A new show explores links between Ad Reinhardt's identity as abstract painter and as cartoonist, satirist, crusader, explicator, and slide-show maker
The Art World was recreated in 4 Days in 4 Sections, 40 years ago, and originally in 4004 B.C. Today minor Artists have 400 Disciples and more favored mediocre Artists have 44,000 Devotees approximately. There are 4,040 Rules of Art Conduct…
The Four Sacred Art Texts are Confusionist, Doughist, Tantrumist, and Sham-Buddieist. The Four Art Castes are Purehatpriests, Guruteacherhats, Sunnyascetichats and Bighatdevotees…
So proclaimed an astrological chart in the May 1956 issue of this magazine.
Titled “A Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala,” the delirious two-page spread was the creation of Ad Reinhardt, the rigorous abstract painter with a wicked sense of humor.
The chart was labeled a “joke,” but the intent was of course not so simple. And the humor hit close to home.
Categories include Artist as Recorder, featuring the Artist as Crackerbarrel Craven-Image Guru, and the Artist as Bon Shaman Georgon-Zealot, to name some, along with Artist as Cathartic, Artist as Explainer, Artist as Commodity. There’s a section for Art and Business listing the Artist as One-Man-Show-Biz-Demon, among others.
These are cross-referenced with styles like Social-Realist-Cubist Futurism, Naturalist-Expressionist-Classicism, and more. In the mid-’50s, the art world was small. Everyone knew who he meant.
David Zwirner’s West 20th Street Gallery has four versions of “A Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala” right now —a preliminary sketch, the finished collage reproduced in ARTnews, the ARTnews tear sheet, and a new poster that could prove a college-dorm hit.
Reading Reinhardt’s finely honed categories, like Artist as Poetartcritic Raw Divining-Rod Tool, confirms the enduring power of his 57-year-old cartoon as a feat of satire, data visualization, and timeliness. His categories are spot-on.
The mandalas are part of a 100th-birthday show, organized in collaboration with the Ad Reinhardt Foundation (and the gallery’s first since it began representing the artist’s estate earlier this year), that is itself a nuanced portrait of the artist, assembled from parts of his career that are usually considered separately, if at all.
Curated by Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr with loans from museums, private collections, and the Reinhardt foundation, the exhibition features a spectacular room of 13 resplendent Black Paintings, the largest group of them to appear in New York since his 1991 MoMA retrospective.
Along with the art cartoons, there are more than 200 of Reinhardt’s much lesser known political cartoons, on themes ranging from Fascism and World War II to the Cold War, race war, and the war of the sexes.
There are also political flyers, sketches, tear sheets, diagrams, color charts, children’s book illustration, and a cover illustration for Ice Cream Field (where Reinhardt served as art director). From his career as a teacher and his wide travels, the artist built a vast slide archive, which he liked to deploy with performative flair in events he called “non-happenings.” The gallery is projecting excerpts from his slide shows, a fast-changing landscape of global art and architecture, in a side room.
Then there are cartoons from The New Yorker and other publications lampooning Reinhardt’s black paintings. The artist collected those, too.
Reinhardt was hardly the only modernist to go high/low, Storr notes in the catalogue. The 20th-century masters who drew cartoons include Philip Guston, Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Richard Lindner, Reginald Marsh, and John French Sloan, among others. But only a few—namely Guston and Saul Steinberg—employed cartooning skills in service of their primary artistic aims.
And only one modernist leveraged his mass-produced comic art not as a “day job” but as a full-fledged, yet separate dimension of a larger aesthetic enterprise, Storr argues. That was Reinhardt.
Born in Buffalo and raised in Queens, Reinhardt got into journalism early on, becoming editor in chief (and sometime cover artist) of The Jester, the student humor magazine at Columbia, where he took courses with Meyer Schapiro and received his B.A. He later continued as a grad student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he studied with Erwin Panofsky. Moving from Social Realism to abstraction, he was employed by the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1940.
Then he began to earn his living as a commercial artist. He was on staff at P.M., a leftist daily, between 1942 and ’47, producing several thousand cartoons and illustrations. The master of the iconic, reductive Black Paintings was a virtuoso of white-out fluid, paste-up, and Photostats.
