Reinterpreted Surfaces

Reinterpreted Surfaces

By Fiona Rutka

(Image above:  Ad Reinhardt painting in his studio, 1962. Photo by Marvin Lazarus. Artwork © 2016 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York & © 2014 Lazarus Family)



Ad Reinhardt (1913-67) was a seminal figure of mid-century American art, most closely associated with the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. Throughout his career as a painter, he created canvases exclusively of abstract imagery. While his early multi-coloured works of stylized geometric shapes drew on an existing tradition of modern abstraction, he became best known for his black paintings. Reinhardt predominantly spent the final fifteen years of his life toiling with a simple monochromatic cruciform composition that functions at the limit of viewers’ perception. He modified his black oil paints with additional coloured pigments to produce subtle tonal variations observable after sustained periods of looking. Essential for this intended effect is a surface that would absorb light, free of the typical sheen found with traditional oil paints.

Reinhardt modified his paints to achieve an entirely matte, velvety surface. The technique he developed, although successful aesthetically, produced extremely fragile surfaces. Over time, accidental harm has marred considerable proportions of his black paintings. Amongst paintings conservators, these works are considered some of the most challenging to treat. The margin for improving the appearance of damage is minimal with methods currently available.

Reinhardt’s paintings have always been challenging to classify, never fitting easily within any one art movement or group. While this lack of fit has muddled their art historical interpretation over the decades, damage accumulation has acted to further obscure the artist’s aesthetic goals. Reinhardt considered himself a painter and was, in his lifetime, resistant to implications that his work was conceptual in nature. I propose that because, so often, the aesthetic of his surfaces are disturbed largely by irreparable damage, the way we are currently interpreting his paintings lies within the border of conceptual and visual art. The conceptual art movement emerged in the 1960s, encompassing art for which the idea, or ‘concept,’ behind it carries more importance than the aesthetics of the object. This contrasts with visual art, wherein art works are created primarily to be perceived visually. From Reinhardt’s current, flawed surfaces, meaning can be derived from his aesthetic objects as they were conceived in the 1950s and 60s. Thus, our interpretations today rely on our understanding of the ideas and concepts that supported the visual objects, when they were first made.

After examining nine paintings by the artist with various condition issues, I interviewed a series of conservators familiar with his work, as well as Anna Reinhardt, the artist’s daughter, in an attempt to understand how imperfect works by Reinhardt are valued within his oeuvre. All conservators interviewed specialized in the care of modern paintings and each had encountered works by Reinhardt within his or her career.


Ad Reinhardt began developing his technique in the early 1950s, allowing him to arrive at a style best described in his own words from 1961:

‘A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless) three (more or less) dark (lightless) non-contrasting (colorless) colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork a matte, flat, freehand painted surface (glossless, textureless, non-linear, no hard edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings – a pure, abstract non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting – an object that is self conscious (no unconsciousness) idea, transcendent, aware of nothing but Art (absolutely no anti-art).’ (1) 

Reinhardt’s surfaces are absorbing in both a literal sense, in describing the way light is perfectly absorbed, and metaphorically, in their necessitation of prolonged, meditative looking. He developed these surfaces by dissolving manufactured black tube oil paints in turpentine and adding additional blue, red, and green paints to these mixtures. Careful examination of his black paintings reveals that there is nuanced variation in overall tonality between works, reflecting the different ratios of coloured pigments incorporated by the artist. Reinhardt was intentional and specific about the materials he used; he chose fine quality Bocour paints and was frequently in contact with the manufacturer to ensure he was selecting the right products. (2) When the pigments in his mixtures had settled, he would extract enough of the oil medium to brush a very lean paint onto his canvases. (3) The process required to achieve this was methodical and very challenging, requiring all of Reinhardt’s skill and patience. (4) The artist’s fascination with his wayward project led him to declare in 1966, at a time when he had already been exclusively making five-foot square black paintings for six years: ‘I see no reason to vary my work. In fact, I plan to paint 2000 of them.’ (5)

The surfaces Reinhardt achieved are a considerable struggle to capture photographically with any fidelity. The tonal shifts employed to produce the composition are too subtle to be picked up using typical documentary photographic techniques. Furthermore, the velvety texture of each work cannot be captured by any means; it can only be experienced by directly seeing the physical object.


