Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Midcentury Painter

This is the second of three posts
presenting and developing my recent slide talk
Contemporary Art as Buddhist Practice.

Here, I'll discuss a single work - a series really - by a painter 
well known from the 1930s into the 1960s.

I'm going to ask you to use your imagination, 
which is more effective in a live setting since I can withhold the image. 

I’ve been showing some slides from early Buddhist painting,   
done by monks and artists familiar with the Buddha Way,
And a few Paintings by Modern artists who shared that motivation. 
I will now introduce to you one Midcentury work in particular.
Though many other modern paintings would be worth the trouble,  this is something wonderful.

Close your eyes and imagine please, a square canvas.
 It’s almost as wide as your outstretched arms,  higher than your head,   down to about your knees.
The canvas is all black.   The painter was well acquainted with the Buddhadharma.
He wrote out 12 rules:

No texture
No brushwork or calligraphy
No sketching or drawing
No forms
No design
No colors
No light
No space
No time
No size or scale
No movement
No object, no subject, no matter. No symbols, images or signs. Neither pleasure nor paint.

As you gaze into this black field,      devoid of mark or space or time,   you begin to distinguish some “resonance” in the blackness. 
It’s not just black.   Maybe there is a design,  a division,   though you’re not quite sure you saw it.

Now open your eyes.

10 minutes in front of one of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings can change your life.
He painted them,   by hand and brush,   for the last many years of his life.
Always the same,   always new,  he referred to them as  
The Last Painting. 
  Reinhardt wrote in 1962:

“The standard of art is oneness and fineness,   rightness and purity,  abstractness and evanescence.

The one thing to say about art is its breathlessness,  spacelessness and timelessness.  
  This is always the end in art.”

For a moment, imagine yourself making a painting like this.
What would shift in yourself   as you mix these colors so black,   yet not black,
and apply them according to his 12 rules, stated as they are, in the negative?

What would you have to  relinquish?


Now, I said above that ten minutes in front of one of Ad Reinhardt's paintings
could change your life.
I don't know if that can happen in front of a computer screen. I have written elsewhere about the confusion about art that comes in a time like ours when all information, standing in for experience, takes place in reproduction. This has been a topic since the 40s at least, but now with electronic communications so ubiquitous, we tend to forget that works of art are there to be contemplated
in person, in real life.

The next time you are in a museum that has an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting
do not miss the opportunity to spend 10 - 60 minutes in quiet contemplation.

People pass them by. Lao Tsu said the Tao that is not laughed at is not the true Tao.


Baas, Jacqueline. 2005. Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western          Art from Monet to Today. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of          California Press.

Baas, Jacqueline and Mary Jane Jacob. 2004. Buddha Mind in Contemporary          Art. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Rose, Barbara Stella. 1975. Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt.
         Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

The second book on this list was not a specific reference for this post, but is here included because of its important relation to the first book by the same author. Jacqueline Baas and Mary Jane Jacob "co-organized...a program...entitled Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness. From April 2001 to February 2003 this consortium effort brought together arts professionals, artists, and others to investigate the relationship between the meditative, creative, and perceiving mind; and the implications of Buddhist perspectives for artistic and museum practices in the United States. It led to more than fifty exhibitions, performances, and public programs from 2002 to 2004." (from the publisher's page)

It's a fascinating and inspiring book. It offers a new take on Marcel Duchamp and describes the ongoing work of contemporary artists working today. There are no painters mentioned.

In The Smile of the Buddha, Ms. Baas has essays on Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Duchamp, O'Keefe, Noguchi, Reinhardt, Yves Klein, Jasper Johns, John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, Vija Celmins, and Richard Tuttle.

Barbara Rose edited Reinhardt's enigmatic and slyly profound writings. 


  1. I've seen an Ad Reinhardt and it was a life altering experience, similar to seeing an Agnes Martin. I think they were experiencing the same transcendental connection as they continued to explore their messages over and over again.
    Enjoying these posts, thanks Jef.
    Great posts Jef.

  2. Hi Audrey,
    I've not spent much time with Martin's work, though I do look forward to that one day. Glad you've had the experience of a Reinhardt. I do expect they were working in a similar light, as it were. Thanks for the comment.

  3. You asked what would one relinquish? Ego for sure (especially for someone like me who has brushes and paints, but no pedigree or platform). If you take the 12 rules literally, then it seems there’s no point to painting because there can be no paint, no brush, no texture etc. But Ad Reinhardt’s paintings are alive with form and color and scale and movement. So then the 12 rules are an exercise for shedding the surface and driving toward something elemental?

    1. Hello Barbara,
      Sorry I did not see your comment until now. His 12 rules (the 12th includes 7 more!) are problematic because he clearly breaks them. You can't have painting without form and color. The format of the painting is already form, and form is impossible without color. Black is a color. (Years ago I used to ask, "¿De quĂ© color es la noche?" and now : What color is a mirror?)
      As you say here, he is driving at the elemental. What is essential? Last night I heard on the radio an interview with the writer Peter Mathieson. It was wonderful. His writing is rich and his mind soft and penetrating. In a round about answer to a question about Zen, he mentioned years ago reading about a suicide, and the note left by the deceased man said, "I could not simplify myself." Suicide is a sad answer to an all important question. Who am I? What is all this stuff with which I surround myself? Then, if I am an artist, what to make? What is there to express? Anything at all? Must it be minimal? Could rich color and form also express the essential?