The show includes eight drawings from his “How to Look series,” a cheerful guide for the perplexed that ran in various publications, mostly P.M. Channeling the social satire of Hogarth, the Surrealist collage of Max Ernst, and the legendary chart of Cubism and Abstract Art by MoMA founder Alfred H. Barr, Reinhardt used wit, wisdom, and double entendres to explore ways to look at abstract art, cubist painting, things through a wine glass, and looking itself, to name some themes.
Reinhardt crammed immense amounts of visual data into these collages, Storr writes: “never dealing with a single idea, image, or witticism but always with an inextricably bonded matrix of all three or more that fire off like a string of Chinese firecrackers exploding dichotomies and shibboleths like so many bibelots on the reader’s mental mantelpiece.”
Encouraged and supported by ARTnews editor Thomas B. Hess, Reinhardt brought the same madcap educational sensibility to the works he created for this magazine. Sources spotted in these collages include encyclopedias, advertising, textbooks, antiquities catalogues, Dürer, Hokusai, Gustave Doré, and Dickens illustrations.
“He delighted in amassing enormous amounts of information and then sorting it out, ordering it in unusual, often hilarious patterns,” Hess recalled. “Had he been Noah, the giraffe would have marched aboard next to the spotted bill duck.”
Along with the mandala, the show includes “Our Favorites,” a “page of jokes” described as a “nosegay for the Art-Schmeckers” that appeared in our March 1952 issue. The collage, a commission from the magazine, was Reinhardt’s response to a show at Wildenstein Gallery, which had asked art critics to chose their “favorite” American paintings since 1900. “A squarer bunch of fellows you never saw,” the collage announces in words and implies in pictures.
There was the “Foundingfathersfollyday,” which sets up sporting brackets including Boxing, where the heavyweight match-ups pit Gottlieb vs Hofmann and Newman vs Beelzebub. Pollock vs de Kooning and Diller vs Albers are in the lightheavies category.
In 1961, ARTnews published “How to Look at Modern Art in America,” along with the earlier version that had appeared in P.M. in 1946. The new version puts Dove, Pollock and Gorky in the cornfield of art history while just about everyone else dangles on the limb about to fall off his tree of contemporary art.
“He had amazing ability to deeply offend friends and keep the friendship,” Storr commented at the gallery last weekend.
At a time when various New York abstractionists were starting to make money, some people saw the cartoons as a product of sour grapes. But that wasn’t the case, Storr stresses. Rather, Reinhardt’s cartoons are warning salvos aimed at posers who might sully the purity of art. And that is what links them to the paintings: both are the product of the artist’s unapologetic, unswerving esthetic and ethical code.
In their decoding and deconstruction of art-world practice, the collages prefigure the more recently named genre of Institutional Critique. And while Conceptual art isn’t always so funny, Reinhardt’s particular blend of wisdom, wordplay, and critique has its own family tree, whose branches include Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, William Powhida and Jade Townsend, Ward Shelley, and also Art Spiegelman, as a visit to his current Jewish Museum show makes clear.
More heirs can be found at TEMP Art Space in Downtown Manhattan, which just opened a tribute show, “Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100,” in collaboration with Brooklyn Rail Curatorial Projects (and in anticipation of the Rail’s special issue on Reinhardt’s writings next month).
The show features works by 13 established and emerging abstract artists who see Reinhardt’s ideas not so much as an inspiration but as a counterpoint for their own formal and theoretical stance. The participants are Sebastian Black, Keltie Ferris, Wade Guyton, Jacob Kassay, Zak Kitnick, Scott Lyall, Yoshiaki Mochizuki, Olivier Mosset, Steven Parrino, Nathlie Provosty, Julia Rommel, Michael Scott, and Don Voisine.
Meanwhile, the Zwirner show offers a chance for you to become your own Ad Reinhardt punch line. The gallery is selling (to benefit the foundation) a T-shirt bearing a scene the artist repeated in his cartoons.
In the first frame, a man points at a modernist abstraction. “Ha ha,” he says. “What does this represent?”
In the second scene, the painting points back at the man.
The caption says, “What do you represent?”