Reinhardt’s compositions necessitate a ‘phenomenological transformation’; the cones in one’s eyes undergo a physical adaptation following meditative observation, revealing the nominal tonal differences that create a cross pattern in a field of black. (6) These black paintings always defied precise categorization. Lucy Lipard, in her 1981 pioneering manuscript on the artist, observed this in stating ‘he was a “thirties painter” in the forties and a “sixties painter” in the fifties.’ (7) His paintings lacked the aggressive, spontaneous energy commonly associated with post-war Abstract Expressionism, as exemplified in the work of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Reinhardt’s canvases, rather, are seemingly more simplified in composition and contemplative in their process.

As the decades progressed, Reinhardt’s paintings were continually incorporated in group-shows. Exhibitions of post-modern Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art left lasting and common misreadings of his work. (8) While these labels could provide a useful framework in which to discuss his paintings, the artist, among others, noted that his canvases did ‘not hang easily in [these] group shows.’ (9) Reinhardt resisted acquiescing an affiliation to any specific movement and was openly disdainful of many forms of art in his lifetime, including conceptual art. He proclaimed of the father of conceptual art, ‘I’ve never approved or liked anything about Marcel Duchamp.’ (10) In an attempt to correct the evolving discourse around his work, Reinhardt organized his own solo exhibitions. However, his inclusion in group-shows more heavily influenced perceptions of his work in the general artistic consciousness owing to the authority of their curation.

Reinhardt declared his work as Art-as-Art. He described his black paintings as ‘Ultimate Paintings,’ aiming to ‘define the absolute of pure painting’ by creating works without a subject, object, illusions, associations, symbols, or images. (11)  In so doing, he consciously allied himself with the philosophies of the modern painters Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. Mondrian proposed that his work was preparing for the end of painting. (12)  Malevich pronounced in his 1927 manifesto The Non-Objective World, that he had achieved, ‘No more likeness of reality, no idealistic images – nothing but a desert!’ upon his placement of a black square on a blank white field of primed canvas. (13)

Reinhardt saw his Ultimate Paintings as ‘the culminating development of abstract painting: a terminal point of the easel tradition, beyond which it was impossible to proceed to a further extreme.’ (14) Art historian Barbara Rose further summarized Reinhardt’s ambitions, based on his many published and unpublished remarks, as ‘the ultimate synthesis of the traditional polarities of Western painting, a single summary statement which would subsume all previous forms, styles and techniques of painting.’ (15) In short, Reinhardt believed he had gone beyond Mondrian by creating ‘the last painting anyone can paint.’ (16) By removing all but the most minimal in colour, composition, and handwork of the artist, Reinhardt believed he had fully encapsulated the previous philosophical and stylistic advances in painting. In so doing, his work evaded any specific categorization, causing the interpretation of his paintings to be almost entirely reliant on perception of the physical object.   


Reinhardt’s pigment-dense surfaces are velvety in texture and extremely susceptible to damage; the effects of accidental harm, age, and neglect have blemished a significant proportion of his fragile works. The under-bound paint layers are especially predisposed to burnishing and absorption of fingerprints. Depending on the environment in which these black paintings are housed, networks of overall cracking can easily develop and paint layers can flake away from one another. While these problems can be found among all types of paintings encountered by conservators, the inherent nature of these particular surfaces makes them an insurmountable challenge to correct. Reinhardt’s black paintings are frequently cited as the most challenging to treat, with entire publications dedicated to this very issue. (17)  Any adhesives applied to correct cracking or flaking paint can leave saturated marks; any cleaning can cause tide lines or shift the tonality of the work; any attempt to re-touch damages can cause further damage to the original surface if not done precisely and accurately. (18)

In his lifetime, Reinhardt was fully aware of these issues. In 1965 he wrote,

‘The painting leaves the studio as a purist, abstract non-objective object of art, returns as a record of every-day (surrealist, expressionist) experience (“chance” spots, defacements, hand-markings, accident-“happenings,” scratches) and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negating the negation of art) again and again, over and over again, until it is just “right” again.’ (19)

Reinhardt was known to repaint his paintings for exhibition, and, yet, commented on his general acceptance of disturbances to his surfaces. In 1962, to Alfred Barr Jr., then head of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Reinhardt explained:

