Introduction

“The one standard in art is oneness and fineness, lightness and purity, abstractness and evanescence. The one thing to say about art is its breathlessness, lifelessness, deathlessness, contentlessness, formlessness, spacelessness, and timelessness. This is always the end of art.”

– Ad Reinhardt: ‘Art-as-Art’, Art International, December 1962

This is a working space for reverse-engineering Ad Reinhardt’s late writings to reveal his interests and influences during the latter period of his life.

[Oneness] appears as an undated and previously unpublished text on pages 105 to 107 of the 1991 University of California Press version of ‘Art-as-Art’ [1]. In her Introduction to ‘Art-as-Art’, Barbara Rose notes the eschatology (or ‘end of the age’) nature of Reinhardt’s writings, and says:

“His own personal disillusion with the notion of ‘progress’ in art, of the rhetoric of ‘breakthrough after breakthrough’ characteristic of recent American art criticism permeates his late writings. These consist mainly of fragments, aphorisms, and visionary notes on the survival of high art – spiritual art – in a secular mass culture. . . . Reinhardt appears a prophet of the realization that high art can only endure as spiritual art, even if this requires a return to medieval monasticism. His conclusion that a new basis for the survival of an art of moral and spiritual worth, resting on the traditional views of the of East, must be found to preserve quality may point the direction to the continuing integrity of art in the West.”

In an interview for LIFE Magazine in February 1967 [2], Reinhardt said “I’ve been called a religious artist more times than anyone else”, and his interviewer, David Bourdon, noted that the painter “enjoys jotting down what he’s been called – Hindu, Muslim, Calvinist, Jew, Zen Buddhist. He has been called a godless mystic, the prince of darkness, the black monk.”

Barbara Rose reports that Reinhardt’s “library was made up almost exclusively of books on religion, philosophy, and art history.” By 1966, Reinhardt was a trustee of the New York-based Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture which believed “that the roles of the arts and religion are decisive. They reflect the struggle to conserve and to recover depth and wholeness, to reaffirm personal responsibility in the face of dehumanization, to define the ground for human freedom and creativity in a culture which tends increasingly to impose impersonal tyrannies over mind and spirit.”

Although he was clear that “The religion of art is not religion” and that “Bumpkin-Dionysianism in art is Bumpkin-Dionysianism” [3], [Oneness] has much to do with Reinhardt’s lifelong friend and correspondent Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. As a novice master during the first of half of the 1960s, Merton prepared and delivered ‘An Introduction to Christian Mysticism’, a seminar programme for newly ordained priests. This overlaps considerably with Reinhardt’s [Oneness] text – particularly in its exploration of the mysticism of “darkness, unknowing, or night” and the relationship of this to “Oriental mysticism”.

Merton’s teaching at Gethsemani emphasised the importance of contemplation (theoria, as seeing or gazing) to reveal the philosophy hidden in the words, and, as a sort of lectio divina,  this seems to be in play in Reinhardt’s late writings once he was in the business of “making the last painting which anyone can make” [4].

In 1957, Reinhardt asked Merton if he wanted a small painting. The monk replied:

“Do I desire a small painting? Well, it is clear at least to me that I desire a small painting since I am in point of fact crazy mad for a small painting. . . . After the arrival of the small painting there will be here a week of sabbaths or a sabbath of weeks. The small painting will be honored by deacons and acolytes. The small painting will be taken in procession from the larvas to the basilicas. The small painting will be laid in reverence upon the altar of Saint Panteleimon. The small painting will be removed thence with lights and incense to the altar of Sts Boris and Bleb or is it Greb (Gleb)? The small painting will be set up on the iconostasis. It will be viewed by all during the mysteries. It will elevate the hearts and minds of all to participate in the mysteries. It will bring to the artist the Holy Spirit. It will cause all things to be transfigured. It will hasten the day of glory.”

Merton received his small painting in November 1957, and wrote to Reinhardt in terms that supported the painter’s claim that “Painting is special, separate, a matter of meditation and contemplation” [5].

“The small painting arrived just before I was removed from my haunts and it enabled me to bear up against despair in the wilderness in which I have since found myself. . . . When shall I return to this mysterious small painting? When shall I once again console myself with the mystical abyss of the small painting? It has the following noble features, namely its refusal to have anything to do with anything else around it, notably the furniture etc. It is a most recollected small painting. It thinks that only one thing is necessary and this is true, but this one thing is by no means apparent to one who will not take the trouble to look. It is a most religious, devout, and latreutic small painting” [6].

Reinhardt’s [Oneness] text comprises three distinct sections. It opens with a mix of:

• Neo-Platonism

• Roman Catholicism

• Theosophy

• Vaishnavism Hinduism.

The middle section meshes Plotinus’ ‘The Good or The One’ and the Bhagavad Gita (‘The Path of Knowledge’ and ‘The Path of Action’) with Christian Mysticism, particularly:

• Gregory of Nyssa (‘Life of Moses’, ‘Homilies on the Song of Songs’ and ‘Homilies on Ecclesiastes’)

• Nicholas de Cusa

• Blessed Jan Van Ruysbroeck

• ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’

• The Pseudo-Dionysius’s ‘De Mystica Theologia.’

The third and final section begins with Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ and Jean Paul Satre’s ‘Nausea’, but is firmly build around:

• Samuel Beckett’s ‘Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit’ (1965)

• Richard Gilman’s review of Donald Barthelme’s ‘Snow White’ in the New Republic of 3 June 1967, and

• Frank Kermode’s ‘Sense of An Ending’ (1967), which was reviewed by Leo Bersani (‘Variations On a Paradigm’) in the New York Times on 11 June 1967.

Dating the Text:

Whether Reinhardt read Leo Bersani’s review of Kermode’s ‘Sense of An Ending’ in the New York Times on 11 June 1967 is unknown. What is certain, though, is that towards the end of the [ONENESS] text he used a considerable chunk of Gilman’s New Republic review of Donald Barthelme’s ‘Snow White’ of 3 June 1967.

This helps to date the version of [ONENESS] published in ‘Art-as-Art’ to some time after early June 1967. As Reinhardt died from a heart attack at his studio at 732 Broadway, New York, on 30 August 1967, we can date the version of [ONENESS] as published in ‘Art-as-Art’ to the last three months of the painter’s life.

© David Patten 2013 – 2014

1. ‘Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt’, edited by Barbara Rose and published by University of California Press in 1991. Part of ‘The Documents of 20th-Century Art’ series edited by Robert Motherwell, and first published by Viking Press, New York, in 1975.

2. David Bourdon: ‘Master of the Minimal’, LIFE Magazine, 1967.

3. Ad Reinhardt: ‘Art in Art is Art-as-Art’ (Art-as-Art Dogma, Part III), Lugano Review, 1966.

4. Bruce Glaser: ‘An Interview With Ad Reinhardt’, Art International, Winter 1966-1967.

5. Ad Reinhardt: ‘To Be Part of Things…’, unpublished, undated.

6. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University: Correspondence with Reinhardt, 1956-1964.

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