Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) was an artist’s artist, renowned among critics and curators, but hard for the general public to warm up to. His most famous fine art works are his “black” paintings, from the 1960s, which at first glance appear to be solid black, but on closer inspection turn out to be blocks of black and almost-black shades. Important, but challenging.
Reinhardt’s other artistic oeuvre is more easily accessible though: during the late-1930s and ’40s he drew comics and illustrations, mostly for the liberal newspaper PM, but also for New Masses, The Saturday Evening Post, and Ice Cream World, among others. His educational/editorial series, “How to Look at Art,” which championed abstract art and the ideas that would lead to Conceptual art and onward, have often been reprinted in art history textbooks. An exhibition last December at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York paired Reinhardt’s fine and comic artworks, a rare occasion when both types of work were featured on an equal footing.
In his comics, Reinhardt kept up with the changing face of cartooning, producing works that eschewed traditional perspective and realism to something much more “cartoon modern”—a style that was at the same time growing in many places, from the cartoons of Saul Steinberg to the newly formed United Productions of America animation studio. Like his fine art, Reinhardt’s comic drawings capture a number of different styles. His occasional use of repurposed older images looked back to Max Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté (1934), a graphic novel made of of recycled, collaged Victorian-era illustrations, and forward to the animations of Terry Gilliam or David Malki!’s Wondermark comic strip. One of Reinhardt’s most famous cartoons, “What does this represent…” manages to straddle different periods of cartoon history, presenting a modernistic blank background and childlike human figure, such as would become more common in following decades, with an old-fashioned painting coming to life.