The recent exhibition at David Zwirner of twenty-seven blue paintings made by Ad Reinhardt, focusing on the period between 1950 and 1953, was a tour de force on many levels. It is doubtful that any museum could or would have assembled such a concentrated, ambitious show, since it lacks the box-office appeal of shock-and-awe sensationalism.
"Ad Reinhardt: Blue Paintings" at the David Zwirner Gallery, which brought together 28 luminous abstract paintings from this artist’s early-1950s "blue period"—the most ever. With blue fields layered with levitating blocks, or intersecting beams of contrasting blues and sometimes greens or purples, these immersive paintings evoked geometric versions of Monet’s "Water Lilies."
1943, the year Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Tehran to discuss their war strategy, Ad Reinhardt made a deep blue and green oil painting that is the earliest work in this Zwirner Gallery exhibition. The piece is revealing. An inclination towards sensation is already out front, yet his brush speed, brushstroke, and composition are elbowing in the rear, oscillating between the emotional tenor of the times and the artist’s temperament. The times were fast and hot—the temperament thoughtful, and cool. Their combination was a collision, though not without harmony.
In 1943 Mondrian finished Broadway Boogie Woogie. Out front in this painting is its rhythm. Gradually, the painting slows down and its intellectual colors and space relationships are tuned, finer and finer. In fact, look carefully and the entire painting becomes an astonishing mind, its innumerable decisions flickering, rippling, almost breathing across its surface. There is no immediacy, or if there is, it’s the immediacy of duration. The painting is a world created.
Reinhardt makes a choice. (Room two of the gallery, 1951 onward.) He reconfigures visual and compositional speed into vibration: he scales down the faster strokes and pulls them in, like current in a light bulb; he builds up symmetrical compositions, like vertebrae in a spine. The image is pre-determined to make way for the real royalty: color. Each painting is engorged with rich, variant violet-blues that weave and pump. Occasionally image-adjustments are visible, but usually the application is steady, without a trace. No time and no space, no joining the lines of thought: only presence. The painting is world negating.
These days, it can sometimes seem like the line between gallery shows and museum shows is blurring. As museums try to shed their image as lofty temples of culture and capitalize on the excitements of contemporary art, galleries seek gravitas and substance. Occasionally, galleries mount exhibitions that are so substantial they can fairly be described as museum-quality. Two such exhibitions can now be found at the David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street) in Chelsea, and together they remind us that the history of post-war art is being revised as we speak.
In recent years some of our big Chelsea galleries have given us what are basically museum shows. From Gagosian, a while back, came an invaluable retrospective of Piero Manzoni, followed by a survey of late Monet paintings that felt like an impossible dream. David Zwirner now enters the modern-old-masters lists with "Ad Reinhardt," a trenchant centennial tribute to a classic American artist, and one of the best exhibitions in or out of a gallery this fall.
Of the canonical figures still routinely lumped under something called Abstract Expressionism, Reinhardt is one of the few I feel a real connection to, even affection for. Maybe this is because he avoided barroom soul-baring; or because he saw beyond local to global in art; or because he loved art with an acolyte's ardor but also clearly recognized it as a contrivance around which ego and celebrity could and would be spun.
The Zwirner show, organized by Robert Storr, critic, painter and dean of the Yale School of Art, manages to touch on all of these aspects. It's installed in three rooms, one devoted to his relatively little known graphic designs, another to his photography, and a third to his magnetic last paintings. At a glance, the three different kinds of work seem to have no obvious connection; they could be by three different people. But they were all his and all ran together, on parallel tracks for most his life.