'The one object of fifty years of abstract art' wrote Ad Reinhardt, 'is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only, separating and defining it more and more, making it purer and emptier'. (Reinhardt quoted in Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1945, Strategies of Being, London 2000, p. 297)
Executed in 1948, Yellow Painting is a work in which Reinhardt was attempting to apply these principles to his art through a process of increasing refinement. It belongs to a period in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when the artist, inspired by a combination of Zen thinking and the formalist rigour of pioneering abstract painters Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian as well as by contemporary abstract artists such as Mark Tobey, was attempting to create a pure form of constructivist-based abstraction. Anticipating in many ways the later developments of Minimalism and Conceptualism, it was Reinhardt's aim to create a painting comprised of nothing but the formal properties that went into making it. No illusion, artifice, colour combination, brushstroke, texture or evidence of the artist-creator's individuality should detract, he believed from the beauty and constructive purity of the picture itself.
In this work, he has reduced the colour to a simplistic duotone pairing and built the abstract composition through a cubo-constructivist structuring of non-gestural functional brushstrokes executed smoothly and flatly on the canvas surface. In this way this work begins to lay the almost Minimalist foundations for painting that he would later publish as the 'Twelve Rules for the New Academy' in 1953.
'No Texture', he asserted, 'Texture is naturalistic or mechanical and is a vulgar quality. No brushwork or calligraphy...No sketching or drawing. Everything, where to begin and where to end should be worked out in the mind beforehand...No forms. The finest has no shape...No design. Design is everywhere. No colours. Colour blinds. Colours are an aspect of appearance and so only of the surface...No light...No space...No time...No size or scale. No movement. Everything is on the move. Art should be still. No object, no subject, no matter. No symbols, images or signs. Neither pleasure nor paint. No mindless working no mindless non-working. No chess-playing...If the heart is upright, the brush is firm. No noise The brush should pass over the surface lightly and smoothly, and silently. A picture is finished when all traces of the means used to bring about the end have disappeared.' (A. Reinhardt, 'Twelve Rules for the New Academy', 1953 quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley 1996, p. 86)