Whilst he is most often considered a member of the stable of American Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Rothko and Newman, Reinhardt's oeuvre is difficult to situate within the art historical vernacular. As Margit Rowell once wrote on the occasion of his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the artist's mature canvases such as Abstract Painting are as "Pure and classical as any early twentieth century European avant-garde painting. They show few stylistic parallels with simultaneous production of the fifties and sixties in America. They are as 'post-modernist' as any art of the seventies. Even should we insist - for reasons of scale or on technical grounds - that they must be situated after Malevich and Mondrian, this merely attributes to them a position in a sequence, not a specific place in an absolute chronology" (quoted in "Ad Reinhardt: Style as Recurrence" in Ad Reinhardt and Color exh. cat., New York, 1980, p.11). In this respect, Reinhardt's work is best understood as an historical, defying categorization. In Abstract Painting however, the composition of geometric forms recalls the Neo-Plasticism or de Stijl of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. Reinhardt was emphatic that his work should not be subject to comparison, remaining "Uninterpreted, non-editorialized, uncontextualized and non-signifying" (J. Livingstone, Ad Reinhardt: Seventeen Works, Washington, D.C., 1984, np.). Yet in spite of this, Reinhardt's esteem for Mondrian frequently appeared in his notes from the time. As the artist once famously asserted, his ambition in art was to go "beyond Mondrian" (Ibid.), to continue to probe the limitations of the medium of painting.
Reinhardt was deeply aware of the effects of color and its ability to evoke memories or feelings. If he chose to eliminate red from his palette, then it was through a fear of its being too sensual or evocative; an experience he wanted to eliminate from his art. As the artist once explained, "Someone once asked me about color and I used the occasion to mention the number of times and places in art where color was excluded - Chinese monochrome painting, analytic cubism, Picasso's Guernica, etc. There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of any morality" (A. Reinhardt, transcript of panel discussion at Philadelphia Museum School of Art, March 1960 quoted in M. Rowell, op. cit, p.23). Reinhardt saw color like figuration, as a divisive technique and was deeply conscious of his application of it to his canvases. Perhaps surprisingly, a note referring to "color symbolism" was once found amongst Reinhardt's collection of materials, detailing the conventional associations of color within contemporary belief systems:
"red-fire, blood, hot riot, revolution, passion, energy, fear, jealousy, deceit, scarlet
blue - color of villains, ghost and fiends,' hope, heaven, sky
black - heroism, patriotism, criminal death, doom, darkness"
Regardless, Reinhardt remained emphatic about eschewing any associations; as the artist would regularly say of his paintings, "It is just this and nothing else" (A. Reinhardt quoted in M. Rowlitt, op.cit., p.26). Certainly, the way the viewer experiences color in Abstract Painting is quite different from the conventions Reinhardt elaborated above. Rendered on a slightly larger than human scale, Abstract Painting was created with the experience of viewing in mind. Reinhardt believed that through the life-size dimensions of the painting, the viewer would never lose his or her awareness of the process of seeing, forestalling the possibility of drifting into the realm of association. In addition, in Abstract Painting, the use of blue defies immediate perception, arriving first as a dark and uniform color surface, to then slowly transform into differentiated shape and evanescent chromatic shade. In this respect, Reinhardt's practice bares striking resemblance to that of his contemporary Mark Rothko, although he did not share the artist's invocation of the sublime. Speaking of the methods of classic Chinese painting in 1954, Reinhardt could almost have been summarizing his own approach to painting Abstract Painting: "[They] range from rich complexes of brush-strokes to formless washes and dissolved spaces. They can look organized and organic, atmospheric and airless, immanent and transcendent, ideal, unreal and most real. They are complete, self-contained, absolute, rational, perfect, serene, silent, monumental and universal. They are 'of the mind', pure, free, true. Some are formless, lightless, spaceless, timeless, a 'weightless nothingness' with no explanations, no meanings, nothing to point out or pin down, nothing to know or feel. The least is the most, more is less" (A. Reinhardt, "Cycles through the Chinese Landscape," quoted in Ibid., p. 25).