In Conversation

Michael Corris with Joan Waltemath

Michael Corris is an artist and writer on art. Corris holds a BA from Brooklyn College, an MFA in painting/media from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and a PhD from University College London. Corris participated in the group Art and Language during the early ’70s and was a founding editor of The Fox (1974–76) and Red-Herring (1976–79). Corris’ most recent publications include: Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2004). This last Summer, on the occasion of his new book Ad Reinhardt (Reaktion Books, 2008), Rail Editor at Large Joan Waltemath sat down with the author to discuss his work.

Joan Waltemath (Rail): Were you in New York in the mid to late ‘80s?

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Michael Corris: Yes. Steven and I shared a live-work space in Brooklyn. Originally it was Olivier Mosset in the front, me in the back; then Olivier moved next door, Steven moved in, and it was the three of us. That was from 1986 until 1989.

Rail: Where did the idea for a book on Ad Reinhardt originate?

Corris: The project is a natural extension of my PhD, which investigated Reinhardt’s relationship to the American Communist movement. The thesis focused on the period 1935-1950 in Reinhardt’s life, detailing his relationship to the politics of the left and providing the first comprehensive survey of his political illustrations and cartoons for publications like New Masses and Soviet Russia Today. At the completion of that research, it seemed important to me to reconsider the entirety of Reinhardt’s practices as an artist.

Rail: How did you know the cartoons you first encountered in New Masses were by Reinhardt?

Corris: Fortunately, these cartoons were clearly signed by Reinhardt in his distinctive calligraphic hand. I say “fortunately,” because the clear identification of Reinhardt’s work in New Masses and Soviet Russia Today is not always guaranteed, as much of this work was published under a variety of pseudonyms, such as “Darryl Frederick,” “Roderick,” and “Rodney.” When Reinhardt began publishing work in Soviet Russia Today and New Masses in 1936, they were signed “Darryl Frederick.” I chart the use of pseudonyms by Reinhardt and it’s interesting to correlate this practice to certain events in the political landscape at large. Between 1936 and 1946, one finds more than 400 items by Reinhardt in New Masses; this decade represents a tumultuous period in the history of the American Communist movement and the left in general in the US. Reinhardt’s attempts to disguise his authorship occur during periods of increased intolerance of the movement, such as the period between the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939 and the entry of the US into World War II towards the end of 1941. Once I had uncovered this cache of illustrations, I became interested in their relationship to his painting practice. During the 1930s and 1940s, the story of the interrelationship of Reinhardt’s practice as an illustrator, graphic designer and painter is far more complex.

Rail: What happens with the left hand does affect the right hand! How did the germ of this idea to look at the whole of Reinhardt take root? Do you remember?

Corris: The idea emerged in a number of ways. Firstly, the formal similarities between a certain body of these cartoons and the paintings and collages that Reinhardt was developing during the ’40s were striking to me. Understanding how artists work, how the tacit knowledge of one kind of practice informs another, I didn’t believe this similarity was coincidental; I didn’t want to suggest that the relationship between Reinhardt’s paintings and illustrations during a certain period in his life was merely morphological. There was a deeper connection; a technical one with ideological overtones, if you will. Once you understand the actual mechanics of the process of graphic design and the process of painting, it becomes clear that Reinhardt was toying with the idea of constructing paintings in a way that was similar to the construction of a piece of graphic design. In other words, there was a certain rationalization of practice, a systematic way of putting preformed elements together, which was not the way many of his peers of the 1940s were working. The second spur to this new interpretation of Reinhardt is located in writings by the artist dating from the early ’40s; these texts provide a convincing case for believing that he had conceived of his practice as an artist in larger terms, very much in keeping with the ideas at the time, of abstract art being something like a model of the implicit order of society. Through the aesthetics of geometry in painting, as a sign for the rational, one got a sense of a possible future, a “picture” of a possible future. Finally, there was Reinhardt’s consistent relationship to the Communist movement, with its ideology of collectivity and program of social transformation aimed at creating the conditions for the realization of the full potential of the human being. From Reinhardt’s perspective, the challenge faced by the abstract artist during the 1940s was to become a whole human being; to develop skills and competencies that transcend the narrow professionalism of the role of “fine artist.” He was aware, as he put it, of ‘the implications and potentialities of scientific knowledge, projected with a democratic political philosophy of the possibility, ultimately, of every individual being his own artist, his own architect.’ Under such an enlightened political and social environment, art’s central problem would be framed in terms of democracy and education. The strong theme of cultural democracy, seemingly remote from Reinhardt’s subsequent statements of the early 1950s emerged in a somewhat coded form during the 1960s in the context of the artist’s ‘art-as-art dogma.’ Like the mid-1930s and early 1940s, this was another historical moment when the agendas of cultural production and social change appeared to coincide; one finds Reinhardt’s writings peppered with reflections on art and ethics.

