Abstraction in 20th Century Art: Ad Reinhardt

Jesse Kanner
5 min readJan 10, 2018


Adolph Frederick “Ad” Reinhardt (December 24, 1913 — August 30, 1967) was an abstract painter active in New York beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s. He was a member of the American Abstract Artists and was a part of the movement centered on the Betty Parsons Gallery that became known as abstract expressionism. He was also a member of The Club, the meeting place for the New York School abstract expressionist artists during the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote and lectured extensively on art and was a major influence on conceptual art, minimal art and monochrome painting. Most famous for his “black” or “ultimate” paintings, he claimed to be painting the “last paintings” that anyone can paint. He believed in a philosophy of art he called Art-as-Art and used his writing and satirical cartoons to advocate for abstract art and against what he described as “the disreputable practices of artists-as-artists”.

Ad Reinhardt, in the studio ca. mid-1960's

Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, New York, and lived with his family in the Riverside section along the Niagara River. His cousin Otto and he were close, as well as the extended family, but work took his father to New York City. He later studied art history at Columbia College of Columbia University, where he was a close friend of Robert Lax and Thomas Merton. The three developed similar concepts of simplicity in different directions. Reinhardt considered himself a painter from a very early age and began winning prizes for painting in grade school and high school. Feeling that he had already acquired all the technical skills in high school he turned down scholarships at art schools and accepted a full scholarship at Columbia University which he attended from 1931 to 1935. He took painting classes as an undergraduate at Columbia’s Teachers College and after graduation began to study painting with Carl Holty and Francis Criss at the American Artists School, while simultaneously studying portraiture at the National Academy of Design under Karl Anderson.

Ad Reinhardt in the studio, ca. mid-1960’s. Note the horizontal painting technique.

Upon finishing college he was accredited as a painter by Burgoyne Diller, which allowed him to work from 1936 until 1940 for the WPA Federal Art Project, easel division. Sponsored by Holty he became a member of the American Abstract Artists group, with whom he exhibited for the next decade. Reinhardt described his association with the group as “one of the greatest things that ever happened to me”. He participated in group exhibitions at the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, and he had his first one-man show at the Artists Gallery in 1943. He then went on to be represented by Betty Parsons, exhibiting first at the Wakefield Bookshop, the Mortimer Brandt Gallery and then when Parsons opened her own gallery on 57th street. Reinhardt had regular solo exhibitions yearly at the Betty Parsons Gallery beginning in 1946.

“I have a lot of things to say. It’s actually the same thing over and over.”

He was involved in the 1940 protest against MoMA, designing the leaflet that asked How modern is the Museum of Modern Art? His works were displayed regularly throughout the 1940s and 1950s at the Annual Exhibitions held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was also part of the protest against the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950 which became known as “The Irascibles.”

Having completed his studies at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, Reinhardt became a teacher at Brooklyn College in 1947 and taught there until his death in 1967. He also taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the University of Wyoming, Yale University and Hunter College, New York.

Reinhardt’s earliest exhibited paintings avoided representation, but show a steady progression away from objects and external reference. His work progressed from compositions of geometrical shapes in the 1940s to works in different shades of the same color (all red, all blue, all white) in the 1950s. Reinhardt is best known for his so-called “black” paintings of the 1960s, which appear at first glance to be simply canvases painted black but are actually composed of black and nearly black shades. Among many other suggestions, these paintings ask if there can be such a thing as an absolute, even in black, which some viewers may not consider a color at all.

In 1967 he contributed one of 17 signed prints that made up the portfolio Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Viet Nam organized by the group Artists and Writers Protest. Reinhardt’s lithograph, known as “No War” from its first two words of text, shows both sides of an air mail post card addressed to “War Chief, Washington, D.C. U.S.A.” with a list of 34 demands that includes “no napalm,” “no bombing,” “no poverty,” “no art of war,” and admonitions concerning art itself, “no art in war” and “no art on war.”

The Lectures

MICA Mades Audio Cassette Collection, MICA Archives, Decker Library
MICA Mades Audio Cassette Collection, MICA Archives, Decker Library

The Paint

Learn the techniques behind Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings — and why there is no pure black paint on the canvas — with IN THE STUDIO instructor Corey D’Augustine.

For a more in-depth walk through of Reinhardt’s paint preparation and application technique, refer to Corey D’Augustine’s excellent tutorial on Coursera, found here:

The Paintings

Untitled, 1938
Collage, 1940
Number 22, 1949
Number 111, 1949
Number 107, 1950
Abstract Painting (Red), 1952
Abstract Painting (Blue), 1952
Abstract Painting, 1960–61
The Black Paintings

Upcoming in this series:

Sol Lewitt
Ellsworth Kelly
Frank Stella
Arshile Gorky
Kazimir Malevich
Josef Albers
Dan Flavin