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Reinhardt’s Black Paintings: A Psychoanalytic Critique

The essence of the interpretation was that there is a dissociated self which is nothing; it is nothing but a void; it is only emptiness and when this emptiness comes alive she is nothing but one huge hunger. 

D. W. Winnicott, “Nothing at the Centre”1

“Expressionism and surrealism is always fake, art as something else is always fake,” Reinhardt wrote, but his abstract art is paradoxically and subliminally expressionistic and surrealistic, which doesn’t make it fake.

Certain passages in Reinhardt’s writing suggest a knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. All suggest that his art is body-based—that he unconsciously equates or associates it with the body, that it is a projection of the body or its parts, that it broadly evokes the body, if in blank hallucinatory form.

Original part-object, breast
Gothic, female-genital, fold within fold, slits, vaults
Sloping shoulders, chastened animal
Smooth, rough, nipple, texture
Re-create loved objects, art, images of body, fragments

“Destruction is followed by construction”—Mondrian
“Construction is followed by destruction”—Reinhardt

No such thing as emptiness
or invisibility, silence
Own nervous system

At home with voids, reality & self sums, products of zero.
“Not that,” it is “no thing,” “nil,” nothing,”
“A non-rendering of non-experience”
turning up as dark shadow, spreading stain, widening fissure
Nay-sayers, underminers
Absurd, nausea, negativity, cold wind of nothing, blankness
Nothing is the whole, or at least the central, tune
“Enantiodromia” (Jung), extreme position turns into own opposite

Reinhardt once wrote that the “Facts of an artist’s life are not of great explanatory use,” but one would like to know more about the facts of his life. This inferential psychoanalyst and symbolic interpretation is not literal but specific to the black paintings. The black paintings suggest that the “cold wind of nothingness,” with its accompanying nausea, is a mirroring response to the absurd negativity of the blank breast—the breast being the “central tune” of infantile experience. Unrepresentable because it has become blank, the original part-object of the breast has become non-objective. One might say that Reinhardt’s Medusa-glance turns the breast into the black stone of dead “art,” confirming his unconscious identification with his inwardly dead unfeeling—not to say unempathic—mother, and with that his own sense of being inwardly dead and affectless, that is, a blank. The abstract grid is a defensive overlay on the dead nothingness that nonetheless announces its “negative presence” another of Reinhardt’s psychoanalytically inspired terms—for the traumatic blackness of the void overwhelms it. The impersonal grid is a futile attempt to control the personal void, but the homogeneous grid is itself a kind of void—inherently entropic, as Rudolf Arnheim argues.2

Ad Reinhardt, Detail from “How to Look at a Cubist Painting,” PM January 27, 1946. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

One might say that it is a projection of Reinhardt’s deadened—does he use art to anesthetize himself to the emptiness while evoking it?—“nervous system,” confirming his assertion that there is “no such thing as emptiness or invisibility,” cited above. Art for him is clearly symbolic—and sexually symbolic at that, as his association of the Gothic and female genital, with its folds within folds, suggests: do the black paintings unfold and flatten it, opening the vaginal slit so that he can gaze into the empty vaginal vault? Are they misogynist? His view of the female as a “chastened animal,” and his focus on the nipple—the rough center of the smooth breast, become the blank of a “dark shadow” because it has lost luminous milky substance—conveys his destructive obsession with the “dry” mother, if Reinhardt’s black paintings are any clue. To use Nietzsche’s distinction, they are a dry rather than a wet art.

Reinhardt’s idea that art “re-create[s] loved objects”—including abstract art—and implicitly involves images and fragments of body, more pointedly images and fragments of what Michael Balint calls “personal objects,” is directly derived from, or at least strongly echoes, Melanie Klein’s theory of creativity as the reparation of destroyed objects. The disintegrative destruction occurs in what she calls the paranoid-schizoid position, the reconstruction into integrated wholeness in what she calls the depressive position. Both positions are “states of mind” in which the mother’s breast is the primary object; it remains the imaginative “model” and symbol of loving giving and hateful ungiving personal objects throughout life. It seems clear that Reinhardt is stuck in the destructive paranoid-schizoid position—fixated on the “negativity” of the original part object that is the breast, which is why he is unable to be “positive” or “idealistic” in his art. In this connection one might also cite the “Black Hole”:

Wilfred Bion’s (1970) extrapolation of the astronomical term for the description of the subjective experience of collapse into nothingness and meaninglessness. It was in connection with his description of the ‘infantile catastrophe’ that Bion used the term ‘black hole’; it was intended to metaphorically capture the infantile, traumatic bodily separateness from the mother with its disturbing mental consequences . . . Eshel proposes that encounter with it ‘constitutes a “black hole” experience in the interpersonal, intersubjective space of her child because of the intense grip and compelling pull of her world of inner deadness.

