When I turned the corner past a small Rothko, I broke into a smile: here, in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I found a 1966 Ad Reinhardt painting, lingering around, unattended as usual. I had hoped that there might be a Reinhardt here in the museum’s modern collection, but it was still like running into an old friend on the concourse of a foreign airport. Halfway through an intellectually and emotionally intensive study program, relaxing into Reinhardt’s matte black panel was the refreshment my spirit needed at that moment.
I was in Jerusalem for the second part of a two-year fellowship studying Jewish thought and life in Israel and Palestine, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute and the American Jewish Committee. With twenty-three other Christian pastors and academics, we spent time over two summers face to face with the complexity of life in the Holy Land. We were only a few days into this year’s trip, but I was already grateful for the break, and to switch from hearing unfamiliar, sometimes painful, stories to seeing works by artists I had known for years.
Among those artists, Ad Reinhardt was a personal favorite, if a bit of an obscure choice, especially by comparison to better known painters from across the centuries in the Israel Museum’s encyclopedic collection. Adolph Reinhardt (yes, Adolph) was an American painter whose lived most of his life in New York City. In addition to his painting and other graphic work, he taught at Brooklyn College and wrote about art theory. His close friends included the poet Robert Lax and the theologian and monk Thomas Merton. Reinhardt was an abstract painter whose work evolved from colorful, geometric compositions in his early career to the all-black panels that he painted from the mid-1950s through his death in 1967; it was one of these “Last Paintings” that was hanging on the wall in front of me, an untitled Abstract Painting from 1966.
For the next week after my museum visit, we would continue our work of studying life in this country which also resisted its names. My colleagues and I read and argued over texts from the Bible, from the Talmud, and from essays and poems by contemporary Israelis and Palestinians. In a quick succession of days, we left the classroom to see and learn on the ground. We confronted the reality of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. We visited a Palestinian refugee camp and a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. We toured an Arab high school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lod, an Arab city within the state of Israel. During this summer’s clashes at the Al Aqsa mosque, we saw black smoke from the demonstrations and the police response rising above the Old City in an eerie parody of the Second Temple. We talked with students and activists about their hopes—and often lack of hope—for a lasting and just peace. And we also encountered many amazing teachers, activists, and scholars, some of whom I can now call friends. These people—Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Christian and Muslims, are small but clear points of light amid the fear and mistrust that often casts a pall on this land.
Reinhardt’s painting was nearly identical to all of his post-1954 works: a five by five foot square panel, painted dark, matte black. An initial glance, or a stroll through the gallery, would leave it at that. Stay in front of the painting, however, and let your eyes adjust to the light (or lack thereof), and the painting will reveal itself. Rather than a uniform black surface, Reinhardt’s panels are carefully divided into nine smaller squares of differing temperatures of black; if you wait long enough, you can see the slight differences in these 20”x 20” squares, which form the shape of a tic-tac-toe board – or of a cross.
Despite his friendship with Merton, Reinhardt was no Christian, and he was deeply suspicious of art being “used” for religious purposes, or for any other purpose besides “art-as-art,” as he named it. But if they have any religious referent, Reinhardt’s interest in Taoism and Zen Buddhism may have led him to choose this form as a framework of absence, as a depiction of enlightening darkness. After about twenty minutes, my eyes had adjusted enough for a flash of blue to leap out of the middle horizon, and then a burst of gold to blossom deep within the vertical center “stripe” of the painting. The various squares of black hovered in front of me, teasing my eyes with the prospect of more to see.
I must admit a certain perverse, prideful pleasure in front of a Reinhardt, being in the know as others walk past the black canvas and wonder why that guy is smiling in front of a plain black panel. As Barbara Rose, editor of Reinhardt’s Selected Writings said, the black paintings “are literally invisible except to the initiated and the committed viewer.” Not only are they invisible, but in line with his suspicion of the commercial uses to which art can be put, Reinhardt’s paintings are almost literally unconsumable. You can’t cross him off the list between Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack as you amble through the modern galleries. Catalogue reproductions of his paintings are woefully inadequate and disappointing. Each one is, in Reinhardt’s own words, “a free, unmanipulated and unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon.” No one tries to sell a postcard with a Reinhardt on it.
You can’t even divide your attention – if you look away to jot something in a notebook or, worse, check your phone, your eyes are ruined and you must wait another ten minutes for the painting become visible again. It’s clichéd but true that viewing a Reinhardt is a meditative experience, a Buddhist-like immersion in the painting’s now. The darkness and hidden complexity create a graced moment in which the painting is in control, and you must submit to its demands. This may be true of all art, but unlike a stern Rembrandt or a warm-and-fuzzy Monet, Reinhardt refuses to let you walk away with a surface impression of his reality – you see the colors of his darkness, or you see nothing.
There’s an easy way and hard way to compare my experiences in Israel to my encounter with this painting — and neither leaves it serenely alone, “art-as-art” as Reinhardt probably would have preferred. The easy way is to point to the hidden color in the darkness in both places, the blue and the gold tinges, as being like lights in darkness, candles of hope in the night, etc. etc. While that’s not the only or primary lesson that I learned from the serendipity (providence?) of encountering Reinhardt in Jerusalem. Rather, my short and intense time there gave me a deeper respect for the dark complexity of life in the Holy Land, and for the need to attend to its peoples and their stories humbly and with careful attention.
Like Reinhardt’s paintings, Jerusalem in 2017 refuses easy categorization or blithe comparisons. Christian mysticism and Reinhardt’s Zen Buddhism both name my experience as what the late medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa called “docta ignorantia,” “learned ignorance.” Indeed, Reinhardt cited Cusa in some unpublished notes: “How needful it is to enter into the darkness and to admit the coincidence of opposites, to seek the truth where impossibility meets us.” Cusa was talking about our knowledge of God, but we can be similarly ignorant of God’s people
We in the United States, and we in the Christian church and other religious communities, owe Jerusalem enough sustained attention for it to reveal itself to us. Sometimes that will require action, speech, and political movements, and that action can’t be put off forever, but such action needs to be rooted in patient attention to the Holy Land’s sparks of light and color, and to the depth and complexity of its darknesses.
As a visitor, I could only give Jerusalem the attention it deserves for a short while. Having had an encounter with the beauty and the complexity of the place, I am grateful to the fellowship organizers and to the people who shared their lives and stories with us. And the beauty of those people – these individuals and communities pursuing what one of our teachers called “the holy work of being human in a cruel world” – are what make me long to return soon and to give them again the attention they deserve.
I had given Ad Reinhardt as much attention as I could, which was less than his painting deserved. But I needed to head back to the Shalom Hartman Institute for our next study session. I looked at my watch and planned my next steps, and as I did, the painting closed, like the curtains being drawn in the doors of an iconostasis.