Whitehot Magazine

Empty Art: Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings

Abstract Painting, 1963. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60" (152.4 x 152.4 cm)


The essence of the interpretation was that there is a dissociated self which is nothing; it is nothing but a void; it is only emptiness and when this emptiness comes alive she is nothing but one huge hunger.

--D. W. Winnicott, “Nothing at the Centre”(1) 

Black hole: Wilfred Bion’s (1970) extrapolation of the astronomical term for the description of the subjective experience of collapse into nothingness and meaninglessness. It was in connection with his description of the ‘infantile catastrophe’ that Bion used the term ‘black hole’; it was intended to metaphorically capture the infantile, traumatic bodily separateness from the mother with its disturbing mental consequences….Grotstein emphasized that this is felt ‘not just as a static emptiness but as an implosive, centripetal pull into the void.’…Invoking André Green’s (1986) concept of the ‘dead mother,’ Eshel proposes that encounter with it ‘constitutes a “black hole” experience in the interpersonal, intersubjective space of her child because of the intense grip and compelling pull of her world of inner deadness.”

--Salmar Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis(2) 

Hallucination, blank. A general term [that] refers to certain uncanny experiences of sensations of equilibrium and space….Most often such feelings occur in stress situations, when falling asleep, and in dreams. They are believed to be defensive repetitions of responses to early oral deprivation and to reflect the infant’s subjective experience of being overwhelmed by excitation in the early traumatic situation. 

--Robert J. Campbell, Psychiatric Dictionary(3) 

Flattening of the affect consists of a general impoverishment of emotional reactivity or failure to react appropriately to affect-tinged stimuli.

--Robert J. Campbell, Psychiatric Dictionary(4) 

As already described by Freud, all sublimations, and especially the form of sublimation called art, are a kind of deception, are underhand ways of getting back to real personal objects.

--Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions(5) 

Reading through Ad Reinhardt’s various writings on “art-as-art,” “black,” and his “black paintings,” I was struck by several remarks that suggest that, despite his oft-repeated insistence that “art-as-art is nothing but art,”(6) it is also something else, namely, a sort of empty, deflated, flattened, depleted breast—a depressingly bad withholding breast, if you want, rather than a benignly nourishing giving breast, rich with white milk rather than an abysmally “black hole.” I am suggesting that despite all his effort to deny that art has any symbolic import, his black paintings are what the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal calls “symbolic equations” for the dead breast of the inwardly dead mother. In a symbolic equation “the symbol is so equated with the object that the two are felt to be identical.”(7) In Reinhardt’s unconscious—and he has one despite his hyper-consciousness of art—the flat black paintings are affectless empty breasts.  

Abstract Painting 1957, Oil on canvas, 9' x 40" (274.3 x 101.5 cm)

I suggest that Reinhardt’s inability to represent the affect-tinged breast has to do with his traumatic experience of it as a void that cannot satisfy his hunger for life, leading him finally to turn away from the life it symbolizes. He in effect rejects what seems to reject him by denying him consummate pleasure. To say that “abstract art or art-as-art” is “non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagistic,” (p. 53) is to say that he cannot imaginatively represent the mother’s breast—and with that her fulsome figure—because he rarely if ever had a good encounter with or experience of it. The breast had to become a lifeless abstraction because it rarely if ever lovingly gave him what he instinctively needed. There is something infantile about abstract painting; Reinhardt’s are particularly infantile in that they convey the infant’s huge hunger, always impossible to satisfy because it is insatiable: Reinhardt’s “black hole” paintings symbolize the perpetual emptiness of his hungry mouth. The black paintings are a sort of entropic orgasm—an orgasmic experience of emptiness.

Winnicott famously called the “good enough mother” an environment facilitating human growth, and Reinhardt’s black paintings are not the healthiest, most enjoyable, humanizing artistic environments that exist. They are peculiarly sterile paintings, in which art no longer commemorates, glorifies, and even generates—fertilizes--life, as it traditionally did, but undermines and devalues it. Deprived of life and visual appeal—appetite-stimulating sensuousness--they cannot be satisfying, suggesting Reinhardt’s dissatisfaction with life. He destroys the disappointing breast by abstractly representing it, asserting that it is nothing rather something—a nothing which he nonetheless repeatedly dwells on, indicating that however seemingly meaningless it remains uncannily meaningful—hypnotically fascinating, as the void invariably is. Losing its organic wholeness, not to say wholesomeness—the consummate quality conveyed by curvilinearity and roundness—by being flattened, and losing its exciting voluptuousness by becoming a banal grid, the breast, and with it art, becomes traumatically transcendental. What Reinhardt called “art’s timelessness, uselessness, and meaninglessness“ (p. 187) is the uselessness and meaninglessness of the eternal breast that has become blank.  The breast abandoned him by becoming empty, and he abandons art by emptying it of life. For Reinhardt, the frustrating emptiness of the breast becomes the defensive asceticism of abstract art, the last step in the series of “refusals” that have marked modern art (p. 50), leaving it in a void of its own making. “Expressionism and surrealism is always fake, art as something else is always fake,” Reinhardt wrote, (p. 127) but his abstract art is paradoxically and subliminally expressionistic and surrealistic, which doesn’t make it fake.  

Here are the passages I had in mind. All suggest a knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. All suggest that his art is body-based—that he unconsciously equates or associates it with the body, that it is a projection of the body or its parts, that it broadly evokes the body, if in blank hallucinatory form.

