Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Between Paintings and Postcards: Ad Reinhardt at the Woodward Gallery

“If you want to know about Andy Warhol,” Andy Warhol once famously advised, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” While his approximate contemporary, Ad Reinhardt, never begged for such a blurring between the formal and the biographical, it’s always been difficult to avoid making such direct analogies. Indeed, the black monochromes he painted throughout the 1960’s (and the rhetoric that often accompanied them), have long-suggested a serious, scholastic figure obsessed with reduction, precision, and sterility.

In the Minds of Me, a show of Reinhardt’s drawings, papers, and letters to his mistress, Olga Sheirr, from 1946 to 1967 at Woodward Gallery thankfully undermines this image, revealing an enamored lover and playful collector underneath the studious geometry of his work. On display in Woodward’s pristine, year-old space on the Lower East Side until December 27, the show was assembled by Sheirr and John Woodward (her neighbor) from her collection of personal papers.

Reinhardt included an essay on pornography by Gore Vidal within one letter to Sheirr, postcards showing works by Matisse in another, we learn.  His words are alternately teasing, clever, and inscrutable. “Time stands still flags / wave / horns blow bands / toot and / play people parade / shout and / traffic stops Olga’s coming / home,” one postcard-koan reads in his inimitable, calligraphic script, the words arranged as if flying out of a flugelhorn embossed on the page.  Alongside these letters, his spare line drawings are curious, almost prehistoric human figures, symbols that could easily be scrawled across papers in the world of The Crying of Lot 49.  

There are postcards written in code, lists of stops on a tour of Europe. One of the most disarming is a two-sentence card: “Strike meeting. Call for instructions.” Sophie Calle and On Kawara would define their careers with material like this in later years. Here, it amounts to a handsome portrait of a man, a woman, and a love affair conducted between cities via post and in secret. If it’s an image no less constructed than that suggested by his paintings, that seems acceptable: it’s at least as alluring.

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