Reinhardt's Daughter seems to be something of a metaphorical self-portrait. As the title declares, it positions Dumas as a child of Ad Reinhardt, the greart American Abstract painter whose so-called Black Paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s at first appear to be simply black sqaure black canvases. Closer inspection reveals a velvety surface subdivded into nine distinct squares of nearlt indistinquishable shades. Any faith in an absiolute gets severely shaken. So it is with Dumas maybe-dead baby, a Goya-like sleep of reason that produces monsters"--Los Angeles Times.
An infant, bent over on its back, eyes and mouth softly shut, with its hands flung over its head, the little girl's two dangling arms frame her tilted oval face; she is either a blissfully innocent model of somnolent repose or a guiltless sacrifice to death. The inverted child's body, truncated just below the waist, is larger than life. The figure is painted thinly, almost as if with a dry brush, while the space around it is thickly swept with deep, dark oil paint. Dumas' palette is black and bruised. The surrounding pigment suggests a murky pool, an abyss into which the fragile child is disappearing. The picture's surrounding space seems to both define and crush the little figure, while the lush, moody colors squeeze purples, inky blues and coagulated reds in between burnt umber and soot. One dangling hand is awkwardly drawn, the other an indefinable smear. With its luscious morbidity, the picture holds a contradictory vision of vibrancy and death. Dramatically stated and powerfully seductive, the ambiguous mortality of the tranquil infant evokes the anxiety evident in the art of Francisco de Goya--the sleep of reason that conjures cognizant horrors. Yet, here there is more. The combination of race and the artistic reference to Ad Reinhardt creates a tension where the art historical and the contemporary collide. Evolving from her highly-regarded series of children and infants, many which form allusions to painting and art history, such as her seminal masterpiece The Painter, Reinhardt's Daughter is among Dumas' most iconic figures.
Derived from a photograph of Dumas' own sleeping daughter, Helena, Reinhardt's Daughter and its corresponding picture, Cupid, together form an intricate dichotomy of the relationships of color in both art and society. "You change the color of something and everything changes," Dumas has stated of her art (M. Dumas, quoted in Sweet Nothings, New York, p. 86). Comprised of meandering lines against a predominantly off-white background, saturated colors are absent from Cupid, whose minimal indications of lilac and orange along the contours of the body suggest that the depicted figure is white. Reinhardt's Daughter, on the other hand, has been painted in dark colors against a somber background, the warm brown making it clear that this is a dark-skinned child. Race has long held a pivotal place in Dumas' work, in part reflecting on her own background, having been born and raised in South Africa under the horrors, both active and passive, of Apartheid. In her pictures, she has long sought to portray the previously under represented majority, to give them a voice and a presence that was formerly lacking. And yet, the titles given to the two works direct us to a more specific relationship to art history. Whereas Cupid evokes the blushing putti of a Baroque ceiling fresco, Reinhardt's Daughter refers to the all-black 'Ultimate Paintings' of Ad Reinhardt, which approach the vanishing point of color distinction.
At once clarifying and obscuring the readings of her paintings, Dumas gives titling genuine consideration. "Titles give direction to the way a pictures is looked at," Dumas explains. "Desire is depicted, deficiency is central. The whole becomes more complex" (M. Dumas, quoted in P. Andriesse, The Eyes of the Night Creatures, exh. cat., Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1985, p. 19). Helping the viewer to move outside the hurdle of tormented incomprehensibility, Dumas' titles effect our perceptions and contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of a complex and seemingly difficult painting. Often presenting a witty and sophisticated form of navigation, her titles endeavor to interrogate power structures of Western art and act as an impetus for an intervention in painting.
This artistic reference is at the forefront of Reinhardt's Daughter. Here, Dumas creates a disjuncture in her allusion to the black monochrome canvases by an artist, Ad Reinhardt, who would have found her use of the figurative a failure. Known for his hard-edge geometric works, and ultimately his monochromatic "black" paintings wherein upon studied contemplation squares and strips of tonally varied blacks emerge, Reinhardt's monochromes were fundementally the last in the storied history of the single-hued phenomena. Emerging in the early 1900s, the monochrome had previously been proclaimed as the death of painting, when Kazimir Malevich famously mounted Black Square at the Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 in Petrograd, Russia in 1915. "One did not have to wait for the last painting of Ad Reinhardt," Yve-Alain Bois famously stated recalling the importance of black as both the color of the first and last monochrome, "to be aware that through its historicism and through its essentialism, the enterprise of abstract painting could not but understand its birth as calling for its end"(Yve-Alain Bois, "Painting: the Task of Mourning," in Painting as Model, New York, p. 230). Yet, here, Dumas disrupts the pristine canvases of a bygone era by inserting a figure of a baby into Reinhardt's world of blackness. With the mortality of the baby seemingly unknown, Dumas' painting simultaneously presents the birth of a new order of painting and the death of the old.
Reinhardt's Daughter resists the marginalization of painting, while acknowledging the realities of the medium's changing position in image making. The post-1960s cry that painting was incapable of new ideas coupled with the rallying call for a world of new media, is, here, denounced by Dumas in a strong statement that the intermittent death and consequent resurgence of painting was merely a lapse of time, allowing the dormant field to gradually come to once again provide fertile ground for new thinking and fresh approaches in art. Thus, Dumas positions herself well within the discourse of contemporary painting, performing an intervention that embeds her endeavors well into the preexisting history of art.