Ultimate Abstraction

Ad Reinhardt Black Paintings are the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

In the 1960s, the great abstractionist reveled in making absurdist pictures of (almost) nothing.

(Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Purchase, with funds from The Lauder Foundation, Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Fund ©2013 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London)

If you can barely make out this image, that's as it should be. It's one of the black-on-black Black Paintings made by Ad Reinhardt between 1960 and 1966 and now on view in the important survey of them at David Zwirner in New York, where I spent a solid four hours the other day. In honor of Reinhardt's centennial, I'll spend all week indulging in the absurd gesture of commenting on one Black Painting daily, even though the differences between them are likely to be invisible.

The absurdity of my gesture is, I think, vital to understanding these pictures. They are usually treated with the utmost sobriety, pondered as great works of formalist – even spiritual – exploration. They are read as being about blackness, as both color and mental state, or even as metaphysics. But I think the Black Paintings are also funny, even whacky, or maybe just mean: What's not to laugh about in a picture that's so barely there, it can barely be seen? I think that Reinhardt's Black Paintings are meant, in part, as a poke in the eye of the art world and its pretentious, overprecious art appreciators. The room just before them at Zwirner is full of the zany, often vicious cartoons that Reinhardt published to lampoon that art world, and I think this Mad Magazine spirit needs to cross the threshold into the gallery that holds his abstractions.

In making the Black Paintings, Reinhardt may have been as indebted to Duchamp as to Malevich and Barnett Newman. (Although Malevich was probably more Duchampian than we realize.) What could come closer to the anti-retinal position of Duchamp than paintings so dark they can barely impinge on our retinas? The gesture of putting one black paint on top of another has to be as much about trying out a crazy, impossible artistic idea as it is about seeing what aesthetic dividends that idea pays. At Zwirner, there's a case full of vintage New Yorker-ish cartoons that poked fun at Reinhardt's Black Paintings; I can't imagine that Reinhardt wasn't expecting, and inviting, that response to his work from his cartoonist colleagues.

I visited the Reinhardts with a scholar who has just written a book about how some art demands the slowest of looking, but even this exemplary contemplator admitted that "Reinhardt would have smiled at the rubes who walk right past his pictures, but maybe also at the rubes who stick around" – including Reed and Gopnik. How can we not be meant to laugh, or at least to exclaim, at the absurdity of the endless labors Reinhardt went through to make pictures that end up looking like nothing? (Our laughter, of course, dates back to William Hazlitt, who described Turner's most misty pictures as "pictures of nothing, and very like.")

The "purest", most extreme, most thoroughgoing of the Black Paintings are so entirely black-on-black that unless you came to them already knowing Reinhardt's premise, you'd be almost certain to walk by without sparing a glance. They seem to demand a framing text as much as any work of conceptual art ever could. Paradoxically, and brilliantly, paintings that seem to make the very most extreme perceptual demands turn out to also be works of pure intellect.

As I'll be insisting later in my Ad-athon week, the sensory particulars of the Black Paintings matter a great deal – but looking at them with your eyes closed is also an option.

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