I was intrigued to study Reinhardt, having heard about his all over ‘Black paintings’ for many years. They seemed to divide people in regard to how they observed art. I have heard many people scoff that an all ‘Black painting’ is an excuse for a painting about nothing, which isn’t a problem in itself, in art making we can chose to present what ever we like, but that reading misses so much! On studying Reinhardt and his technique in making these works, I learnt there was much behind their making. Reinhardt was a purist, his art making actually had a high level of artist morality behind the intent of making such minimalistic paintings. It was about the surface and the paint.
He was another of the Abstract Expressionist Painter’s whom had more than a passing interest in Zen Buddhism teachings of Suzuki. His ‘Black paintings’ seem to bear testament to those philosophies. His earlier work was geometric and compositional, providing evidence of the hand that made them.
The later work gradually erased any signs of the actual process involved in making the painting. There are no signs of brushwork in the ‘Black Paintings’, it is all about the sublime effect of sitting with a painting long enough for the investment of your intimacy with it, to reveal the secrets it has to share. It is purely about color. I think most artists relate to the idea of a viewer, taking the time to invest in experience of looking at their work for longer than a passing moment, as a positive relationship!
Reinhardt just took it a step further and made it an essential ingredient for understanding and reaping the benefit of his work. The ‘Black paintings’ are actually not entirely black, although if passing briefly they do seem so.
It takes a while of sitting in front of the work, for your eyes to adjust and be able to see the color underneath read through. This is where I believe, his study of Zen Buddhism shows through. It is about ‘being’ not ‘doing’. Being still for long enough to experience what lies beneath the surface. It isn’t something you can will to happen, it is in the ‘not doing’ that the perspective is allowed to shift and see what is before you.
In the making of these type of paintings, black may be mixed with another color before application, although in my experimentation with this technique, I found when doing so, the overall read was of the blended color, I got the feeling of both colors at once, it was more subtle, as opposed to the application of a primary under layer with the black on top, in which case, the reading was more separate, as though your eyes could dig in to the layers and witness the under painting as effecting the outer layer.
It reminded me of those picture books that require you to gaze with more of a peripheral vision until the picture becomes clear as your eyes adjust and take in all the information.
The process of making these type of paintings, starts of with a method of extracting the binder (typically linseed oil) from the oil paint over a period of time, to make a fine sediment of almost pure pigment to paint with. This process delivers a smoother than silk consistency of paint, delicious to apply, but with enormous repercussion for the paintings longevity and is basically a conservators nightmare!
Linseed is the binder in an oil paint, so when you extract most of it out, the paint has a suede like, matte appearance but that is due to it being so very ‘dry’. These paintings, if touched even briefly, will spoil. The surface is brittle, in that there is very little substance holding the pigment onto the canvas. When these paintings are touched, the oil from even a fingertip will leave a dark impression, as the thirsty surface sucks the oil in!
We as a class, prepared our paints in the same way Reinhardt did. It involved squeezing a fair amount (at least an inch) of paint from the tube, in to a medium sized jar with a lid and mixing it with enough Turpentine to reach at least a third of the height of the jar. We then had to shake the mixture as long as we could to blend the paint into the Turpentine solution. Over a period of at least two weeks, the pigment sinks to the bottom of the jar and leaves the linseed rich, turpentine floating on top. This liquid is then poured off, when ready for use and the sediment left behind is your paint! I discovered, this sediment dries very quickly and cannot be stored for later use.
We used Mars black, Ultramarine Blue and Cadnium Red to begin. Reinhardt also used Green. Ultimately these colors could be combined during this process to achieve varying blacks, but to begin with I used individual color only, so as to properly guage the effect of each.
The quality of your paint makes a big difference to outcome, quality oils carry a higher pigment ratio, so they are the best to use for such a technique.
The under layer of primary color is painted on the canvas. Reinhardt used a divisive measure of nine, equal squares for his composition. He used these zones to differentiate the colors and their final reading, for example; green for the band through the center, blue for the cross shaping squares and red for the corners.
Once truly dry, (faster than regular oil, but still perhaps a week or two) the second layer of color (Black) can be applied. I am not sure how many coats Reinhardt used in his paintings, though I suspect a few, but you can be the judge along the way. Obviously with each coating the under coat of color would be more difficult to read through. Perhaps a number of coats of the initial primaries would make a difference too. I didn’t go that far with my experimentation. I would have liked to, but as I realized in hindsight, one must measure out the amount of paint during the extraction process to match the intended size of the canvas! Math has never been my forte!
The possible combinations of the number of layers and whether you mix your Blacks in the extraction process of keep them as individual colors, all will make a difference to how they read. One could apply a base coat of a primary and then perhaps another primary over that before applying the final Black layer. Reminiscent of the way Rothko’s layering worked. I hope to experiment further with this type of painting as it holds a lot of appeal for me. I love the way colors and their individual vibrations read together and effect one another.
So, in conclusion, Reinhardt didn’t just make ‘Black paintings’, he made paintings that looked Black. Their matte quality ensures they do not reflect anything outside of themselves on to the picture plane, the way a gloss might. The pull you in to explore the surface and below. There is no distraction from that in the actual work.
There may be distraction in the environment you view them in, but that too is a gorgeous test of whether you are, as the viewer, able to put aside all else while you focus on the experience of uniting with one of Reinhardt’s ‘Black Paintings’. They are not reproducible in print (which he would have loved) they are works that one needs to spend time with in order to know. The integrity in the way they are approached is returned in reward of the investment made. They are an experience to be had, not just a painting to be seen.
Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA: Anne Temkin speaks of Ad Reinhardt and his Black Paintings.