Black Beauty

Ad Reinhardt's Painful Dazzle

Reinhardt's subtlety makes us look until we can't look any more.

12.05.13 8:00 PM ET

Yet another picture from my week-long study of the Black Paintings of Ad Reinhardt, now being celebrated at David Zwirner in New York. This canvas was painted in 1960. 

So far this week, I've been stressing the conceptual, even anti-retinal side of Reinhardt's project, but it would be crazy to go too far in that direction. The extreme subtleties in his paintings do demand the closest of looking, to be made out at all: The less there is to see, the more work we must do to see it. But as I sat there staring and staring and staring at Reinhardt's modulated blacknesses, something strange started to happen: I couldn't see them, or much of anything, anymore. The strain such looking put on my entire perceptual system, from eyeball to retina to cortex to mind, brought it close to a point of collapse. Staring at an almost-black square, brightly lit on a white wall, has some of the same blinding effect as staring too long at a black dot on a sheet of white paper: Generalized dazzle replaces the details of vision, to the point where you can't tell what's an illusory spot thrown up by your exhausted eyes and what's a real feature of Reinhardt's painting. This means that a painting that, more than most, invites close contemplation also sets out to foil it – which of course is as much a conceptual gambit as a sensory one.

Reinhardt's game of sensory exhaustion reveals something else: Paintings that seem to be all, and only, about the details of their surfaces – paintings that seem entirely self-contained, within the limits of their frames – are actually hugely interactive with their environments and their viewers. (To use Michael Fried's famous language, they seem "absorptive", like a Frank Stella, but turn out to be "theatrical", like a Donald Judd.) The Black Paintings change radically as the lighting on them changes; they change as we move side to side in front of them, and as we move close and then retreat, and as we grow tired then refresh ourselves. And they seem to demand such changes and displacements, across both space and time, to fully reveal themselves.

Even as they offer such visual self-revelation, however, Reinhardt's paintings don't provide the kind of stable stimuli that we associate with perceptual art, but provide instead the extreme, disabling flux of the most radical conceptualism. Yet where many conceptual works can boil down to a single conceit or joke or gesture, the perceptual richness of the Black Paintings – even their disabling dazzle – keeps us looking for more. Maybe they enable thinking by letting us watch as our looking gets disabled.

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