Less Is More: Ad Reinhardt’s 12 Rules for Pure Art

Zhong Yao, Spirit Above All 1-93A, 2012, acrylic on denim. COURTESY PACE LONDON AND WHITECHAPEL GALLERY

Zhong Yao, Spirit Above All 1-93A, 2012, acrylic on denim.


When Kazimir Malevich painted Black Square (1915), whose title perfectly explains what it is, painting was pushed further into abstraction than it ever was before. A new show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, “Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society, 1915–2015” revisits Malevich’s pivotal work and looks at its influence over the next century. On view through April 6, it features artists from all corners of the world who have worked with abstraction, from Lygia Clark to Dan Flavin to Isa Genzken.

Much of today’s discussion of contemporary abstraction is centered on “Zombie Formalism”—Walter Robinson’s coinage for new work that revisits (or apes, one might say) historical forms of abstraction for purely stylistic reasons. Given the intensity of that debate, we thought it would be interesting, for this week’s Retrospective column, to jump back almost 60 years, to 1957, when Ad Reinhardt took up the subject of contemporary abstraction in ARTnews. Reinhardt, who had written for the magazine previously, said that the article—titled “Twelve Rules for a New Academy”—”constitute[d] his last words on art in terms of words.” He sharply criticized his formalist contemporaries, offering instead twelve ways to achieve purity in art. There would be no forms, no texture, no color, nothing—just pure blackness, as in Reinhardt’s most famous paintings. Reproduced in full below is Reinhardt’s article, which takes subtle swipes at Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, the Abstract Expressionists, and more. —Alex Greenberger

“Twelve Rules for a New Academy”
By Ad Reinhardt

How a well-known abstract painter would “give certain rules to our art” in order to “render it pure”

Evil and error in art are art’s own “uses” and “actions.” The sins and sufferings of art are always its own improper involvements and mixtures, its own mindless realisms and expressionisms.

The humiliation and trivialization of art in America during the last three decades have been the easy exploitations and eager popularizations by the American artists themselves. Ashcan- and Armory-Expressionists mixed their art up with life-muck-raking and art-marketing. Social- and Surreal-Expressionists of the ‘thirties used art as an “action-on-the-public,” but succeeded mainly in expressing themselves, and Abstract-Expressionists of the ‘forties and ‘fifties using art initially as a “self-expression,” succeeded in acting upon the whole world. The business boom of the ‘twenties orphaned the alienated artist but the great depression of the ‘thirties witnessed the tender engagement of art to government. Ten years after that, the ardent marriage of art and business and war was celebrated with Pepsi-Cola in ceremonial contests called “Artists for Victory” at America’s greatest museum of art. By the ‘fifties, armies of art’s offsprings were off to school and Sunday school, crusading for art-education and religious decoration.

Hélio Oiticica, Metasquema 464, 1958, gouache on board. ©THE ARTIST. COURTESY WHITECHAPEL GALLERY

Hélio Oiticica, Metasquema 464, 1958, gouache on board.


From “Artists for Ashcan and Dust-Bowl” to “Artists for America-First and Social Security” to “Artists for Victory” to “Artists for Action in Business, Religion and Education,” the portrait of the artist in America in the twentieth century shapes up into a figure resembling Al Capp’s “Available Jones,” who is always available to anyone, any time, for anything at all, at any price.

(The “ice has been broken,” the ivory-tower flooded by unschooled professionals, the walls of the academy washed out by schooled primitives, and the sanctum-sanctorum blasphemed by the Fauve-Folk, Bauhaus-Bacchuses and house-broken Samurai.)

The conception of art as “fine,” “high,” “noble,” “free,” “liberal,” and “ideal” has always been academic. The argument of free or fine artists has never been between art and something else, but “between true art and art submitted to some other, quite different, values.” “There are not two arts, there is only one.” “No man can embrace true art till he has explored and cast out false art.” The academy of art, whether the Western or Eastern ideal, has always aimed at “the correction of the artist,” not “the enlightenment of the public.” The idea of the “academy” of art in seventeenth century, of “esthetics” in the eighteenth, of the “independence” of art in the nineteenth century, and of the “purity” of art in the twentieth, restate, in those centuries in Europe and America, the same “one point of view.” Fine art can only be defined as exclusive, negative, absolute and timeless. It is not practical, useful, related, applicable or subservient to anything else. Fine art has its own thought, its own history and tradition, its own reason, its own discipline. It has its own “integrity” and not someone else’s “integration” with something else.

Fine art is not “a means of making a living” or “a way of living a life.” Art that is a matter of life and death cannot be fine or free art. An artist who dedicates his life to art, burdens his art with his life and his life with his art. “Art is Art, and Life is Life.”

The “tradition” of art is art “out of time,” art made fine, art emptied and purified of all other-than-art meanings, and a museum of fine art should exclude everything but fine art. The art tradition stands as the antique-present model of what has been achieved and what does not need to be achieved again. Tradition shows the artist what not to do. “Reason” in art shows what art is not. “Higher Education for artist should be ‘liberal,’ ‘free’ and the ‘learning of greatness.'” “To teach and enlighten is the task of virtuous men.” “No great painter was ever self-taught.” “Artists must learn and learn to forget their learning.” “The way to know is to forget.”

Dan Flavin, 'Monument' for V. Tatlin, 1966–1969, fluorescent tubes and metal. ©2014 STEPHEN FLAVIN/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK. COURTESY WHITECHAPEL GALLERY

Dan Flavin, ‘Monument’ for V. Tatlin, 1966–1969, fluorescent tubes and metal


The Guardian of the True Tradition in Art is the Academy of Fine Art: “to give certain rules to our art and render it pure.” The first rule and absolute standard of fine art, and painting, which is the highest and freest art, is the purity of it. The more uses, relations and “additions” a painting has, the less pure it is. The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. “More is less.”

