The Ad Reinhardt You Never Knew

  • Posted on Apr 01, 2010 by

At the MoMA Library we recently unearthed an intriguing box of ephemera by artist Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). The material was gifted to the Library by Walter and Nettie Wittman, who were friends of the artist. The letters, photographs, tear sheets, and some original commercial illustrations form a vignette of the artist’s professional and personal life, glimpsed from the perspective of Mr. Wittman, a lawyer residing in New Jersey.

Reinhardt and Walter Wittman met as students at Columbia University. We get a taste of their initial friendship with a 1931 notebook page documenting Reinhardt’s translation efforts in freshman German class (“In paradise what have I to do win?”)

The pair corresponded during at least one summer break. Reinhardt’s subject ranged from philosophical reflections to dating prospects. Regarding the former, in one undated note Reinhardt declares, “I haven't been perverted to a mere materialist—I changed from an emotional, artistic romanticist to an intellectual, objective idealist, an Emersonian idealist....” According to Reinhardt this philosophy “is in a book, my book, an anthology of famous quotations and very subtle sayings—the title is ‘Dreamdust’—the dust of the dreamers, the stars that shine, illuminate the dark past.”

After graduation we find the artist starting a career—and a family. For example, the artist and his son Jed are featured in a newspaper photo essay titled Life with Junior. “Prepared in consultation with nursery school experts,” the article advises, “If a child balks at bedtime, try some of these ideas,” such as bedtime stories, duly illustrated by photographer Mary Morris.

In the 1940s, Reinhardt created a series of drawings on the theme of How to Look. Describing a tear sheet of How To Look at the Picasso “Guernica” Mural, Wittman accurately describes how the artist “marinated his profound knowledge of art history in the searing sauce of satire.”

In 1947 Reinhardt joined the faculty of Brooklyn College. By the late 1950s, anticipating the summer break, he describes “trying to be casual about a round-the-world…trip,” in which “I find myself getting increasingly out of control and even a bit excited.”

By the late 1950s the correspondence finds Ad and his spouse Rita beginning to plan for the future, asking Wittman for help to “make a will or whatever one does (the pact I made with the devil, once, does not involve you, does it?)”

The last item in the box announces a show of Reinhardt’s landmark black paintings at the Galerie Iris Clert in 1963. Reinhardt sent the announcement to Wittman from Paris, where the artist presumably attended the opening. On the envelope, Reinhardt has arranged the stamps playfully, showing that despite the apparent sobriety of the black paintings, he maintained the lightheartedness of his earliest encounters with Wittman.

At this point the correspondence ends. Though elliptical, this small trove of material retains a sense of Reinhardt as a student, traveler, artist, husband, parent—and especially as a friend.

Search for Ad Reinhardt in Arcade

Jennifer Tobias, Librarian, Reader Services, The Museum of Modern Art


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