The development of Reinhardt's black paintings began in 1948 when he abandoned cursive markmaking for a geometric manner. His work became increasingly formalised over the next few years, 1950-53 marking the evolution to rigidly vertical and horizontal shapes in red, blue or green paintings. The trisected composition (which divided the square canvas into nine equal squares) first appeared in his work in 1952. By 1953 Reinhardt's work was predominantly monochromatic and increasingly monotonal, and by 1956 he had made the decision to paint dark paintings exclusively. The black paintings assumed various shapes, usually tall and narrow, but including square paintings of various sizes such as the Australian National Gallery's work. In 1960 Reinhardt further restricted the format of his work to a 5' square (152.6 x 152.6 cm), maintaining these dimensions until his death in 1967.
As a 6½-' square (198.4 x 198.4 cm) the Gallery's painting is larger than the size Reinhardt eventually decided was ideal, but Painting 1954-1958 anticipates the final configuration, a formula which the artist described as:
A square 'neutral, shapeless' canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man's outstretched arms 'not large, not small, sizeless', trisected 'no composition', one horizontal form negating one vertical form 'formless, no top, no bottom, directionless', three 'more or less' dark 'lightless' no- contrasting 'colourless' colours, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, freedhand painted surface 'glossless, textureless, non-linear, no hard edge, no soft edge' which does not reflect its surroundings — a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless relationless, disinterested painting — an object that is self-conscious 'no unconsciousness' ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art 'absolutely no anti-art'.1
The inscription in Reinhardt's hand on the backing-board of the Gallery's painting — 'Ad ReinHardt 1954-1958' — is not necessarily a reliable guide to the dating of this work. It was usual for Reinhardt to date his canvases as they left his studio for exhibition, according them the year they were first exhibited rather than the time he actually pained them. Months, even years, might elapse between the completion of a painting and its exhibition. The span dates inscribed by the artist — 1954 to 1958 — may broadly refer to the completion of the work in that period or to continued work on the painting over that period.
However, the extreme sensitivity of the surface of the black paintings (a single fingerprint can marr the entire painting) meant that Reinhardt often took it upon himself to restore his works after exhibiting them. In repainting the surface he often changed the work and it has been suggested that the span dates indicate 'that they were executed in two campaigns'.2
To date there is no firm evidence to confirm an earlier exhibition date than the 1963 showing at Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles. In the catalogue of the exhibition held at the Jewish Museum, New York, in the winter of 1966-67, the date 1954-58 is reiterated in the checklist prepared with the assistance of the artist. Abstract painting, black (private collection, Switzerland) is the only known painting of dimensions similar to those of the Gallery's work, the largest of the square paintings, and has also been dated to about 1954-56.3
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.286.