A world-class abstract painter and an ebullient polemicist, Ad Reinhardt (1913–67) once said, “Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else.” For good measure, he also stated, “My paintings are the last paintings one can make.”
At David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street, 212-517-8677, davidzwirner.com, through December 18) you have the rare chance to see 13 of Reinhardt’s exquisitely austere “ultimate” black paintings: five-foot-square canvases that, with patient viewing, slowly reveal spectral crosses of dark and darker, cooler and warmer pigments—rainbows by moonlight. (A description Reinhardt would despise, as he once declared, “Artists who peddle wiggly lines and colors as representing emotion should be run off the streets.”)
If, however, like Reinhardt’s contemporary Philip Guston, you eventually get “sick and tired of all that Purity!” you can revel in the collection of cartoons Reinhardt drew for such leftist publications as The Masses and the New York daily PM. Modern art was often mocked in postwar publications such as the New Yorker; curator Robert Storr points out in the excellent catalogue that Reinhardt used his critical cartoons in the wide-circulation PM “to teach average readers how to look more intelligently at and think harder about the things they were being invited to laugh at.”
For students of art history, Reinhardt’s cartoons are crammed with in-jokes, razzing friends and foes alike. These include the cream of the era’s painters, curators, and critics, even the Museum of Modern Art’s big cheese, Alfred Barr: “AllfriedBarrbigqueueHouseofFame.” And many contemporary viewers will empathize with the political cartoon depicting politicians snipping the ropes attached to CEO- salary hot-air balloons while “Wages” remains firmly tethered to the ground. In our viciously partisan era, it’s almost shocking to see Reinhardt’s willingness to honor antecedents to his collage style, such as Max Ernst, a pillar of Surrealism, a movement the hard-core abstractionist found hokey.
Cartoons such as the one above demonstrate that while Reinhart’s tongue was certainly in his cheek, his heart was with art for its own sake. Storr describes the typical Reinhardt art cartoon as a “complex critical exercise in the form of a farcical rant.” Below, we presume to update Reinhardt’s fortnightly polemics, focusing on an aspect of the art world that was raising its ugly head even back in his day—the role of mammon, from today’s extravagant romps in Venice to the auction floor. We may not match Reinhardt’s complex critical insight or satirical force, but we’re happy to rant.