Original part-object, breast
Gothic, female-genital, fold within fold, slits, vaults
Sloping shoulders, chastened animal
Smooth, rough, nipple, texture
Re-create loved objects, art, images of body, fragments   (p. 74)  

“Destruction is followed by construction”—Mondrian
“Construction is followed by destruction”—Reinhardt (p. 77)

No such thing as emptiness or invisibility, silence
Own nervous system  (p. 104)

At home with voids, reality & self sums, products of zero
“Not that,” it is “no thing,” “nil,” nothing,”
“A non-rendering of non-experience”
turning up as dark shadow, spreading stain, widening fissure
Nay-sayers, underminers
Absurd, nausea, negativity, cold wind of nothing, blankness
Nothing is the whole, or at least the central tune  (p. 106)

“Enantiodromia” (Jung), extreme position turns into its opposite (p. 111)

I suggest the “cold wind of nothingness,” with its accompanying nausea, is a mirroring response to the absurd negativity of the blank breast—the breast being the “central tune” of infantile experience. Unrepresentable because it has become blank, the original part object of the breast has become non-objective. One might say that Reinhardt’s Medusa-glance turns the breast into the black stone of dead “art,” confirming his unconscious identification with his inwardly dead unfeeling—not to say unempathic--mother, and with that his own sense of being inwardly dead and affectless, that is, a blank. The abstract grid is a defensive overlay on the dead nothingness that nonetheless announces its “negative presence” (p. 97)—another of Reinhardt’s psychoanalytically inspired terms—for the traumatic blackness of the void overwhelms it. The impersonal grid is a futile attempt to control the personal void, but the homogeneous grid is itself a kind of void--inherently entropic, as Rudolf Arnheim argues.(8) 

One might say that it is a projection of Reinhardt’s deadened—does he use art to anesthetize himself to the emptiness while evoking it?—“nervous system,” confirming his assertion that there is “no such thing as emptiness or invisibility,” cited above. Art for him is clearly symbolic—and sexually symbolic at that, as his association of the Gothic and female genital, with its folds within folds, suggest: do the black paintings unfold and flatten it, opening the vaginal slit so that he can gaze into the empty vaginal vault? Are they misogynist? His view of the female as a “chastened animal,” and his focus on the nipple—the rough center of the smooth breast, become the blank of a “dark shadow” because it has lost luminous milky substance—conveys his destructive obsession with his “dry” mother. She was not exactly a wet nurse, if Reinhardt’s black paintings are any clue. To use Nietzsche’s distinction, they are a dry rather than wet art. 

Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962, Oil paint on canvas

Reinhardt’s idea that art “re-create[s] loved objects”—including abstract art--and implicitly involves images and fragments of body, more pointedly images and fragments of what Balint calls “personal objects,” is directly derived from, or at least strongly echoes, Melanie Klein’s theory of creativity as the reparation of destroyed objects. The disintegrative destruction occurs in what she calls the paranoid-schizoid position, the  reconstruction into integrated wholeness in what she calls the depressive position. Both positions are “states of mind” in which the mother’s breast is the primary object; it remains the imaginative “model” and symbol of loving giving and hateful ungiving personal objects throughout life.  It seems clear that Reinhardt is stuck in the destructive paranoid-schizoid position—fixated on the “negativity” of the original part object that is the breast, which is why he is unable to be “positive” or “idealistic” in his art. He seems incapable of the splitting into good, nourishing breast and bad, depriving breast characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position, because it seems he had little if any experience of the former, which is why the latter continues to persecute him in the form of the blank black breast.  

The breast is empty at the center, and the black paintings are empty centers. One might say that Reinhardt’s “non-rendering of non-experience” of the breast is a rendering of what Wilfred Bion calls the “psychotic core.” Reinhardt’s reference to Jung’s dialectical idea that “extreme position turns into its opposite” seems helplessly wishful. The wish that absolute emptiness will spontaneously—not to say miraculously—turn into the fullness of the abundant breast seems completely unrealistic. The separation anxiety implicit in the gap between the breast’s emptiness and Reinhardt’s emptiness is impossible to overcome, however much they echo each other. Reinhardt’s comparison of himself to Mondrian is instructive: for Mondrian, painting was a spiritual, transcendental, constructive activity; for Reinhardt painting is a spiritless, “descendental,” destructive activity. Reinhardt wrote that “the facts of an artist’s life are not of great explanatory use” (p. 99), but one would like to know more about the facts of his life. WM


(1)D. W. Winnicott, “Nothing at the Centre,” Psycho-Analytic Explorations (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1989), 50

(2)Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London:  Karnac, 2009), 38-39

(3)Robert J. Campbell, Psychiatric Dictionary (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1981), 272-73

(4)Ibid., 249 

(5)Michael Balint, Thrills and Regressions (London:  Maresfield Library, 1987), 115

(6)Quoted in Barbara Rose, ed., Art as Art:  The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York:  Viking, 1975), 53.  All subsequent quotations from Reinhardt are from this book.  The page numbers follow the quotations.

(7)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York:  Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 35

(8)Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and Art:  An Essay on Order and Disorder (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1974), 52.  The grid is “a minimal structure at a low level of order,” conveying “the emptiness of homogeneity.”   In a footnote on the same page, Arnheim remarks:  “Some of the same people who profess to be repelled by the monotonous rows of identical human dwellings in so-called subdivisions, seem to admire rows of identical boxes in art galleries.” 

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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