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November 2016


Abstract Painting, #34 (1964)

by Ad Reinhardt


What are the big take-aways?


On Wednesday morning November 9th, I woke up in Washington, D.C. to confirmation of what I had begun to understand by the time I’d gone to sleep late the night before: Donald J. Trump was president-elect of the Unites States of America.  As a serious Bernie Sanders supporter originally, I was deeply disquieted by the news.


Later that day, my husband and I visited the National Gallery of Art.  It was emotionally helpful to connect with evocative expressions of the human spirit, collectively so much vaster, more important and more enduring than my own.  Strolling past a monochromatic black painting the size of a large window, I immediately dismissed it as a clever and classic commentary on “what is art?”  But my gaze was inexplicably caught for a second beat, which I interpreted as an invitation to really interact with it.


What I noticed then, by allowing a slow immersion into the painting’s darkness, was a feeling of reassurance.  Committing to stick with the discomfort of the big black window (was I looking in, or looking out?), I watched all manner of distinctions start to emerge.  Pop, pop, pop.  Aha!  Soon, the sensation turned into something neutral and intriguing – like working a puzzle.   It occurred to me that a puzzle is always an opportunity to experience hope through discernment.


Why do I like it?


I like that this Ad Reinhardt piece mirrored my instinct to care about what’s happening geo-politically and to simultaneously remain non-attached.  We can only take action in response to events as they unfold.  While strategizing for the future and making adjustments as conditions evolve is wise, worrying doesn’t help.  Change is inevitable, so what matters is our willingness to converse with its inherent creative tensions which – similar to solving a puzzle – gives us our best chance of learning something useful.


As Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times about a series of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black paintings on view at the Guggenheim in 2008,


You let your eyes rest on them, and what you see changes, constantly: blacks change shades; reds and blues appear and fade. One minute you think you are looking at a grid or a cruciform; the next at a cloudy sky or a Monet landscape, dark like the negative of a photograph. Your vision is changing things; you are changing. The paintings are not. But they are, perhaps, leaving their trace on your psyche and memory. The mark may be permanent, whatever permanent means.


In other words, there is a durable power in recognizing that “[y]our vision is changing things; you are changing,” always.


In what situations would this be useful?


Meaningful art can support effective leadership over the long haul.  Speaking for myself, communing with this particular painting when I felt stunned, confused and paralyzed helped me to see exactly how – with enough patience – I have the ability to dismantle into manageable parts something that at first seemed monolithic and irrefutable.  What leader couldn’t benefit from such a reminder?


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


If you’re interested in more information about Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, I recommend Holland Cotter’s wonderful New York Times piece, “Tall Dark and Fragile,” in its entirety here.  For an engaging exploration of the social, political and spiritual texture of the black paintings that astutely quotes Ad Reinhardt himself, see this write-up in The Brooklyn Rail.


If you have my book, Seasons of Leadership: A Self-Coaching Guide, another interesting pairing with this painting might be the December essay about a four-step process for responding to sudden and difficult change, “Converting Crisis into a Turning Point.”


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