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The Painting Techniques of Ad Reinhardt

Take time with Ad Reinhardt's black canvases and discover the rewards of contemplation. To learn more and create your own works, take our online course Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Voiceover: You're looking at one of Ed Reinhardt's black paintings but actually there is no black on this painting. What may first appear as an all over black square, actually is a grid. A three by three grid of well, nine squares and each square contains an intensely deep shade of either red, green or blue. One could call this chromatic blacks or colored blacks because at the four corners of the painting, we see actually a deep shade of red. Across the center of the painting we see a very deep green. In midway, along the top and bottom edges we find a very deep blue. Now if you don't see this at first, there's a reason for it because even in front of the painting in the gallery perceiving this painting is a function of the rods and cones adjusting in your eye. It's actually the same experience you have when waking up in the middle of the night. When at first everything is black and then gradually as your rods and cones adjusts, color forms slowly, gradually emerge. Perceiving this composition takes time, it takes patience and it takes attention. Ad Reinhardt was actually very, very interested in exactly those qualities for he's not to purify art and the experience of it. Reinhardt wanted to keep art and business totally separate. He relished the fact that these paintings are almost impossible to reproduce in photography. Reinhardt was in the abstract expressionist circle. However the paint qualities that you associate with that movement are totally lacking in Reinhardt, and there's a reason for that. Reinhardt was an oppositional figure. If he knew that he were lumped in with the abstract expressionists, he would cringe at the thought. (lighthearted music) Ad Reinhardt's painting process was a very individualistic one, a very unique one and he never made a mystery of his technique like so many other New York school painters did. Corey: The first step in preparing this exquisite matte quality paint is actually involving these jars here. Interestingly his materials, despite the fact that his paintings look so odd and unique, his materials are straight up classical. Nothing more than oil paint out of the tube and turpentine, the typical solvent for all oil painting. What he would typically do is to use quite a bit of mars black paint. To that entire quantity he would add just a little bit of one of the three colors he painted with: red, green and blue. Next a generous dose of turpentine. What I'm doing now is making sure that that oil paint is dissolving into that turpentine very, very thoroughly. Reinhardt would then leave this jars on his shelves in his studio for a week, for two weeks, for perhaps a month. The reason for that waiting period is that the dense part of the paint, in other words the pigment, would settle to the bottom. Meanwhile the light part of that mixture would rise to the top. What is the light part? Well it's the turpentine that he just added. Now the oil, the binder from that tube of paint now extracted from that pigment, lifted up to the top of this jar. What he would do next is this, he would open the jar and then pour off all of that solvent phase if you will or all that light part of the paint mixture. Leaving behind only that sludge of paint. (lighthearted music) Voiceover: Because Reinhardt has withdrawn so much medium from his paint, the resulting paint surfaces are almost free of any trace of brush work. In addition, they are the most matte paint surfaces you will probably ever see. Because there's no gloss, because there's no reflection on that surface there's no other light hitting us in the eye. In other words, we have the opportunity to perceive color directly. Reinhardt was by far in a way the most subtle colorist of the abstract expressionist painters. His use of color was so subtle, in fact, that it's on the very threshold of perception. To see these painting we quite literally have to slow down the pace of every day life. His paintings demand our patience and close looking. (lighthearted music)