‘The one standard in art is oneness and fineness, rightness and purity, abstractness and evanescence. The one thing to say about art is its breathlessness, lifelessness, deathlessness, contentlessness, formlessness, spacelessness and timelessness. This is always the end of art’ (A. Reinhardt, quoted in Ad Reinhardt: Paintings, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 1966, p. 10)
‘Perhaps pure painting is a direct experience and an honest communication’ (A. Reinhardt, quoted in M. Tuchman, New York School The First Generation, Greenwich 1970, p. 131).
Produced during the period in which Ad Reinhardt established his signature pared-down rectilinear compositions, Untitled, 1948, is a pioneering example of what the artist described as ‘colour-brick-brushwork’. With its complex optical interplay of subtly-differentiated monochromatic hues, it marks an important breakthrough in his style. The brightly coloured geometric forms of Reinhardt’s previous output, heavily indebted to Piet Mondrian’s grids, were replaced by interlocking blocks of black and white, offering delicate chromatic modulations on almost monotonal surfaces. Executed with trails of dry, loaded brushwork, oscillating between feathery strokes and light washes of paint, the present work exemplifies the artist’s supreme mastery of colour and form. The geometric symmetry and almost imperceptible tonal variation allows for the full expression of a single colour’s range. Absolving the rectilinear form from its capacity to create perspectival depth, Reinhardt renders it a neutral optical device devoid of image or subject. In this respect, Untitled formally advances upon the precedent set by Kazimir Malevich, whose revolutionary canvases share the monochromatic rectilinear configuration of Reinhardt’s compositions. Like Malevich, whose paintings called for the reduction of painting to its very essence, Reinhardt’s composition seeks a new artistic ‘ground zero’. Indeed, by 1955, the artist worked almost exclusively in black monochromes which he continued to his death.
Reinhardt aspired to painting in which no illusion, texture or evidence of the artist’s hand could detract from the beauty and constructive purity of the picture itself. In his pursuit of autonomous art, Reinhardt was deeply moved by Zen philosophy and the meditative nature of much Asian 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). Untitled demonstrates Reinhardt’s desire for painting to convey ‘detachment, disinterestedness, thoughtfulness, [and] transcendence’ which would provide the critical bridge between his generation and the emergence of Minimalist and Conceptual art of the 1960s.