The sublime surface of Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting, Blue reveals the uniquely sensitive and subtle character of the artist’s painted surfaces. Under prolonged examination the relationships between three different tonalities of blue begin to make themselves apparent. The two vertical lines that bracket the center of the painting are the deepest of three variations, a royal blue that stands boldly against the more cerulean between and outside these two towers of colors. In each of the four corners of the canvas, a blue with a slight tonal difference so close to the mid-tone color that is appearance only registers as one engages in a relationship of deep looking with the painting. As shapes, the individual areas of color stack up as vertical bricks, alternating in overlapping rows. The abstract painter Budd Hopkins wrote about his friend Reinhardt in a 1976 Artforum article, describing Reinhardt’s paintings as a “refreshing experience in color imagery in which simplified areas give free vent to a continuous, flat activity of relationships that rest, unchecked, throughout the canvases. Reinhardt works with an interplay of positive and negative areas that are so conceived as to reverse themselves and transcend these elements—positive becomes negative and vice-versa, and the whole settles into a restful presentation of feelings in paint” (B. Hopkins, “An Ad for Ad as Ad,” Artforum, Summer 1976, pp. 62-63).
Concurrent with his experiments with the black monochrome, Reinhardt described this period that Abstract Painting, Blue comes from in his oeuvre as, “Early-classical hieratical red, blue, black monochrome square-cross beam form symmetries of the fifties” (A. Reinhardt, quoted in B. Rose, ed., “Five Stages of Reinhardt’s Timeless Stylistic Art-Historical Cycle,” Art-as-art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, Los Angeles, 1991, p. 10). Achieved in a radiant blue with subtle modulations, it has the unique surface character hallmark of the artist’s style. Both soft and dense, it glows with a coloristic brilliance beyond that of ordinary painted surfaces. The painting catches the light ceaselessly and changes with the hours of the day and transforms itself as day passes into night. It stands in time unchanging yet registering the movement of life and light in its environment. This period of Reinhardt’s work also honors color as the elemental, primal, physical pleasure it surely is. It does so without evoking blue skies or blue flags or any other association apart from the pure visual joy of the color itself. By continuing to further limit his palette, from varying tones of similar temperatures of color to eventually focusing on a single color at a time, he became closer and closer to this sought-after equanimity. Each of his signature color palettes, most notably blue, black and red, possess their own unique personality but still convey his deep respect for all colors being equal despite differences.
In fact, the term “monochrome” may be a misnomer for Reinhardt’s paintings. As curator, critic and art historian Lucy Lippard explains in her monograph on Reinhardt, “The fundamental problem is the fact that Reinhardt never painted a solid black or a black-on-black canvas. ...A basic question arises, is there such a thing as a black painting? Strictly speaking, in Reinhardt’s oeuvre? And if so, is there a monotonal or inflected black painting? Reinhardt began calling his (red, green, blue, purplish, ochre, brown) dark painting’s ‘black’; as soon as he realized that the painting out of obvious color and contrast (form) was his prime concern. In 1960s he stated he had been making black paintings for a dozen years. No other American painter was interested in a combination of invisibility, purity, and the end of painting, until at least 1960. Rodchenko made a black-on-black painting in 1919, in reply to Malevich’s ‘White-on-White’ series; between then and 1956, several Americans had also made what amounted to black-on-black canvases: among them [Clyfford] Still, [Barnett] Newman, Rollin Crampton, Edward Corbett, and Robert Rauschenberg. Yet the historical interest of these works lies in the possibilities they suggested for extremely close-valued color, also raised by Turner, Monet, Vuillard, and Bonnard, rather than in the choice of black [or blue or red] or darkness as a formal vehicle” (L. Lippard, Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1982, p. 109).
Like the French Impressionist Claude Monet, Ad Reinhardt aimed to capture the subtle interplay of color, light and texture. Paintings such as Abstract Painting, Blue were the synthesis of Reinhardt’s investigations in color, texture and light of his all-over paintings of the 1940s, like Number 111 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. “The all-over paintings had been dependent on a visible variety, a chiaroscuro that sparked patches of light and dark distinguished uniformly over the canvas as in Impressionism and on contrasts of wet and dry brush (presumably to give the ‘woven’ surfaces a certain textural interest in lieu of specific form juggling); they had also contrasted blurred and linear contours. The new thinly painted, watercolor effect canvases de-emphasized contrast and stressed color and luminosity. …though Reinhardt took pains to point out that his use of the work ’Impressionism’ was ‘entirely involved with the sensation and impulse of the marks on the surface—not the sensations and impulses of anything else” (Ibid., p. 114). Over time, the individual patchwork of color would be enlarged, giving Reinhardt’s canvases a formal elegance and simplicity. In the artist’s own words, Reinhardt, strove to make “the first paintings which cannot be misunderstood.” As the preeminent art historian Yve-Alain Bois explains, “In other words, there is nothing there to be “understood” (to be explained, interpreted, deciphered)… Such an endeavor entails immense risks and impediments (to prevent ‘understanding’ from sneaking in, to cut short the compulsion to interpret seems necessarily quixotic). It also presupposes a tremendous faith” (Y. Bois, “The Limits of Almost,” Ad Reinhardt, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1991, p. 11).