Rail: When I picked up the book one of the first things that’s striking about it is: there are no images in the book. That’s radical. Do you want to talk about how that decision came about?

Corris: Yes, and one part of me hopes that it does catch on, because for a number of reasons it might be very useful for historians to start writing about art without illustrations. But another part of me believes that the copyright law must be modified when it comes to the use of illustrations in the context of research and scholarship. It will soon become prohibitive financially to publish generously illustrated books. This book was conceived, I have to admit, with illustrations. There were going to be over 200 illustrations, but at the eleventh hour the permission to reproduce Reinhardt’s work—and to quote from the artist’s unpublished writings—was withdrawn.

Rail: Upon reading the manuscript?

Corris: Yes; it is a clear case of censorship by the Estate of the artist, a way to obtain editorial oversight by other means. As a matter of courtesy, in order to check facts, the manuscript was made available to the estate. The Estate had already denied me permission to reproduce works by Reinhardt in 1994, so I was quite surprised, and delighted I must say, that they had reversed their earlier position. Quite soon after having read the manuscript, the Estate withdrew their permission to allow the publisher to reproduce any works by Reinhardt. It was a very traumatic experience, as you might imagine, facing the prospect of years of work going down the drain. Throughout this ordeal, which delayed the publication of the book by nearly 15 months, my publisher and colleagues never wavered in their support of this project. I owe them a tremendous debt of thanks, especially Dore Ashton, Robert Hobbs, Fran Colpitt, and the members of the publication committee of the College Art Association, who had in 2006 awarded the book the first College Art Association Publication Grant. Even though we had permission to reproduce work by other artists, as contextual illustrations, Michael Leaman, the publisher of Reaktion Press, and I decided that it would be preferable to have no illustrations at all accompanying the text.

Rail: It gives the book a kind of absoluteness that’s in keeping with Reinhardt’s writings; I think he would have liked that.

Corris: [laughs] Yes, it does. Reinhardt did make statements to the effect that he was interested in making paintings that could not be reproduced; I think this is a rather tortured affirmation of that credo. What is ironic, of course, is that by taking this path, the Estate chooses to endorse the rights of property against the free circulation of information and opinion. That would have surely raised Reinhardt’s hackles. There is no doubt that similar actions by other artist’s estates have had a chilling effect on scholarship. Initially, I felt that I should not dignify the Estate’s reasons for withdrawing permission by responding, but now I feel that it is important to reply to those who amount to my first critics. To look at Reinhardt solely as a ‘painter,’ through his paintings, is to reproduce precisely the kind of division of labor that he had struggled his entire life to challenge, if not to overcome. That was the ideal, the dream. The worst possible error would be to deny that dream, not matter how grand and implausible. We speak incessantly of the market prizing the human being from her true potential and vocation; in a modest way, as an historian of art, one must resist this alienation and refuse to prise the ‘aesthetic’ from the political and the historical. To consider Reinhardt’s paintings as the only expression of the artist’s practice is to entrench this alienation.

