Originally published in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989. © 2009 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.
From 1961 until his death in 1967, Ad Reinhardt exclusively painted black square canvases measuring five by five feet, each with subtle attenuations of dark tones and a vaguely discernable cross structure trisecting the powdery-dry, matte surface into nine symmetrical squares (Abstract Painting, plate 127). This series coincided with his 1961 trip to Syria, Jordan, and Turkey to study Islamic architecture and decoration, whose repetitive, geometric, symmetrical, and aniconic sacred forms (“imageless icons”) held intense interest for him. In 1962, he wrote to his friend, the Trappist monk and interfaith theologian Thomas Merton, that he had become a “white Muslim,” able to “find [himself] among anti-imagists, anti-idolatrists, pro-iconoclasts, and nonobjectivists.” Reinhardt based his repetitive, prescribed craft, which culminated in his black paintings, on the ritualized and diagrammatic approach to object-making in Islamic as well as Asian cultures. In language that echoes his reverent descriptions of Buddhist sculptures, Tantric mandalas, and Chinese landscape paintings, Reinhardt declared his black paintings to be “pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting … object[s] that [are] self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of nothing but Art (absolutely no anti-art).” For the 1966 retrospective of his work at the Jewish Museum, he wrote that these works are “a logical development of personal art history and the historic traditions of Eastern and Western pure painting.”