‘After a painting has a great many coats of painting and repaintings (paint absorbing paint more than ground absorbing paint), whatever happens to the painting may remain, and scratches and scuffings are not any more “disturbing” than a “dirty” and “cracked” Mondrian.’ (20)

These two statements from Reinhardt encapsulate a tension that arose for the artist when reencountering paintings of his that were marked by ‘everyday experience.’ While on the one hand his statements indicate complacency with palimpsestic features of scratches, spots, and hand-marks, on the other hand, his action of repainting his own works, and discussions thereof, is to the contrary. It seems that the artist had a pragmatic approach to his surfaces, generally accepting minor surface disturbances, while acknowledging that the art market preferred pristine paintings. It is likely, however, that Reinhardt’s acceptance of damages was contingent on the degree to which they were damaged. (21) The limit of what was acceptable to the artist is presently unknown, and was likely a capricious and autocratic decision.

Of the paintings by Reinhardt that I studied, the range of surface issues was vast even within carefully protected museum collections. How well one is able to perceive these issues tends to vary depending on how illuminated the works are. As would be expected, damages are less obvious in indirect, low lighting, and this, consequently, informs how the paintings are displayed to the public. Low lighting, in turn, inevitably affects how well the cruciform pattern is perceived within the canvases. Luckily, dim light levels align with how Reinhardt wanted his paintings seen. He preferred natural, late-afternoon twilight, wishing to avoid any bright, direct light, or dramatic chiaroscuro lighting that could illuminate a painting’s ‘wrinkles.’ (22)

While many disturbances have visibly endured on the surfaces of these works even with localized conservation efforts, there is a subset of black paintings that were entirely repainted by restorers at some stage in their history. It is assumed that these repaintings occurred because the surface issues described above were considered too detrimental to a viewer’s perception. Although examples of these repainted works appear to be in the minority, they still exist in key collections, notably MoMA and the Guggenheim.

The tension between the act of repainting Reinhardt’s surfaces and the struggle to effectively treat these paintings with modern conservation methods reflects competing sources of value within a work of art. Conflicts may arise when choosing between valuing the authenticity of the original, if compromised, object versus a simulacrum of the artist’s aims. Restorers who elected to engage in the practice of repainting chose to value a pristine, if unoriginal surface, believing it best represented the artist’s original intentions. (23) The mid-century conservator and theorist Paul Philippot discoursed in 1966 that ‘no restoration can ever hope to re-establish the original state of a painting. It can only reveal the present state of the original materials.’ (24) Modern conservators typically aim to act under a guiding principle to affect no permanent change to an object’s intrinsic materials. (25) In the context of Philippot’s polemic, the decision to entirely repaint an artist’s work would be a challenge to defend. Furthermore, it is important to note that Reinhardt was almost certainly against the practice of his works being repainted. In 1966 the artist stated, ‘only I can make my painting, and also restore it. Someone else who would make this painting would be making his painting.’ (26)

Reinhardt’s opposing statements regarding both accepting scratches and scuffings and, yet, repainting his own works underscores a significant question for conservators of modern paintings: at which point does the accumulation of damage or type of damage affect how well a work of art is perceived and interpreted? Determining the amount of surface damage that crosses the threshold from acceptable to no longer so is challenging and mutable, not only between individuals perceiving these works, but also as time progresses from a work of art’s conception. Furthermore, as perceptions are filtered through dim lighting and repaintings, an understanding of these works is invariably impacted.


Each of the interviewees questioned for this paper was asked to describe how marred or altered surfaces affects his or her perception of Reinhardt’s black paintings specifically, and delicate modern surfaces in general. With regards to accepting the natural signs of age or minor damages in these works, each had a differing opinion, albeit the differences are nuanced.