Rail: One thing that occurred to me as I was reading your book, is that the approach you bring to Reinhardt, where you enable one to look back to the ’30s and ’40s, see what was going on in this country, how it was affecting art, and what was actually at stake in the art world during that time wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-9/11 world. Now we can have a fresh look at the Communist Party in the United States because they are no longer in the spotlight.

Corris: Well, the ideal of communism has been, for some, entirely discredited by its historical association with authoritarianism; so it’s off the radar politically. But as an historian, one can take a different view. There is no doubt that the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and its associated organizations held a great attraction for at least two generations of US artists, active from the 1920s through the 1940s. With regard to art, the CPUSA didn’t have a coherent policy until the late ‘40s; until that point, the Party’s attitude towards art was actually quite mixed. So, in that regard the New Masses Reinhardt encountered in 1936 could hardly be called a blunt political instrument wielded by Party functionaries. The impact the political link between the CPUSA and New Masses had on the editorial content of the publication remained far from clear-cut, as many shades of opinion on the constitution of “progressive” art and culture were tolerated during the Popular Front period and for some time thereafter. Alongside polemics in support of social realism, one found articles by Charmion von Wiegand—also a member of the American Abstract Artists—on Picasso and Mondrian and informed reviews of abstract art. On the matter of domestic and international political policy, however, the editorial content of New Masses unambiguously reflected the Party’s line. Nonetheless, artists and writers clearly benefited from the Party’s response to the influx of middle-class intellectuals during the mid-1930s. New Masses was split by the fault lines of class; as historian Paul Buhle put the matter, the magazine is more accurately described as having been in dialogue with a radical middle class. New Masses spoke “in the name of the working class,” but not “for the working class.” You will find reproductions in New Masses of some of Reinhardt’s paintings of the late-1930s and early-1940s; you will also find Reinhardt’s review, in 1945, of Stuart Davis. By the end of the 1940s, however, the Communist movement had little impact on abstract art. While Reinhardt did not divorce himself from political concerns during the 1950s and still maintained links with fellow travelers, his attention was centered on working with Robert Motherwell to promote the cause for abstraction.

Rail: Could you speak to the concerns of Modernist Left painters and the desire to see themselves as a form of realism? It’s not necessarily a given for an abstract painter.

Corris: No, it’s not a given. It certainly strikes most artists as an unconventional use of the term “realism.” It’s certainly not realism as verisimilitude; it’s realism in another, materialist sense. But it was a rallying cry of the Modernist Left; specifically, artists like Stuart Davis and so many of the painters associated with the American Abstract Artists (AAA) from its inception in 1937-8 through, perhaps, the late-1940s. Fernand Leger published “The New Realism” in 1935 in Art Front, the journal of the Artist’s Union, of which Reinhardt was a member by the late-1930s. Rosalind Bengelsdorf, another member of the AAA, published an article in 1938 by the same title; her text is an unabashed statement of solidarity with the Soviet Union. What the artists of the Modernist Left shared above all was the desire to advance the practice of non-figurative art and to promote that art as a species of realism; that is, a higher form of realism that encompassed the democratic and progressive potential of abstract art to provide an image, as the art historian Martin James put it, of an implicit order of a future society. The abstract painting is not an emblem of the social order as, perhaps, Peter Halley’s work might be construed. The logic underpinning the construction of the painting is assumed to be resonant with the logic of the ideal social order.

Rail: After working on this book, could you say what the whole of Reinhardt is?

Corris: I call it a complex practice; complex in the sense of a heterogeneous, indivisible whole. Not an organization of resources to create an artifact, but more like a worldview which contains an activity of artifact making and all the other associated activities surrounding that, in dialogue with it, and reflecting upon it. Every artist who keeps a notebook does the same, in a sense; that is, she carries on a conversation with herself. Reinhardt was not content with just being an artist; he always said that an artist needs always to be more than just a painter, that an artist also should be knowledgeable about the history of world art, politics, and so forth. That the individual occupied many roles and had a responsibility to exercise political competencies, as well, not simply through one role, the artist, but as a citizen, advocate, or activist.

