Ad Reinhardt in his New York Studio in the 1960s. The artist worked flat, brushing and rebrushing the surface to remove all traces of the stroke. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
Ad Reinhardt was a New York painter of the mid-20th Century (born 1913; died 1967), who started as an abstract expressionist and ended up a minimalist. In a slow progression away from color and image, he distilled his work to a series of black paintings. On the face of it, they are pictures of nothing, these big black canvases. Viewed close up and in person, they reward the serious viewer with subtle geometries, squares and rectangles, in a range of velvety black hues from red to green.
Abstract Painting, 1960-1966, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s impossible to appreciate the subtleties of a Reinhardt painting on line or in print. Still, look carefully and you can see a nine-block cross and variations in value, if not in hue
We know that Reinhardt removed as much of the oil from his paint as was possible while still having it bind the pigment. The result was a powdery-looking surface that absorbed light. Slight intended variations in the amount of medium rendered differing degrees of matte. Reinhardt didn’t varnish these surfaces as that would have effectively pulled a curtain over the subtleties he worked so hard to achieve.
When viewing a Reinhardt black painting, the lighting must be right—which is not always the case, even at galleries and museums—otherwise shadows or hot spots obscure the nuances. And you need to give your eyes sufficient time to become accustomed to the ambient lighting in order to focus on the dark image in front of you. Only then will it reveal its texture and chromatic richness.
So what happens when the surface of the work is scuffed, scraped or marred? It’s a jolt. That velvety expanse which so slowly rewards you with its color and ever-so-subtle surface becomes like a record with the needle stuck—remember those?— so that all you see is the hiccup of imperfection on the surface.
When he was alive, Reinhardt was known to repaint the surface himself if it returned damaged from an exhibition. He even made himself available to the institution or collector who acquired a work of his. This was not an archival or esthetic problem, as the materials and methods were his own and he was working in service to the integrity of the painting he had made. After his death, however, overzealous conservation may have made a bad situation worse. In some instances, cleaning a scuff has made larger areas of scuff. Some reckless conservators have “touched up” the surface, and in at least one instance, they have virtually repainted the painting in their care. That would make it not a Reinhardt at all.
AXA, an art insurance comany, donated just such a damaged painting in 2000 to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Deemed irreparable after having its surface “restored” by spray painting (!), Black Painting (1960-1966) became an object for study. In Imageless: the Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting, an exhibition on view until September 14 at the Guggenheim, you can see how the conservation department examined the painting. Working with the Museum of Modern Art and state-of-the-art laser centers on Crete and in the Netherlands, the Guggenheim’s chief conservator, Carol Stringari, and her staff carried out a complete physical examination of the painting with a series of experiments to see what had been done. (Stringari is probably the foremost expert on the conservation of Reinhardts, having worked on a Reinhardt exhibition held earlier at the Museum of Modern Art.)
Cross sections from nine parts of the Reinhardt painting, overexposed so that the black underlayers are clearly visible. Magnification is 280x. The topography includes a base of Reinhardt’s powdery pigment with various layers atop. Some may have been painted by the artist himself, but a top skin of acrylic paint, sprayed to “return” the painting to its once-pristine condition, caused irreparable damage to the work. (In the exhibition’s accompanying video, there are some scenes showing the conservators literally peeling off the acrylic after treatment by a laser–but the painting has been too damaged in other ways for the acrylic-removal to bring the painting back to “life”). Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
The idea was not to resuscitate the painting but to understand why and how it had died. Viewing the accompanying video was a bit like watching a crime scene show on TV. Using scanning electron microscopes and spectrography, Stringari and her team were able to to identify the damage and restoration layers above the surface of the original painting. For starters, they confirmed what they’d suspected: that there was a layer of acrylic paint on the surface and that it had been sprayed on. Under the electron microscope–see the grid of images above–this application shows up as a film of plastic over Reinhardt’s powdery oil-based surface. Subsequent treatment with lasers allowed Stringari and her team to understand how to remove some of those non-Reinhardt layers.
This is a view of the painting under ultraviolet light. In any “forensic” study, the subject is viewed under different light and conditions. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
So why is this study important? For one thing, the forensic examination created a dossier of information about Reinhardt’s working methods and of the techniques used to “restore” the painting. The team learned what works and what doesn’t in terms of cleaning the surface of a Reinhardt painting. Laser equipment developed decades after the painting was made uncovered the mysteries of its making. The lessons and methods acquired will be useful not only in the conservation of other Reinhardts, but in any monochromatic work where even a small break in the purity of the field creates an enormous visual obstacle.
Carol Stringari, Chief Conservator at the Guggenheim Museum, who conceived and oversaw this project. Notice the cleanliness of her workroom? Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum
In an adjacent side gallery several Reinhardt paintings in pristine condition are on view. This is an essential counterpart to the clinical nature of Stringari’s forensic work. Here in the chapel-like viewing room with a platform for sitting, you have a chance to meditate on the work itself. This exhibition, up through September 14, was organized by Carol Stringari, Chief Conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in collaboration with the Sackler Center for Arts Education.
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Should you miss the exhibition, here are some good links for more information:
. From Art Info.com, Carol Stringari on Exhibiting a Reinhardt “Cadaver” by Robert Ayers. This is an excellent Q&A with the chief conservator.
. From Art in America, Damaged Reinhardt to Serve as Guinea Pig by David Ebony. From the June 2001 issue of AiA, this brief article makes note of the project at its inception.
. From the New York Times, Tall, Dark and Fragile by Holland Cotter. This article is accompanied by a slide show of images.
If you’re in New York City:
. The Guggenheim Museum has a collection of Reinhardt paintings. You should inquire if they will be on exhibition.
. Reinhardt paintings are on view at the Museum of Modern Art