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Black Paintings

Remembering Reinhardt

Plan for “Ad Reinhardt Museum” by Charles Carpenter, 1962.


I had read an article on Ad Reinhardt in ARTnews in the early 1950s, and knew he was an important member of the New York School, but I was not prepared for the first exhibition of his work I saw at Betty Parsons’ Gallery in 1956. The exhibition was Reinhardt’s first that included only his black paintings. The night of the opening was fascinating. The gallery was filled with young people (I literally mean young people. I felt I was the only person over 30 in the crowd.) I could hear animated and approving comments all over the place.

I was baffled. I saw only black paintings. I could not figure out the enthusiasm. That worried me, because I knew that others were seeing something in those pictures which I did not.

I do not want you to think I am being arch or naive when I make these statements. The fact that I learned later to appreciate Reinhardt’s black paintings, to understand them, and see the wonderful, subtle gradations of colors in their surfaces, does not change or mitigate my statement that I first saw these pictures as black paintings. The young artists had caught on to what Reinhardt was up to much quicker than I did.

A few months later, I visited the Parsons Gallery and saw a marvelous red painting in the back room that had just been unpacked after having been in a two-year travelling group exhibition of American art in Europe. I asked who painted it and Betty Parsons said Ad Reinhardt. I was astounded. I had only known the show of black paintings, which did not seem to have anything to do with this glowing red object. I immediately made arrangements to buy it and asked Ms. Parsons if she had others of Reinhardt’s earlier non-black paintings. She said no, but that I should get in touch with Reinhardt, which I did. (By the way, I doubt that many New York dealers now would put a collector in touch with one of their artists!) This was the beginning of a personal relationship which meant a great deal to me and, I like to think, was also important to Reinhardt.

Over a six-year period I acquired seven of Reinhardt’s paintings at prices ranging from $300 to $500. I often visited his studio. We spent hours talking about art and artists. Ad and his wife Rita and their young daughter Anna visited us in Connecticut. I remember how shy their daughter was. I took a photograph of Ad and Rita and Mary Grace, and Anna hid behind her father. I was sympathetic, remembering my own shy childhood.

Ad Reinhardt was not only one of the leading painters of his time, he was also a writer of the first rank. He obviously did not feel at home with many of his fellow New York artists. He paraphrased Franklin Roosevelt’s remark that he wanted to go to heaven, but not with those guys. I remember once in our house he lingered admiringly in front of a pre-Columbian Peruvian textile, saying “I feel closer to the artist who made this than I do to my own contemporaries.” He was cynical about the “spiritual qualities” of Mark Rothko’s paintings. It was not Rothko’s paintings that Reinhardt objected to but the pseudo-spiritual aura which he felt Rothko was building up around his paintings. When I gently prodded Ad about the effect his writings must have had on his fellow artists, he protested: “I’m really only trying to bring back the old fine arts concept.”

I had asked him: “What living artist do you like?” He paused for a while and, without really answering me, said: “Well, I suppose if I had to give a prize to someone, I would give it to Albers. And maybe he would give me a prize if he were the juror.” He grinned and looked out the Broadway studio window and added: “But I don’t see why he doesn’t center those squares instead of letting them drop.”

In his studio one day we were looking at a very black painting and Ad said: “It would not matter if the image were to completely disappear,” expressing a philosophy in tune with a statement in The Teaching of Buddha:

In reality all things are empty of all aspects of appearing and disappearing, of comings and goings, of differentiations of this and that, of good and evil. All things are perfect emptiness and perfect homogeneity.

When the Museum of Modern Art sent him their 5 by 5 foot black painting for repair, Ad told me that he offered to send them another painting, saying that

they were all alike. He seemed to think it was very funny that they made a fuss about wanting “their” picture back.

Ad’s black pictures, when they became well known, inspired New Yorker cartoons (the light over the black picture, etc.). Our Reinhardts actually brought about a New Yorker cover. I had acquired a small flower painting from a friend of ours, John MacClelland, and tried to hang it in the same room with Reinhardt’s paintings. It didn’t work so I told John I would like to trade it for a watercolor, which we hung in another room. John told the story to Charlie Saxon, who was so taken by the idea that he converted it into a New Yorker cover. It showed a woman trying to hang a small flower picture next to a giant blackish abstract painting, with her husband looking on quizzically.

During the years I knew Reinhardt, I was traveling a lot abroad and Ad and I liked to talk about places we had both visited. After a trip of mine to Australia, I asked Ad if he had been there. He said no, that he went only where there was art. One of his last trips was to Rome. He expressed disappointment that the Museum of Modern Art in Rome was not hanging the picture he had given them.

Reinhardt professed belonging to the “What you see is what you get” school, but I feel it would be naive to accept everything he wrote at face value. It is clear that there is a mystical, spiritual element in his later monochromatic paintings, particularly the black paintings. His deep knowledge of Oriental art and religions, the fact that he had spent time in a monastery in Kyoto, Japan, and his friendship with Thomas Merton, all told me that there was a truly spiritual man behind all those enigmatic paintings.

In August, 1967 I visited Ad in his Broadway studio. He had had a heart attack a few months before. He seemed to have recovered, since he was in the process of installing an air conditioner in his studio. I wanted to buy one of the watercolors that he had made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I went through dozens, and chose a white and green watercolor that seemed to be a forerunner of his later, more severe paintings. A week later I sent him a check for the picture and told him I would like to buy one of his 5 by 5 foot square black paintings and also a blue painting. The letter with my check arrived the day he died. I never did acquire a 5 by 5 foot black painting, but Ad’s wife Rita did sell me a wonderful 30 inch square blue painting after the estate was settled.

As I remember it, the first letter I ever received from Ad Reinhardt was a request for money. In the late 1950s I had acquired four pictures from Ad at one time and I was sending him $150 per month. In an undated “Dear Carpenter” letter (included here as a reproduction) he said he did not like the arrangement we had agreed on for paying for the pictures in installments, asking for the balance of $900 which I owed him. Ad’s dunning communication worked. I scraped together the money and sent him a check.

It is perhaps worth noting that Ad Reinhardt in his public writings, disdained dealers and collectors and the whole commercial art world, but in “real” life he needed and wanted money just like the rest of us.


Postcards from Ad Reinhardt to Charles Carpenter.



Charles Carpenter

CHARLES CARPENTER was an art collector from Pittsburgh. This excerpt is from his 1991 memoir written for his family.


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