The less an artist thinks in non-artistic terms and the less he exploits the easy, common skills, the more of an artist he is. “The less an artist obtrudes himself in his painting, the purer and clearer his aims.” The less exposed a painting is to a chance public, the better. “Less is more.”

The Six Traditions to be studied are: (1) the pure icon, (2) pure perspective, pure line and pure brushwork, (3) the pure landscape, (4) the pure portrait, (5) the pure still-life, (6) pure form, pure color, and pure monochrome. “Study ten thousand paintings and walk ten thousand miles.” “Externally keep yourself away from all relationships, and internally, have no hankerings in your heart.” “The pure old men of old slept without dreams and waked without anxiety.”

The Six General Canons or the Six Noes to be memorized are: (1) No Realism or Existentialism. “When the vulgar and commonplace dominate, the spirit subsides.” (2) No Impressionism. “The artist should once and forever emancipate himself from the bondage of appearance.” “The eye is a menace to clear sight.” (3) No Expressionism or Surrealism. “The laying bare of oneself,” autobiographically or socially, “is obscene.” (4) No Fauvism, primitivism or brute art. “Art begins with the getting-rid of nature.” (5) No Constructivism, sculpture, plasticism, or graphic arts. No collage, paste, paper, sand or string. (6) No “trompe-l’oeil,” interior decoration or architecture. The ordinary qualities and common sensitivities of these activities lie outside free and intellectual art.

The Twelve Technical Rules (or How to Achieve the Twelve Things to Avoid) to be followed are:

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–1942, oil paint on canvas. © DACS, LONDON/VAGA, NEW YORK 2014. COURTESY WHITECHAPEL GALLERY

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–1942, oil paint on canvas


1. No texture. Texture is naturalistic or mechanical and is a vulgar quality, especially pigment-texture or impasto. Palette-knifing, canvas-stabbing, paint-scumbling and other action-techniques are unintelligent and to be avoided. No accidents or automatism.

2. No brushwork or calligraphy. Hand-writing, hand-working and hand-jerking are personal and in poor taste. No signature or trade-marking. “Brushwork should be invisible.” “One should never let the influence of evil demons gain control of the brush.”

3. No sketching or drawing. Everything, where to begin and where to end, should be worked out in the mind beforehand. “In painting, the idea should exist in the mind before the brush is taken up.” No line or outline. “Madmen see outlines and therefore they draw them.” A line is a figure, a “square is a face.” No shading or streaking.

4. No forms. “The finest has no shape.” No figure or fore- or background. No volume or mass, no cylinder, sphere or cone, or cube or boogie-woogie. No push or pull. “No shape or substance.”

5. No design. “Design is everywhere.”

6. No colors. “Color blinds.” “Colors are an aspect of appearance and so only of the surface,” and are “a distracting embellishment.” Colors are barbaric, unstable, suggest life, “cannot be completely controlled” and “should be concealed.” No white. “White is a color, and all colors.” White is “antiseptic and not artistic, appropriate and pleasing for kitchen fixtures, and hardly the medium for expressing truth and beauty.” White on white is “a transition from pigment to light” and “a screen for the projection of light” and “moving” pictures.

Peter Halley, Auto Zone, 1996, acrylic Day-Glo and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. ©THE ARTIST. COURTESY COLLEZIONE MARAMOTTI, REGGIO EMILIA AND WHITECHAPEL GALLERY

Peter Halley, Auto Zone, 1996, acrylic Day-Glo and Roll-a-Tex on canvas.


7. No light. No bright or direct light in or over the painting. Dim, late afternoon, non-reflecting twilight is best outside. No chiaroscuro, “the maldorant reality of craftsmen, beggars, topers with rags and wrinkles.”

8. No space. Space should be empty, should not project, and should not be flat. “The painting should be behind the picture frame.” The frame should isolate and protect the painting from its surroundings. Space divisions within the painting should not be seen.

9. No time. “Clock-time or man’s time is inconsequential.” “There is no ancient or modern, no past or future in art. A work of art is always present.” The present is the future of the past, not the past of the future.

10. No size or scale. Breadth and depth of thought and feeling in art have no relation to physical size. Large sizes are aggressive, positivist, intemperate, venal and graceless.

11. No movement. “Everything is on the move. Art should be still.”

12. No object, no subject, no matter. No symbols, images or signs. Neither pleasure nor pain. No mindless working or mindless non-working. No chessplaying.

Supplementary regulations are: No easel or palette. Low, flat, sturdy benches work well. Brushes should be new, clean, flat, even, 1 inch wide and strong. “If the heart is upright, the brush is firm.” No noise. “The brush should pass over the surface lightly and smoothly” and quietly. No rubbing or scraping. Paint should be permanent, free of impurities, mixed and stored in jars. The scent should be of “pure spirits of turpentine, unadulterated and freshly distilled.” “The glue should be as clean as possible.” Canvas is better than silk or paper, linen better than cotton. There should be no shine in the finish. Gloss reflects and relates to the changing surroundings. “A picture is finished when all traces of the means used to bring about the end have disappeared.”

The fine art studio should have a “rain-tight roof” and be 25 feet wide and 30 feet long, with extra space for storage and sink. Paintings should be stored away and not continually looked at. The ceiling should be 12 feet high. The studio should be separate from the home and living, “away from the claims of concubinage and matrimony.” A fine art department should be separate from the rest of the school.

The fine artist should have a fine mind, “free of all passion, ill-will and delusion1.”

This essay is based on a paper read at the 45th annual meeting of the College Art Association at the Detroit Institute of Art, Saturday morning, January 26, 1957, a nice clear sunny morning.

1 Sources of quotations from the ancients will be supplied by the author upon request.

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