"To those horrified that we may take the mystery out of painting, we promise to keep the question of color quality a deep (bright) secret." -Ad Reinhardt, 1947
Throughout his prolific and contemplative career, Ad Reinhardt insisted that a painting be first understood for what it was--a work of art--with any idea, influence or theme put distinctly second. Although Reinhardt is legendary for his deeply conceptual--almost spiritual-- obsession with abstraction, this clear schism between the idea of art existing for art's sake and the meaning behind his work is in fact the very root of the philosophy that he nurtured and solidified over the span of his entire artistic career. This philosophy and method that he used to approach both his treatises on art making, as well as within his own artistic production, culminated in his masterful abstract paintings of the 1950s, including the magnificent Abstract Painting, Red from 1953. Comprised of three vertical and one horizontal overlapping bars of varying hues of the color red, Reinhardt explores the range of this single color, allowing the different blocks to interact with one another directly on the surface of the painting.
Reinhardt's most notable trope throughout his work is this search for equilibrium of value of the color. By continuing to further limit his palette from, first, varying tones of similar temperatures of color, to eventually focusing on a single color at a time it resulted in his becoming 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. The most strikingly vivid and even hot paintings were the ones in which Reinhardt explored the family of red tones. His red paintings, epitomized in Abstract Painting, Red, demonstrate a point at which Reinhardt's chosen colors were becoming closer to the same value, but still retain the distinct frontiers between colors. The hues meet perfectly together at their borders, creating an almost indistinguishable hum as they resonate off of one another. In the first full length review of his work at the Betty Parsons Gallery, critic Thomas Hess expounds on this effect, stating "the hues, too, are distributed evenly...contrasting colors are often adjusted to equivalences...which make your eyes rock...But despite their variety, flatness is positively asserted in all the pictures: there is no overlapping, no play with illusion of dimension. Reinhardt's work might be called mural, except that this word suggests a too palpable materiality. Similes for the surface energy released could be the scream of a bat (which our ears cannot hear) or the sound snow makes falling on snow. Yet the energy is here, and is apprehended easily" (T. Hess, quoted in L. Lippard, Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1981, p. 93).
When Reinhardt painted Abstract Painting, Red in 1953, 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. 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, color. Reinhardt's style matured throughout the 1940s, from irregular lines and field of color to the more uniform bricks of color that began to emerge around 1950. In a subtler, quieter way than the action-obsessed Abstract Expressionist painters, Reinhardt's painting 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. Although completely at odds with Pollock's emotionality in his work, Reinhardt shared with Pollock his disinterest in form; Reinhardt's fields of color are differentiated from one another in order to create a homogenous surface in pattern, but not in form. In this way, where Pollock's actions were a response to his movement across the surface of the painting, and Rothko's compositions were in response to ultimately filling a void in order to create fields of significant form, Reinhardt preferred to utilize units of color, and fully commit to the geometrical value of his compositions.
Like many of his American artist contemporaries, Reinhardt grew up surrounded by the European artistic influences of Synthetic Cubism, Suprematism and the Bauhaus-inspired emerging abstractionists of North Carolina's Black Mountain College. As a student at Columbia University in the 1930s, Reinhardt received crucial early exposure to a number of art critics and art historians who were challenging and rethinking art history and criticism, at the same time that American artists were changing their own theories and values in art making. Writers like Franz Boas, John Dewey, Mark van Doren and Meyer Schapiro, championed a "timeless art" that they believed was most attainable through abstraction. Abstract art, Schapiro espoused, "accustomed painters to the vision of colors and shapes as disengaged from objects and created an immense confraternity of works of art, cutting across the barriers of time and place" (M. Schapiro, "Nature of Abstract Art," Marxist Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1, January-March, 1937, pp. 77-98). Looking back to the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian most specifically, Reinhardt loved the way in which the artist created his magnificent canvases from bars and rectangles of color that were non-hierarchical and in which he favored no one color over another. The driving force of Mondrian's art was equity despite differences and equilibrium through a contrasting and neutralizing opposition representing what he pictured in a truly united future society.
Returning repeatedly to the same proven colors time and again, Reinhardt's abstract paintings in their monochrome hues of red, blue or black, possess a spiritual resonance in which the artist seems to be coming back to the ritual act of laying solid paint onto a canvas. In this way, Abstract Painting, Red becomes the talisman infused with the power of Reinhardt's beliefs and underlying spirituality. The creation of the painting: the laying down of paint on canvas, the smooth fluid motions of the brush, and the resultant vibrant swatches of color are what truly matter; this is the meaning in his work. The equanimity of the color, the process, and the pure existence of the materials on the canvas is the purest understanding of art for art's sake.