Before he established himself as one of the most revered abstract painters in America, artist and writer Ad Reinhardt made a living by drawing cartoons. During the 1930s and ’40s, his humourous and frequently satirical drawings appeared regularly in print for a variety of clients ranging from the Brooklyn Dodgers to Glamour magazine. More often, they appeared in the pages of the communist-party affiliated newspaper New Masses, where they were mobilized in support of the American anti-war and labour movements.
‘Ad Reinhardt: Art vs. History’ featured approximately 300 of Reinhardt’s original illustrations, collages and cartoons. These included the well-known ‘How to Look’ (1946) series of playful educational strips published in the leftist newspaper PM, which sought to introduce the general public to the basics of modern art, and abstract painting in particular. In How to Look at a Cubist Painting (1946), for instance, a viewer’s incredulous query (‘What does this represent?’) is met with the anthropomorphized painting shouting back: ‘What do you represent?’ This exhibition, which took its title from one of Reinhardt’s essays for ArtNews, marked the first time these works have been shown in Europe, introducing a lesser-known aspect of the artist’s visual production at a moment when discussions on political satire, and cartooning especially, have a particular urgency.
In the few cases when Reinhardt’s drawings have been shown previously, it was largely to illustrate what his paintings were not – a practice in line with the distinctions that the artist upheld between pictures (representations) and paintings (line, shape and colour). But, in 1949, Reinhardt remarked of his painting and cartooning: ‘Contradictory as though these roles may seem, they can be viewed as aspects of a unified stance.’ Although much of the work in ‘Art vs. History’ was made long before the ‘black’ paintings that gained him notoriety, and seems to contradict the strategies of negation and refusal with which he is so strongly associated, for the most part the show left speculation aside regarding how Reinhardt’s freelance commercial work informed the development of his painterly practice.
Instead, the show presented his cartoons, illustrations and collages as art works in their own right. In the process, it rendered Reinhardt as idealistic and crestfallen by turns, yet steadfastly committed to his beliefs in internationalism and equality, as well as to the politics of looking. Smaller works – including spot illustrations and single-panel cartoons – revealed Reinhardt’s virtuosity as a visual communicator and are infused with a lightness nearly unthinkable within the frame of abstract expressionism, much less organized labour. One untitled illustration dated 1943–47 depicted an ‘unorganized employee’ riding a snail on his way to ‘better conditions’. Other works demonstrated the painter’s disdain for social realism, as well as his indebtedness to Russian constructivism, cubism, dada and surrealism. Often ironic and witty, when taken as a whole these works nonetheless registered deep tensions within Reinhardt’s visual practice, as well as his negotiation of concerns surrounding distribution, media and the integration of art and everyday life. It was evident in the collage, too, where photographic material was abstracted into geometrical compositions that he later used in his paintings. Here, it wasn’t purity at stake in modernism but hybridization and complexity.
As Michael Corris noted in his 2008 book on the artist, ‘radical politics, architecture, graphic design, mass media and abstract art: these are the terms of reference that organize and contextualize Reinhardt’s full creative practice’. From this perspective, Reinhardt’s interdisciplinary output also recalls Karl Marx’s oft-cited statement that in communist society, ‘nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he [sic] wishes.’ If today the divisions of labour within the arts are increasingly blurred, and every artist can make claims to being a writer, a designer, an editor, a critic and a curator, then it owes less to practices of cooperation and solidarity than to ragged individualism and economic precarity. What do you represent?