Ad Reinhardt’s writings on art read as a litany of negative aphorisms. Describing his signature black paintings, which he focused on exclusively from 1953 until his death in 1967, he wrote: “A free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon.” These canvases—muted black squares containing barely discernable cruciform shapes—challenge the limits of visibility. Reinhardt’s strategy of denial echoed his conviction that Modernism itself was a “negative progression,” that abstraction evolved as a series of subtractions, and he was creating the last or “ultimate paintings.” Rather than forecasting the death of painting as a viable art form, however, Reinhardt was instead affirming painting’s potential to transcend the contradictory rhetoric that surrounded it in contemporary criticism and the increasing commercial influences of the market. As art historian Yve-Alain Bois suggests in his study of the artist, what Reinhardt hoped to realize recalls the aspirations of Negation Theology, a method of thought—evident in Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and early Christianity—employed to comprehend the Divine by indicating everything it was not. The artist’s attraction to the mystical side of negation arose from his appreciation of Eastern art and religion, namely the abstract, all-over patterning of Islamic design, the poetically reductive space of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, and the meditative, ascetic quality of Zen Buddhism. The last he encountered through his friendship with the poet Thomas Merton, who was also a Trappist monk and authority on Zen. Reinhardt saw his own dark canvases, with their classic, geometric compositions, monastic repudiation of anything extraneous, and contemplative depth as a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions.
However hermetic Reinhardt’s black paintings may seem, they were not created in a vacuum. The kind of profound, self-reflexive abstraction he advocated was partially a product of, and reaction to, the climate of Cold War America. Despite the iconoclasm of his aesthetic discourse, Reinhardt was actively engaged in political and social issues throughout his life. During the early 1940s, his editorial cartoons appeared in the leftist newspapers The New Masses and PM. Later, he participated in the antiwar movement, protesting against America’s involvement in Vietnam, and donated his work to benefits for civil rights activities. An aesthetic moralist, Reinhardt sought to create an art form that—in its monochromatic purity—could overcome the tyrannies of oppositional thinking.