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June 08 2017

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So somebody on my Facebook posted this. And I’ve seen sooooo many memes like it. Images of a canvas with nothing but a slash cut into it, or a giant blurry square of color, or a black circle on a white canvas. There are always hundreds of comments about how anyone could do that and it isn’t really art, or stories of the time someone dropped a glove on the floor of a museum and people started discussing the meaning of the piece, assuming it was an abstract found-objects type of sculpture.

The painting on the left is a bay or lake or harbor with mountains in the background and some people going about their day in the foreground. It’s very pretty and it is skillfully painted. It’s a nice piece of art. It’s also just a landscape. I don’t recognize a signature style, the subject matter is far too common to narrow it down. I have no idea who painted that image.

The painting on the right I recognized immediately. When I was studying abstraction and non-representational art, I didn’t study this painter in depth, but I remember the day we learned about him and specifically about this series of paintings. His name was Ad Reinhart, and this is one painting from a series he called the ultimate paintings. (Not ultimate as in the best, but ultimate as in last.)

The day that my art history teacher showed us Ad Reinhart’s paintings, one guy in the class scoffed and made a comment that it was a scam, that Reinhart had slapped some black paint on the canvas and pretentious people who wanted to look smart gave him money for it. My teacher shut him down immediately. She told him that this is not a canvas that someone just painted black. It isn’t easy to tell from this photo, but there are groups of color, usually squares of very very very dark blue or red or green or brown. They are so dark that, if you saw them on their own, you would call each of them black. But when they are side by side their differences are apparent. Initially you stare at the piece thinking that THAT corner of the canvas is TRUE black. Then you begin to wonder if it is a deep green that only appears black because the area next to it is a deep, deep red. Or perhaps the “blue” is the true black and that red is actually brown. Or perhaps the blue is violet and the color next to it is the true black. The piece challenges the viewer’s perception. By the time you move on to the next painting, you’re left to wonder if maybe there have been other instances in which you believe something to be true but your perception is warped by some outside factor. And then you wonder if ANY of the colors were truly black. How can anything be cut and dry, black and white, when even black itself isn’t as absolute as you thought it was?

People need to understand that not all art is about portraying a realistic image, and that technical skills (like the ability to paint a scene that looks as though it may have been photographed) are not the only kind of artistic skills. Some art is meant to be pretty or look like something. Other art is meant to carry a message or an idea, to provoke thought.

Reinhart’s art is utterly genius.

“But anyone could have done that! It doesn’t take any special skill! I could have done that!”

Ok. Maybe you could have. But you didn’t.

Give abstract art some respect. It’s more important than you realize.

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June 07 2017

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