Every Picture Tells

Stepping from the transavantgardian mess of the contemporary art world into the Ad Reinhardt retrospective is like going from the streets of Hell's Kitchen in a hundred-degree August during a garbage strike, directly into a Sedona flotation tank. The pupils dilate, the mind clears, the spirit lifts, peace comes. This exhibition (at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 2, then traveling to its co-organizer, Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art) ought to be stored intact and brought out every 10 or 15 years, so we can see how far art has gone wrong again. OK, maybe that's a little heavy. But only a little.

Reinhardt (1913-1967) was the first important American painter who was an abstractionist from beginning to end. The son of immigrants, he edited the humor magazine and wrestled at Columbia, and began his career as an artist in typical 1930s fashion as an $87.60 per month easel painter on the Federal Art Project. But Reinhardt was an acerbically contrary sort, and he quickly edged away (as he always would) from the herd. As his own semifacetious chronology tracks it: "1937 - Marches on all-night picket-lines. 1938 - Listens to neighbor Stuart Davis' loud ragtime jazz records, looks at his loud colored shirts on clotheslines. 1939 - Disagrees with [surrealist painter] Matta about importance in art of artists rubbing against sweaty people in subway rush-hours." From then on, his was a straight and narrow path, with oases of all blue and all red along the way, toward the amazing almost-black paintings that occupied the last 13 years of his life.

Easy enough, one could say, and predictable: Given the trajectory of modern painting from Manet to Malevich, it's a wonder a Reinhardt didn't occur sooner. Doesn't his art amount only to a kind of position paper on canvas that paves the way for minimal and conceptual art? The misuses later artists made of Reinhardt notwithstanding, the answer is emphatically no. If he had been interested only in anointing himself a gainsayer of modern art, he could have simply refused to make art at all and confined himself to showing up at gallery openings dressed as Savonarola. If he had been interested only in painting pictures that require viewers to squint and peer harder than anybody else's, Reinhardt wouldn't have worked such an intense second shift as a cartoonist and polemicist.

All the envy, exasperation and spite he filtered out of his own quiet, grid-based paintings he dumped into hellzapoppin' art-world cartoons (wisely prologued in William Rubin's conservative but razor-sharp installation as big photostats near the entrance). In "How to Look at Modern Art in America" (1946), Reinhardt dismisses Thomas Hart Benton as an inconsequential ear of corn, Jackson Pollock as an obscure leaf on the tree of art, and the whole idea of "subject matter" as a chained weight pulling down an entire branch. He may have looked liked Curly, but Reinhardt's twisting the nose of art piety was pure Moe. In a short written piece from 1960, he rebuts Picasso's stentorian "My painting represents the victory of the forces of light and peace over the powers of darkness and evil" with a subversive "My painting represents the victory of the forces of darkness and peace over the powers of light and evil."

As hilarious as Reinhardt's swipes at the art world are, he'd be nothing more than a minor irritant (a mere Critic, if you will) if his paintings weren't so good. And you don't have to be an initiate in the high church of low reduction to see it; all you have to do is pause and look. The man could put to get her chords of color that ring gently behind the eyes like soft temple gongs; he could cut a shimmering edge with a housepainter's brush that renders masking tape a redundant invention, and he could sink the surface of his "black" pictures so far back that the attendant, almost hallucinatory purples, seem to arise from forever.

Of course, if every painter emulated Reinhardt, we'd be in big trouble. Art would lose its visceral ability to celebrate the joys of everyday life and cry out against its horrors. But right now, while so much contemporary art seems joined at the hip to propaganda ("vested interests," Reinhardt called it) we can use a reminder of his noble attempt at purification. It was a clean job, but someone had to do it.