Known for his large, square monochromatic black paintings imbued with very subtle variations in color and tone, Ad Reinhardt began his career as a successful commercial artist, cartoonist and painter of geometric abstractions. As his art evolved, so did his artistic theories as expressed in his writings and satirical collages that skewed many of his fellow abstract artists. Born Adolph Dietrich Friedrich Reinhardt in Buffalo in 1913, Reinhardt’s family moved to Chicago and then to Queens, New York City, where he attended local public schools. He excelled in high school, where he was class president. A talented draftsman, he won a New York City contest for cartoons, illustrated school publications and worked summers as a commercial artist. Awarded a scholarship to New York’s Columbia University, his liberal arts education included art-history classes with Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996). After graduation in 1935 he studied painting at Columbia’s Teachers College, the National Academy of Design and the American Artists’ School in New York. Carl Robert Holty (1900-1973), one of his teachers at the Artist’s School, recruited him for the new association of American Abstract Artists in 1936. Perhaps through this association, fellow abstract artist Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965) hired Reinhardt as one of the few abstract artists to work on the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, work that continued until 1941. Reinhardt combined that work with a successful career as a commercial artist and designer from the mid 1930s, work he continued until about 1950 (with an interruption for service in the Navy from1944 to 1946). His free-lance clients included Macy’s, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball club, book publishers and a leading advertising agency. He was also involved in radical politics from the time of his Columbia graduation, and became involved in organizations associated with the Communist Party of the USA, including the publication New Masses, for which he drew cartoons from 1936 until about 1942. From 1942 until 1946 he was a cartoonist for the left-wing newspaper PM. His first major solo exhibition was at Betty Parsons’ (1900-1982) New York Gallery in 1946; she would mount eleven more exhibitions of his works through 1965. Reinhardt’s abstract works were part of the 1947 exhibition The Ideographic Picture, organized by abstract painter Barnett Newman (1908-1970) at the Parsons Gallery. He was appointed to the faculty of Brooklyn College in 1947 and continued his association with that institution until his death. He taught at San Francisco’s California School of Fine Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute) during the summers of 1949 and 1950 thanks to faculty members Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Clyfford Still (1904-1980). Josef Albers (1888-1976) hired him as a visiting critic at the Yale School of Fine Arts during academic year 1952-53. By the early 1950s his paintings became largely monochromatic, using blues, reds and blacks often in the block format of a Greek cross on a five-by-five-foot square canvas. He began extensive travel, visiting several European countries in 1953. In a biting article in the Art Journal in 1954, Reinhardt attacked various elements of the art world, including Barnett Newman, who subsequently sued Reinhardt for libel; the case was later dismissed. In 1955 the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, included Reinhardt’s works in its The New Decade exhibition and Betty Parsons showed Reinhardt’s “black paintings” in her gallery. He traveled to the Middle East and the Far East in 1958, bringing back thousands of photographs. His lecture at the New York Artist Club on his trip was illustrated with 2,000 slides. Betty Parsons included Reinhardt in her 1960 exhibition 25 Years of Abstract Painting, although by then he had moved to painting mostly his 5x5 foot black paintings. As the years progressed, the variations in colors and tone became even less pronounced, requiring intense study to discern. The techniques he used for his black paintings made them vulnerable to damage from the slightest touch, but the almost powdery surface made the public’s desire to touch them almost irresistible. The seven black paintings displayed in Dorothy C. Miller’s (1904-2003) exhibition Americans 1963 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art had to be roped off to protect them from the public. Reinhardt created his first print in 1964, a black screen-print for the portfolio, Ten Works by Ten Painters, published by the Wadsworth Atheneum. Three New York galleries mounted concurrent exhibitions in 1965: black paintings at the Parsons Gallery, blue at the Stable Gallery and red at the Graham Gallery. In 1966 the Jewish Museum, New York, held a retrospective exhibition of 126 of his works, including a full floor of black paintings, and the Wadsworth published the portfolio, 10 Screen-prints by Ad Reinhardt. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, Reinhardt suffered cardiac problems and died later that year. (TNB 8/2014) Selected bibliography: Corris, Michael. Ad Reinhardt. London: Reaktion Books, 2008 Hunter, Sam. “Ad Reinhardt: Sacred and Profane.” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University. Vol. 50, No 2 (1991), pp. 26-38.
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