Ad Reinhardt was born Adolph Dietrich Friedrich Reinhardt in 1913 in Buffalo, New York. Shortly after he was born, his family moved to Queens, New York. As a child he copied "funnies" and made collages from newspapers and won many school and community prizes for his artwork. In the fall of 1931 he entered Columbia University and studied art history under Meyer Schapiro, who encouraged him to get involved in radical campus politics. Reinhardt became the editor and cover designer of Jester, a campus magazine. After graduating in 1935, he trained as a painter at the National Academy of Design under Karl Anderson, and at the American Artists School under Francis Criss and Carl Holty, until 1937. At this time he joined American Abstract Artists and became affiliated with American artistic-political groups and other artist organizations. From 1936 to 1941 he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project, Easel Division, while simultaneously developing his mature style of linear, abstract painting.
When his work for the Federal Art Project ended, Reinhardt worked as a commercial and freelance writer and graphic artist for pamphlets and magazines. Most notably, he was a reporter and cartoonist for the newspaper PM from 1942 to 1947. After serving in the Navy from 1946 to 1947, he took a position as an art history professor at Brooklyn College where he taught for twenty years. During his career as a professor he was also a visiting lecturer at several universities, including Yale University from 1952 to 1953, and the California School of Fine Arts in 1950. Reinhardt had a keen interest in Asiatic art and would often lecture and write on this subject. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he traveled to Japan, India, Persia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.
Reinhardt began exhibiting his paintings early in his career. In 1946 he joined the Betty Parsons Gallery, which also represented many other prominent Abstract Expressionists, including Mark Rothko, Barnet Newman, and Jackson Pollock. Reinhardt rejected the emotionalism found in Abstract Expressionism and sought to produce geometric, minimalist paintings. In developing his own aesthetic theory, he wrote extensively for art periodicals such as Art News and Art International. His artwork culminated in the 1960s with his series of black paintings, which drew much attention from the art community and the public. A major retrospective of his work was held at the Jewish Museum in New York, NY, in 1960. Reinhardt continued to write and work on his series of black paintings until his death in 1967.