Los Angeles based conservator Tanya Thompson stated that she was happy to look beyond the appearance of minor surface disturbances, but that this did require a ‘shift in thinking’ in order to do so. (27)  Anna Reinhardt upheld her father’s statements and reiterated his acceptance of scratches and scuffings in his letter to Alfred Barr Jr. (28) Sandra Amann and Elizabeth Estabrook, conservators based in New York City, were also willing to accept blemishes on modern painted surfaces. They added that as more time passes from a work of art’s conception, the signs of age and even surface damages are more readily tolerated and are viewed as part of the object’s history and life. (29)

Jim Coddington, chief conservator of paintings at MoMA, by contrast, was not quite willing to see beyond the signs of age in these works. Rather, he explained that at present, damages must be accepted as the technology does not currently exist to fix such issues. Although, if solutions to problems are developed, then perhaps the profession will have to revisit what was previously accepted by default. (30) Matthew Skopek, a paintings conservator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, stated his perspective on how age affects modern painted surfaces, and how this, in turn, affects his treatment decisions.   

‘In many cases the [modern] painting derives aspects of its meaning and significance from those surfaces in a way that other paintings do not, so the nature of the [modern] painting is obviously more compromised by these issues and therefore we find ourselves less accepting of them. So we do approach these situations with less forgiveness than we might otherwise. However, there is a limit to what can reasonably be done, and also, to some degree, what should be done.’ (31)

When the interviewees were asked how they perceived Reinhardt’s black paintings that were repainted by restorers in the past, nearly all were unwilling to make a fixed statement on the matter. Skopek did, however, make the point that while the practice was certainly unfortunate, he believes the repainted works still represent some aspect of Reinhardt’s intentions, and therefore do have value. (32) Interestingly, repainted black paintings have been displayed in the Whitney Museum, a decision that allows for a representation of the artist and his work, while preserving the more pristine and easily damaged original surfaces for both scholarly purposes and viewings under controlled settings. (33)

Conservator Carol Stringari’s work on Reinhardt has explored similar issues. The aim of her research was to investigate a method to best recover the essence of Reinhardt’s original surface beneath layers of a restorer’s repaintings. (34) Throughout the course of her research she came to have an appreciation for the variability in human perception, even amongst professionals in the field. (35) She explains how ‘it is important to recognize that time lends a patina to art – not only in the material object but also in the reading of the work.’ (36) A viewer’s perception of a work of art is influenced not only by signs of visible age and damage, but also by its existence as an historical object within a specific context.


The ability to interpret Reinhardt’s black paintings relies largely on one’s nuanced perception of his surfaces. While all paintings age at varying rates that depend on the materials that comprise them and the environment in which they are kept, Reinhardt’s black paintings fit into a specific category of unintended ephemerality; the almost immediate and inevitable deterioration of so many of his works from whence they were created, allows them a lifespan, wherein a viewer’s relationship evolves with the work while it ages.

Our changing interpretations of his paintings are directly related to our changing perceptions of his surfaces. A desire to regain the “original” perception led, in the past, to restoration measures that are now seen as unethical. Furthermore, reconstructions are not necessarily possible in terms of digital or photographic means, as so much of our understanding of these works relies on our sensation of Reinhardt’s surfaces, which cannot be translated effectively through photographic documentation. One could create a complete reconstruction to recapture the appearance of an original black painting, but this would be entirely divorced from the hand of the artist, and much like the repainted works, would not be seen as genuine. Furthermore, while attempts have been made to recreate Reinhardt’s technique for scholarly purposes, none have proved successful, underscoring the artist’s distinct fastidiousness. (37)

The current practice of minimal to no treatment of these works, while operating within the ethics of modern conservation, does require one to “look past” and ignore signs of age and damage. The mental action of “acceptance” essentially dissociates one from the physical object in an intellectual, rather than physical way. Therefore, one’s comprehension of the work relies on the artist’s original conception of the painting, making our visual and intellectual experience, and therefore interpretation of the work, conceptual in nature. Although it is possible Reinhardt would have balked at this designation, due to his dismissal of conceptual art in general, this is a salient option that confronts the discordant original intention of the artist with the aging and fragile physical object.

Reinhardt’s black paintings represent both intellectual and technical achievements of modern American painting. His work’s ability to transgress, and yet subsume, the genres and movements of his time has continued and transformed long past 1967. Over time, restoration and conservation methods have altered as the focus of value found in his surfaces has transitioned. As Reinhardt’s paintings transmute with time, so do our classifications and interpretations.