Rail: He did say “you’re only a painter when you paint!” You write about how the artists you identify as the Modernist Left organized themselves and were searching for a means to have a more democratic position in society, some kind of impact or place for art within the whole social order. It’s interesting in light of the current polarization between academia and Chelsea. Do you know of any movements in our time or groups of artists who are thinking about these same kind of questions, especially now as we find ourselves in such a social and economic crisis in the United States?

Corris: That’s an interesting question. Let me approach it by saying a bit more about Reinhardt’s sense of the importance of collectives and why artists should pay attention to the conditions of the production of art and distribution of art. Reinhardt’s practice suggests that it would not be inappropriate to return to the notion of autonomy in art if that means the artist takes full control of her practice; its disposition, its place in the world, its explication and its circulation. Reinhardt inaugurates this campaign by positing ‘meaninglessness’ in art as a virtue in opposition to ‘self-expression’ in art, which he takes to be the most primitive mode of instrumentalism. Reinhardt also demonstrates that ‘indifference’ is a powerful idea in art. It is powerful because it enables the artist to establish a kind of autonomy through a lack of concern for art as an instrument. At particular historical junctures, this concept has been advanced as a form resistance. During the mid-1960s, some Minimal artists endorsed the view that the practice of art, being essentially non-conformist, embodied values that were in opposition to the militarism and consumerism of American society. It is almost impossible to imagine now that some Minimalism came to us wrapped in the mantle of unconventionality, as an impossibly virtuous negation. Today, there are many more opportunities to play with the values that constitute art. I am not at all pessimistic; unlike some of my friends, who claim that there is no longer an “outside,” I believe there are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak. I’m not sure I feel comfortable endorsing other artists; one can find out what I believe by reading my art criticism. An artist like Joe Scanlan interests me; so do some of the critical projects of Dave Beech in the UK and the “Personnel” project of Maureen Connor in the US. Then there is William Cordova, who has worked to rediscover the legacy of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers and who exists as an artist, as far as I can tell, by going from one residency or commission to another. Frances Stark, perhaps not an artist one would associate with a radical position, is a genuinely humorous artist; that’s an important quality for me. Each of these artists in some sense is trying to tackle the problem of reflecting critically upon or evading a normative practice. But if you believe that art will provide a way out of the political crisis of the day, think again. The problem, as Reinhardt said, is always the artist. If everything is fine, then just carry on. But if you are serious and concerned about the state of art and the conditions under which art is possible, then how can you justify a separation between your work and your concerns? The artist continues to be responsible, in Reinhardt’s words, for “ugliness.”

Rail: You wrote that Reinhardt was “against a left culture that consistently valorized a realist aesthetic and treated Modernist forms as, at best problematic innovations which needed an infusion of social content, as he fought for the democratic progressive potential of abstract art. Twenty years later came a harsh assessment of this claim.” Can you talk about how this turn of mind came about, both in the context of the social and the studio?

