Cartoonists are talking about what’s happening in a New York gallery—a rare occurrence. Right now, in order to see Ad Reinhardt’s famous black-on-black abstract paintings at David Zwirner, visitors must walk through a large room full Reinhardt’s cartoons. (Nick Paumgarten recently wrote a Profile of Zwirner.) “People knew that Reinhardt had been a cartoonist,” Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, who curated the exhibit, said. “But the cartoons were seen merely as a sideline. In fact, we show that they’re an entire dimension of his work as an artist.”
It seems ironic that the shift to accept cartoons as art could take place around one of the most significant but austere Abstract Expressionists. When Reinhardt came up with black-on-black paintings, around 1956, he announced, “I’m quite simply making the last paintings that anyone can make.” Cartoonists agreed, seeing his black paintings as an easy shorthand to mock modern art, as you can see in this slide show of New Yorker cartoons on the topic:
AD REINHARDT’S CARTOONS
1 of 10
William O’Brian, August 19, 1967.
J. B. Handelsman, October 30, 1989.
Robert Day, April 20, 1968.
Everett Opie, January 26, 1976.
Arnie Levin, July 26, 1976.
Richard Olden, March 20, 1971.
James Stevenson, January 18, 1958.
Robert Day, March 14, 1967.
Everett Opie, May 27, 1967.
Benoit van Innis, December 3, 1990.
Reinhardt himself was never published in The New Yorker, but in the late nineteen-thirties and forties he was a prolific cartoonist for a diverse array of clients, including the Brooklyn Dodgers,Glamour, Macy’s, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, the New Masses, theSaturday Evening Post, and Ice Cream World, the publication of the ice-cream trade, for which he was the art director. (Click on the images to expand.)
“He was a master painter, but he was also a master of the comics,” Robert Storr said.
“There’s a connection with Saul Steinberg, there’s also a connection with Philip Guston. But where Steinberg was at ease uptown, Reinhardt always remained a downtown artist.”
The son of socialist parents, Reinhardt was committed to social justice, and he joined the leftist tabloid PM in 1942. Yet he believed that “it was wrong for artists to claim that their work could educate the public politically or that their work would beautify public buildings.”
At PM (where his colleagues included Theodor Geisel—better known as Dr. Seuss—and Crockett Johnson, of “Harold and the Purple Crayon” fame), Reinhardt produced hundreds of cartoons and illustrations, as well as “How to Look,” a series of pages about modern art, a subject about which he was erudite and passionate.
“He basically likes to play with language,” Robert Storr added. “He uses language against its original intention. Where others may have been pompous, he was incredibly light and sharp. He makes fun of what others make fun of, but he’s so much more elegant and intelligent in his mockery.”
“He’s like a Zen teacher,” Storr said. “He is teaching you something, but he’s teaching it by removing his authority and giving you a puzzle.”
“He is indeed the most austere of the Abstract Expressionists, but he is also by far the funniest—maybe the only funny one,” Storr concluded.
The show Zwirner, which includes the first room of Reinhardt’s “ultimate” black paintings to be seen in New York since his 1991 retrospective at MOMA, is on display through December 18th.