(1) Barbara Rose, “The Black Paintings,” in Ad Reinhardt: Black Paintings 1951-67, Barbara Rose and Harvard H. Arnason (New York: Marlborough Gallery 1970), 16-17.; Margit Rowell, “Ad Reinhardt: Style as Recurrence,” in Ad Reinhardt and Color, Margit Rowell (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1980), 22.

(2) Leonard Bocour, letters to Ad Reinhardt, October 25, 1963, November 12, 1963, and July 12, 1966. Collection of the Reinhardt Foundation, courtesy of Anna Reinhardt.

(3) Carol Stringari, “The Art of Seeing,” in Imageless: the Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting, ed. Carol Stringari (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2008), 32-33.

(4) Anna Reinhardt, conversation with author, September 10, 2015, New York, NY USA. 

(5) Carolyn Lewis, “Noisy Comments Came From Sculpture,” The Washington Post, January 17, 1966, B6.

(6) Yve-Alain Bois, “The Limit of Almost,” in Ad Reinhardt, ed. Yve-Alain Bois (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 12.

(7) Lucy Lipard, Ad Reinhardt (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981), 82.

(8) Bois, “Limit of Almost,” 12-13.

(9) Bois, “Limit of Almost,” 13.

(10) Bois, “Limit of Almost,” 13.

(11) Harvard H. Arnason, “The Quest for Art-Is-Art,” in Ad Reinhardt: Black Paintings 1951-67, Barbara Rose and Harvard H. Arnason (New York: Marlborough Gallery 1970), 11.

(12) Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: the Task of Mourning,” in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, Yve-Alain Bois et al. (London: MIT Press 1986), 29-33.

(13) Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (New York: Dover Publications, 2003).

(14) Rose, “The Black Paintings,” 16.

(15) Rose, “The Black Paintings,” 16-17.

(16) Rowell, “Style as Recurrence,” 11.; Stringari, “Art of Seeing,” 19.

(17) Sandra Amann and Elizabeth Estabrook, conversation with author, September 11, 2015, New York, NY USA.; Carol Stringari, ed. Imageless: the Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2008).

(18) Carol Stringari et al., “Laser Cleaning of a Study Painting by Ad Reinhardt and the Analysis/Assessment of the Surface after Treatment,” in Modern Paints Uncovered: Proceedings from the Modern Paints Uncovered Symposium, May 16-19, 2006, Tate Modern London, ed. Tom J. S. Learner et al. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications 2008), 209.

(19) Ad Reinhardt, “Autocritique de Reinhardt,” in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Viking Press 1975), 83.

(20) Ad Reinhardt, letter to Alfred Barr, Jr. December 13, 1962. Museum Collection Files, Department of Painting and Sculpture, Reinhardt Correspondence File, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

(21) Anna Reinhardt, September 10, 2015.

(22) Ad Reinhardt, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy,” in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Viking Press 1975), 206.

(23) Cristina Biaggi, “Legal Issues in Conserving Contemporary Art,” Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal 3 (2011): 47-49.

(24) Paul Phillippot, “The Idea of Patina and the Cleaning of Paintings (1966),” in Issues in the Conservation of Paintings ed. David Bomford and Mark Leonard (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2005) 391-392. 

(25) Salvador Munos Vinaz, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, (San Diego: Elsevier 2005) 14-21.

(26) Bruce Glaser, “An Interview with Ad Reinhardt, in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Viking Press 1975), 13.

(27) Tanya Thompson, telephone interview with author, August 14, 2015.

(28) Anna Reinhardt, September 10, 2015.

(29) Sandra Amann and Elizabeth Estabrook, September 11, 2015.

(30) Jim Coddington, conversation with author, September 15, 2015, New York, NY USA.

(31) Matthew Skopek, e-mail interview with author, September 30, 2015.

(32) Matthew Skopek, September 30, 2015.

(33) Matthew Skopek, September 30, 2015.

(34) Stringari, “Art of Seeing,” 29-31.

(35) Stringari, “Art of Seeing,” 29-31.

(36) Stringari, “Art of Seeing,” 29-31.

(37) Anna Reinhardt, September 10, 2015.

Fiona Rutka is a paintings conservator. She recently completed an Andrew W. Mellon fellowship at the Balboa Art Conservation Centre in San Diego. In the fall she will start another Mellon Fellowship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, specializing in the research and care of modern and contemporary paintings.