Black is Beautiful

Ad Reinhardt Black Paintings at David Zwirner are the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The great Black Paintings are handmade, but refuse to show it.

This is a second of Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings in the current Zwirner show, from the week’s worth that I’ll be Daily Pic’ing. If you were looking at it in good lighting, you’d be able to tell that it was different from yesterday’s choice, but it wouldn’t be easy. Among other things, Reinhardt insisted that his pictures show no trace of their maker’s hand – traces that had helped differentiate and personalize other abstractions of his era. But he also seemed absolutely keen to make each picture himself, with his own two hands.

If the Black Paintings were about absolutely pure perceptual effects, as critics often imply, Reinhardt might have got better, cleaner, purer results by having them mechanically printed. Handpaintedness is important to these pictures, however, because they want to be in close and complex dialog with all the notably, aggressively handpainted pictures that came before – they want to be seen as part of the same old conversation. The refusal of the mark of the hand, that is, has more rhetorical power when that refusal is made via the hand of a painter; the abnegation of expressive mark-making is more impressive when such marks are an obviously available, desirable, even inevitable option. (A horny monk resisting sex is more impressive than a eunuch doing so; some medieval monks and priests slept with gorgeous naked youngsters, to test their own powers of resistance. In the 1950s and 60s, that was what it felt like for Reinhardt to take up a paint-laden brush, and then produce an untouched surface.)

The fact of the handmaking of these pictures, which is such an important part of them, is hardly perceptible in their presence. Does that mean that their handmadedness is yet another of the conceptual facts and ploys backing up these apparently perceptual artworks, as per yesterday’s Daily Pic? Or does it mean precisely the opposite: that the paintings demand you do the work of looking and looking and looking – and only barely finding – the traces they preserve of the hand that made them, and that worked so hard to hide itself. The eyes take in that hiddenness in a way the mind alone never could.

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