How To Look At Art

One of the most impressive art exhibits I ever saw was a massive Ad Reinhardt retrospective at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991. Reinhardt is considered one of the most influential artists of his time, and famous (as well as infamous) for his radical Minimalist artworks. It was amazing seeing the development of his work over his career, first with brightly colored, playful paintings, gradually shifting to his famous “black on black” minimalist works. But I was absolutely stopped in my tracks when I entered a gallery containing some of his final works, monumental black paintings.

I had heard of these paintings before but had never seen one firsthand, and now here was an entire room full, exhibited in pairs as the artist intended, each painting about 6 feet wide and 12 feet tall. The LA MOCA galleries are beautiful tall white rooms with blond wood floors, and scattered about are black leather minimalist couches by Mies van der Rohe, echoing the black paintings like little black clouds floating off the ground. It was the perfect setting to contemplate the paintings, so I sat down and slowly gazed at the paintings, trying to absorb every impression I could.

As I sat in the gallery, staring at a particular pair of paintings, a man walked by and gave me the most curious look. He stood to one side of me, looking at the paintings, and then watched me for a moment. Then he timidly walked up to me, and asked me, “excuse me, if you don’t mind me asking, what are you looking at for so long? These are nothing but black paintings.” I said “oh no, these aren’t just black paintings, why don’t you sit down here and look at them with me, and I’ll tell you all about them.”

We must have been quite a pair sitting there, a scruffy young artist in my black painter’s pants and leather jacket, and the barrel-chested middle aged man in a plaid work shirt and khaki pants with red suspenders. I told him, “look slowly at the paintings, they are far more complex than they seem with just a quick glance. Ad Reinhardt was a fanatic about technique, and these paintings aren’t just a coat of black paint on canvas, they are actually quite complex. Reinhardt ground his own pigments and made his own paint to precise specifications, and applied dozens of thin layers of paint to get the precise effect he wanted. Sometimes there are layers of color underneath a black layer, he used a whole range of colors in his black paintings. Light penetrates into the paint and reflects back out with a color cast that can’t be seen except by slowly viewing the painting. If you look at the paintings for a minute or so, you can see a faint glow of color in the black. Sometimes you can see color around the edges of the painting, like an aura. The artist intended for you to get the impression of a color without actually seeing any colored objects. Can you see the color in these paintings? Tell me, what colors are they?”

He looked at the paintings silently for a moment, and then said, “yes, I can see it now, the one on the left is red and the one on the right is blue.” I said that was the same thing I saw, and each of the pairs of paintings had a similar set of contrasting colors. He said he couldn’t believe it, he thought these were just black paintings but they really were interesting to look at.

The man thanked me and said he was glad I’d explained it to him. And I told him I was glad he enjoyed the paintings. He got up and walked around the gallery, and slowly looked at each pair of paintings, with a contemplative look on his face.

One of the reasons I like Ad Reinhardt’s minimalist black paintings is that you must sit and look at the original works, they can never be reproduced in another medium. No photograph of the paintings can ever substitute for sitting there in front of the original. I describe viewing these works as a “pilgrimage,” you go to see the painting firsthand because there is no other way to get that experience. I’ve always tried to use that effect in my own work, particularly my abstract prints, which use elaborate metallic and irridescent pigment effects that can only be seen in the original, and use whole ranges of “black color.” Unfortunately, that makes it impossible to show my best artworks on the internet, or even as a photographic reproduction or a slide. This also makes it particularly difficult for me to get an art gallery interested in selling my works. Most galleries select artists by viewing slides of their work. I wonder how successful Ad Reinhardt would have been, if he had to submit slides of his black paintings to galleries.

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