Black and White is a striking, high contrast work by Ad Reinhardt from 1950, depicting the interlocking blocks of geometric forms. A graphic example of his practice, the dynamic, grid-like composition and solid blocks of colour in Black and White inform his late paintings which became increasingly reductive and symmetrical. Indeed by 1955, the artist worked almost exclusively in black monochromes which he continued to until his death.
When Reinhardt painted Black and White in 1950, the New York art world was still reeling from the breakthrough of the Abstract Expressionist movement by artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko whom Reinhardt worked alongside. Along with Reinhardt, these artists matured together, many belonging to the American Abstract Artists organization and being influenced by the same rising movement away from figuration, towards a method that was about the materials of paint and canvas, action and above all, colour. Throughout the 1940s, Reinhardt developed his style from irregular lines and field of colour to the more uniform bricks of colour that began to emerge around 1950. In a subtler, quieter way than the action-obsessed Abstract Expressionist painters, Reinhardt’s paintings were more in line with Barnett Newman’s, and both artists worked within the concept of single image, rather than all over painting in which the artwork was focused on one, pure, aesthetic act. Reinhardt in particular sought an art in which no illusion, texture, or evidence of the artist’s personality could detract from the beauty and constructive purity of the picture itself. In many ways, he can be understood as anticipating the later developments of Minimalism and Conceptualism.
In his pursuit of an autonomous art Reinhardt was deeply moved by Zen thought and the meditative qualities inherent in Asia’s art. He was struck by ‘its timelessness, its monotony, its inaction, its detachment, its expressionlessness, its clarity, its quietness, its dignity, its negativity’ (A. Reinhardt, quoted in M. Hatch, ‘Learning About Asian Art from Ad Reinhardt’, in The Brooklyn Rail, 16 January 2014). In this painting one finds the trails of dry and loaded brushwork, oscillating and feathery strokes and light washes of paint that are so reminiscent of classical Chinese painting and calligraphy. Speaking of the methods of Chinese painting in 1954, Reinhardt could almost have been summarising his own approach to painting Black and White: ‘Classic Chinese paintings 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, quoted in B. Rose (ed.), Art-as-art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, Los Angeles 1991, p. 215).