What was it with Ad Reinhardt and Black?

Quite a bit actually. Here's how to spot the subtle undercurrents of red, the nuanced blues and the slightly greenish tinges in the Abstract Expressionist artist's suede-like works - courtesy of new book Chromaphilia
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Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1963, oil on canvas. As reproduced in Chromaphilia
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1963, oil on canvas. As reproduced in Chromaphilia

For the last ten years of his life, between 1957 and 1967, the abstract expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt focused exclusively on the colour black, creating austere, square, pictures he described as 'ultimate paintings'.  

“These were the culmination of what he construed as a negative progression of modern art, in which modernism was ever more defined by an art form’s essential attributes," writes art historian Stella Paul in our new book Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art

For Reinhardt, these essential attributes were a process of negation, or subtraction, of all extraneous elements, including referential imagery, narrative, emotion, gestural incident and superfluous high colour. He famously proclaimed: “artists who peddle wiggly lines and colours as representing emotion should be run off the streets.”

Reinhardt looked beyond his own milieu to Eastern art, particularly closely toned Chinese and Japanese landscapes. His study of Eastern religions also informed his asceticism, according to Stella Paul.

"Reinhardt’s aesthetics of negation repudiated much of what comprised Western art in an effort to achieve purity, control and what he considered high moral value," she writes in Chromaphilia. "He sought no movement, no subject, no 'likeness of anything on earth' in an art in which there was to be no laying bare of oneself and no interpretation. Writing in 1953, he established Twelve Rules for a New Academy, including Rule 6, 'No colour. Colour blinds'."

 

Ad Reinhardt at work. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Ad Reinhardt at work. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In actual fact, there is 'chromatic incident', as Paul calls it,  in Reinhardt’s starkly monochromatic works, but to perceive it requires a serious commitment of both time and meditative attention. Obviously, you won't get this from a quick glance at our online reproduction above. But we hope that our story, and Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art, will make you want to go and feel this effect in person. 

If you do, you'll find that Reinhardt’s chromatic blackness is literally at the threshold of perception, so subtle that the mechanics of the human eye need time to adjust before the variety of different blacks becomes apparent.

You'll notice that the square canvas is divided into a subtle grid of nine smaller squares within, six of which form a central cruciform shape. At the corners, the colour has a subtle undercurrent of red; the vertical portion of the cruciform is nuanced with blue; and the horizontal element has a slightly greenish tinge. There is no evidence of brushwork on the surface, which is so matt as to appear suede-like.

How did Reinhardt get this effect? Well, Stella Paul reveals that he used conventional oil paint prepared by a unique method that reduced the amount of oil in the paste. "Paint was mixed with turpentine, then left to sit until the oil and turpentine rose to the surface, leaving a sludge of pigment at the bottom of the jar. Most of the oil binder was removed in this process, changing the consistency of the paint and its optical properties. The result is a dense, velvety ground, incomparably matt and light absorbing, with no gloss or reflection to adulterate the expression of pure pigment."

 

Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art

Chromophilia: The Story of Colour in Art uses 240 artworks as case studies to tell the story of ten individual colours or colour groups. It explores the history and meaning of each colour in art, highlighting fascinating tales of discovery and artistic passion, and offering easily accessible explanations of the science and theory behind specific colors. 

To accompany each of our colour stories inspired by Chromophilia we're pulling together a small Phaidon selection of works by colour that are affordable on Artspace.  

Today's works are all, yes you guessed, black and all are just over or way under £1000 / $1,300. Many of them are by well-known names, among them: David Lynch, Ed Ruscha, Josef Albers, Robert Mangold, Keith Haring, Tracey Emin, Yinka Shonibare, Wilhelm Sasnal, Carol Bove and Mark Leckey to name but a few and classic black and white photographs of Marlyin Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Sophia Loren and Led Zeppelin among others back in the day. 

So that's all black, all under £1000/$1,300 and all here. (Other colours and price points are, of course, available). Buy Chromophilia here and look out for the next colour story in our new series and check out the art on Artspace.


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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