but rather a profit?
A visual skin that looks startlingly similar to what was beneath it, accepts a status shift towards the iconic. Reinhardt inscribes information into his canvases that constantly cuts away at the concept of originality and the value of the picture and establishes an operation whose consequences are as exciting as they are unfinished.
With his second violation, he places at the base of each painting a modus operandi that allows the image to serve as a text, commentary, and argument in discourse. In this sense, all methods anchored in the image can make a body of work argumentative.
For example, when the “original” of the painting mutates into other paintings, the value of originality is attacked. What remains are “devalued” paintings that characterize their own currency. Pictures are in this way primarily relevant in their use in the work, not in the art business.
The status of the picture must be questioned operatively, that is, with painterly means, if the picture, painting, and context are to be negotiated anew: a fallow field worth cultivating.
Klaus Merkel is a painter and lives in Freiburg and Münster, Germany. Since 2009, he has been a professor for painting at Academy of Fine Arts Münster. In his artistic practice, the theses presented here represent a central component.