Corris: [laughs] I suppose the crux of the book is that a tremendous event, a dispiriting event, occurs in Reinhardt’s lifetime; namely, the destruction of the Communist Party in the US, the decimation of the culture around the Party, and the long-term marginalization of left-dissent in the US, thanks to McCarthyism and the Cold War. This historical moment, which took place over a number of years from about the end of World War Two to the end of the Korean War, was a turning point for Reinhardt. Without the context of the left and the means for artists to engage with that context, the work of any one artist would have a very different sort of meaning. What might seem to be constructive and utopian in one context would seem merely a matter of formalism in another. We are talking here about the absence of radical, alternative institutions. By now, everyone knows that the Red Scare was not simply a war of ideas. It was a war waged by the State to destroy the institutions of the left; a deliberate effort to rid American society of the left-leaning public intellectual (and that includes the engaged artist). The Communist Party was the first and obvious target. But the mass organizations—the so-called front organizations—also had to be smashed. Fellow travelers had to be intimidated, deprived of their livelihood through blacklisting and deprived of their voice of dissent. Reinhardt’s experience with organized labor and organized artists during the 1930s and 1940s marks him; in this respect alone, he is virtually unique among his more illustrious colleagues of the New York School. Reinhardt was always searching for ways to build communities within the art milieu; he was successful up to a point. From the early-1950s onwards, Reinhardt identifies the problem as the expanding influence of that holiest of communities for the arts: the collector-curator-dealer complex. And so he turns his attention to criticism of those institutions; he does so mainly by showing how readily his colleagues find comfort and satisfaction within them. Reinhardt is especially pointed in his critique of art and corporate America; another trend that was emerging rapidly during the 1950s and is now a feature of the landscape; indeed, one might say a necessary element for some cultural activities. One consequence of Reinhardt’s response to changed circumstances was the way he framed his paintings; his ‘black’ paintings, certainly, were conceived as a rebuke to all that was easy and available in the art of his day. You could say they were prophylactic. Reinhardt spoke of the ‘moral content of abstract art’ in 1959. The ‘black paintings’ are an enigma, though; they are the product of ‘routine extremism,’ to cite a phrase by Reinhardt astutely highlighted by the art historian Prudence Peiffer. The ‘black’ paintings are disengaged and non-instrumental. They are universal, in the sense that no-person is denied access to their perceptual affect. Like the modernity that shaped them, they are grand and miserable at the same time. What is important is that they continue to evoke conversation.

Rail: How do you characterize the difference in the freedom of the artist or the artist’s autonomy Reinhardt was struggling for, and the loss of taboo that we are experiencing in our time, where actually we have complete freedom, everything is possible?

Corris: I don’t believe we have complete freedom; I don’t really know what that is. I do know that Reinhardt understood freedom in terms of necessity; so freedom is a state of affairs that is internal to the limits of your world, not a world without limits. I think it has been said a number of times that when there is no distinction to be drawn between art and the common culture, art loses its ability to be seen as significantly different. How ironic to think of the end of art as an unintended consequence of postmodernism that has nothing to do with a critique of originality! Still, more that is positive has come from regarding art as a subset of visual culture. Here’s another spin on the question of freedom and art: what sort of freedom is appropriate to the artist as cultural manager?

Rail: Another way to ask “What’s at stake now?”

Corris: What’s at stake now is really what job the artist has, what job artists wish to make for themselves. Some artists are beginning to find solace in the idea of art as autopoeisis; art a self-contained system. There is no need to rehearse the ideas of Niklas Luhmann here; merely to point out that Reinhardtian “purity” in art is not necessarily what it appears to be, or what the artist himself says it is. What’s at stake now is thinking through the consequences of the post-conceptual dilemma. If Reinhardt did not have Abstract Expressionism and the “corruption” of the art world to work against, he would have had to invent it. That’s the kind of artist he was. To be an artist today, it is necessary to believe that there are still some kind of job for art to do that can’t be done by any other practice.

Rail: One thing that happened when I read your book is that I reflected for the first time on the relationship between those ‘black’ paintings and the whole cloud of living through the Cold War. I’d never thought about it before.

Corris: Well, it’s undeniable that the Cold War was momentous for Reinhardt; how it works its way into the paintings is another story. Let me say that I don’t look at the body of Reinhardt’s work during this period as a melancholic testimony of someone who is living under the shadow of the atomic bomb. I look at it as quite the opposite; as an optimistic body of work that expresses its optimism in terms of revised conditions of spectatorship in art and, to generalize, culture. Reinhardt’s ‘black’ paintings give people a choice, thereby foregrounding the importance of choice for forming one’s relationship to the world. The ‘black’ paintings and the writings that envelop them challenge us: “Be interested or indifferent: you chose.” That’s an extremely positive position to occupy during the post-War period.

Rail: One can never discount that, with Reinhardt, both things could obtain; for me the magic of the work is the paradox of how he makes that happen.

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Joan Waltemath