Salman Akhtar,
Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis3

“Hallucination, blankness is a general term [that] refers to certain uncanny experiences of sensations of equilibrium and space . . . Most often such feelings occur in stress situations, when falling asleep, and in dreams. As already described by Freud, all sublimations, and especially the form of sublimation called art, are a kind of deception, are underhand ways of getting back to real personal objects.”4

Reading through Ad Reinhardt’s various writings on art-as-art, black, and his black paintings, I was struck by several remarks that suggest that, despite his oft-repeated insistence that “art-as-art is nothing but art,” it is also something else, namely, a sort of empty, deflated, flattened, depleted breast—a depressingly withholding breast, if you wish, rather than a benignly nourishing giving breast, rich with white milk rather than an abysmally “black hole.”

I am suggesting that despite all his effort to deny that art has any symbolic import, his black paintings are what the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal calls “symbolic equations” for the dead breast of the inwardly dead mother. In a symbolic equation “the symbol is so equated with the object that the two are felt to be identical.”5 In Reinhardt’s unconscious—and he has one despite his hyper-consciousness of art—the flat black paintings are affectless empty breasts.

To say that “abstract art or art-as-art” is “non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagistic,” is to say that he cannot imaginatively represent the mother’s breast—and with that her fulsome figure—because he rarely if ever had a good encounter with or experience of it. The breast had to become a lifeless abstraction because it rarely if ever lovingly gave him what he instinctively needed. There is something infantile about abstract painting; Reinhardt’s are particularly infantile in that they convey the infant’s huge hunger, always impossible to satisfy because it is insatiable: Reinhardt’s black hole paintings symbolize the perpetual emptiness of his hungry mouth. The black paintings are a sort of entropic orgasm—an orgasmic experience of emptiness.

I suggest that Reinhardt’s inability to represent the affect-tinged image has to do with his traumatic experience of a void that cannot satisfy his hunger for life, leading him finally to turn away from the life it symbolizes. He in effect rejects what seems to reject him by denying him consummate pleasure. Reinhardt’s black paintings are not the healthiest, most enjoyable, humanizing artistic environments that exist. They are peculiarly sterile paintings, in which art no longer commemorates, glorifies, and even generates—fertilizes—life, as it traditionally did. Deprived of life and visual appeal—appetite-stimulating sensuousness—they cannot be satisfying, suggesting Reinhardt’s dissatisfaction with life. He destroys the disappointing breast abstractly, asserting that it is nothing rather than something—a nothing which he nonetheless repeatedly dwells on, indicating that however seemingly meaningless, it remains uncannily meaningful—hypnotically fascinating, as the void invariably is.

The dessicated breast is the empty center, and the black paintings are empty centers. One might say that Reinhardt’s “non-rendering of non-experience” is a representation of what Bion calls the “psychotic core.” Reinhardt’s reference to Jung’s dialectical idea that “extreme position turns into its opposite” seems helplessly wishful. The wish that absolute emptiness will spontaneously—not to say miraculously—turn into the fullness of abundance seems completely unrealistic. The separation anxiety implicit in the gap between the breast’s emptiness and recapitulated in Reinhardt’s depiction of emptiness is impossible to overcome, however much they echo each other.

Losing organic wholeness, the consummate quality conveyed by curvilinearity and roundness being flattened and losing its voluptuousness by becoming a banal grid, the breast, and with it art, becomes traumatically transcendental. What Reinhardt called “art’s timelessness, uselessness, and meaninglessness” is the uselessness and meaninglessness of the eternal breast that has become dry, ungiving. For Reinhardt, the frustrating emptiness of the breast becomes the defensive asceticism of abstract art, the last step in the series of “refusals” that have marked modern art, leaving it in a void of its own making.


1. Winnicott, D. W. “Nothing at the Centre,” Psycho-Analytic Explorations, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 50.

2. Arnheim, Rudolf. Entropy and Art: An Essay on Order and Disorder (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1974), 52.

3. Akhtar, Salman. Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2009), 38 – 39.

4. Campbell, Robert J. Psychiatric Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 272 – 73.

5. Segal,Hanna. Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 35.



Donald Kuspit

DONALD KUSPIT is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University.


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