A Darkling Vision

Ad Reinhardt, No Saint, Made Relics of Himself

Reinhardt's Black Paintings demand to be seen in their magical flesh.

12.04.13 4:27 PM ET

"Abstract Painting, No. 34", from 1964, is the third of my week's worth of Pics devoted to the Black Paintings of Ad Reinhardt, now on view in his centennial show at David Zwirner in New York. Compared to the others in the series, this almost-blue painting is so garish you might even be able to make it out in digital reproduction.

But here's the thing: Reinhardt's paintings don't really work except in the flesh.  This is not, as is usually said, because of their sensory subtlety – that's only part of the story. Although their extreme refinement can make them seem almost immaterial, these paintings need to assert a direct, true, historical connection to their maker that only an encounter with their original matter can guarantee.

I recently argued in the New York Times that, in terms of sensory and semantic content, a forgery or copy can be as useful as an authentic work of art; since Reinhardt's abstractions are so pared-down, copies ought to be especially easy to make and should work as fine surrogates for the authentic pictures. There's so little there in a Black Painting, in the first place, that there's not all that much to get wrong in copying one. But I think that just because of their paring-down, the pictures are more than usually about the act of their making instead of any visual effect they produce. They get a lot of their meaning, that is, from being the product of an absurd – or at least unlikely – act or gesture of one man, at one watershed moment in history, who chose to produce hand-made objects that barely register as any human's production. Only the originals have a true, if impalpable, connection to that man and that moment of making. Actually, it's the impalpable nature of that connection that demands an encounter with the original objects; the connection doesn't reside in any sensory features that could be captured in a copy.

In making these pictures, Reinhardt is often billed as a kind of saintly figure, rejecting the world in a moment of such abnegation that it's almost spiritual. I don't much buy that reading of him (just look at his earthy cartoons!) but I think I sense where it comes from: The Black Paintings don't function so much as images, whose value comes from what they look like and show, but as relics, whose value comes from their contact with a particular person, and the presence of that person in them.  The Black Paintings reveal their maker, acting at the moment of their making, the way a relic of the True Cross reveals and connects to Jesus at the moment of his crucifixion – and in both cases a copy, however accurate, can't make the connection that the original relic can.  Also in both cases, the object may not have much in it to impress our eyes –  yet it matters to us anyway. (Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, ©2013 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London)

For a full visual survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.