I’m reading through my old papers to determine which (un?)lucky ones will be submitted as writing samples for good ol’ grad apps. I came across a paper I wrote on Barnett Newman, a contemporary artist who was…. intriguing and complicated, to say the least. I remember the joke I made as I turned the paper in: people would ask what I wrote about, and I would giggle and say, ‘I have no fucking idea’. I was frustrated by contemporary art at first. I found the aesthetic evolution following the second World War annoying, pompous even. With the advent of photography and a profound, fresh tragedy at their heels, postwar artists were eager to do away with the Western ideal of artistic representation. It suddenly became about the idea, not about the image. It wasn’t the artist’s talent, but their inherent originiality. God, what a cop out, I remember thinking. And yet, you have artists like Barnett Newman, like Mark Rothko. Their genius exists in the very simplicity of their work. You could spout that it doesn’t take an artist to paint two different colored blocks next to each other, but then you may never have experienced a Rothko properly exhibited, or at all. The right visual placement, the correct lighting; He can have this beautiful effect on your soul. It’s like enveloping your heart in warm, vanilla-scented cream… ha at least that’s how I envision it, because I’m a food fatty. And Newman, though exceedingly intellectual in his work, almost to a contradictory fault, manages to portray a singular moment of time in a thin line of paint. You may have no idea who he was, but if you saw Onement I, you would still get the sense of a beginning… perhaps the moment of creation? Ah-mazing.
Anydangways, I myself am having a pompous moment so I’m posting this ol’ pape for ya. LOOK AND MARVEL AT MY BRAINS MWAHAHAHAHAHA:
Abstract expressionism in post-World War II New York contained a plethora of intellectuals and artists struggling to find the new language of painting, what it should represent and how it should be represented. Among the chief theorists was Barnett Newman, whose writings and musings on the proper progression of modern art culminated into his relatively late career as an artist. In his work as in his writings, a few common themes may be established, including a sense of spirituality, a desire to create sublime art, an interest in origins and the sense of time. When taken together, all these ideologies conclude a yearning to create a connection with humanity, in a sense a bridge between divinity and humanity. Many critics (including Newman himself) have argued that there are many approaches and ideas to consider when looking at his work, and they caution against getting too distracted in applying a religious undertone. Yet by using the term divinity, I mean more than religion. Every aspect of Newman’s writings and his subsequent work are interrelated, bound up in this obsession with creating a sublime image for the viewer. All the elements he uses to create this image hint at a higher purpose, to connect the viewer with a higher level of emotion and experience. With this in mind, one wonders if Newman accomplishes this precarious position. In a way he does, and in a way he falls short. His theories knit together so precisely as to almost hinder his overall agenda. Through careful consideration of the evolution of his artistic ideology in conjunction with his art (the product of that ideology), Newman’s aspirations to become that bridge may become more clear, as well as the degree to which he succeeds.
Barnett Newman was an art critic and a writer long before he was an artist, and it cannot be denied that his vision, not his natural talent, was his road to renown. His affinity for critical evaluation leapt into his quest for the new direction of modern art, incidentally furthered by the individualistic nature of the New York art scene. Abstract artists were becoming competitive in the crucial search for content. Obsessions formed over formal innovation, where recognition meant you said it, or did it, first . Newman’s sense of firstness, while certainly evident in his writings, is of a different nature. In the cultural aftermath of World War II, Newman felt that painting was dead and in dire need of rebirth. He felt that painters needed “to start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before.” This emphasis on origins takes prevalence in Newman’s search for subject matter.
In a span of four or five essays one can see the development of Newman’s chief theory. He heavily criticized the western tradition of painting and the need to abandon it. The European artist was unable to break free of the Greek ideal inherent in western art, with its emphasis on beauty as ideal form, tragedy as ideal content . The American artist, unhindered by his past, was better suited to “come closer to the sources of the tragic emotion” . Even though modern art was trying to dismiss painting conventions in order to find a new subject matter, it was not being given recognition unless it was compared to and equated the same value as its western predecessors . Newman emphatically argued that there was no progress with tradition, and since modernism’s inception it worked to overthrow tradition’s stranglehold on representation. In his eyes Courbet implemented a new color aesthetic, and the post-impressionists took it further by redefining drawing and form through shape . Now, the artist’s job was to move away from naturalistic representation and continue that inspection, “…for it is in the simplest of shapes that we find the secret of all shapes” . To hide behind nature was to obscure the viewer’s eyes and distract them from real truths. Thus depicting nature, the visual world, with its emphasis on beauty was in direct opposition to humanity’s desire to relate to the absolute. In essence, this was a moral struggle between beauty and sublimity .
For Newman, this struggle was exemplified by the clash between Renaissance and modern art. Though apparently the Renaissance flourished in its representations of the absolute beauty of the Christ legend , these representations were not sublime. Though the impressionists managed to destroy ‘beauty’, they had no substitute to create a sublime image, and Picasso attempted the sublime but remained concerned with the nature of beauty . Newman’s contemporary, Mondrian, striving to create a ‘pure subject matter’, was still hung up on geometry as an ideal; to Newman, “the geometry (perfection) swallowed up his metaphysics (his exaltation)” . So what then, was Newman’s idea of proper sublime subject matter? Representational art was nature imitated, and geometric abstraction was nature idealized into form. Newman decided that through non-geometric abstraction man could deny the art/beauty connection in order to reassert his desire for the exalted. Here he would achieve real and concrete images, in effect “embody the sublime in its purest form” .
Yet Newman’s version of the sublime is fraught with contradictions. In ‘The Sublime is Now’ Newman approaches the respective theories of both Burke and Kant, essentially siding with Burke, who stresses that the sublime exists in Man’s experience of awe- or terror-inspiring phenomena. He dismisses Kant’s idea that the sublime is not just the experience itself, but a human’s “capacity to affirm itself rationally in the face of such overwhelming and terrifying phenomena” . Yet he refutes his choice in earlier writings and his ideas regarding the primitive artist . For Newman the magic is in the act of creation. When confronting the unknowable, our creative act (i.e. creating images that resonate as ‘pure ideas’ in our rational response to the unknowable) is what makes us human, not the experience alone .
All the elements of Newman’s ideology, including the flaws, must be considered when approaching his art. From the beginning, his interest in origins reigns supreme in his thematic. As for method he had discovered that non-geometric abstraction was truly sublime content for a sublime image . Yet in his earlier paintings, one still sees him working through these problems. It isn’t until Onement I that he finds his tabula rasa, the point from which all his future work departs.
His Genetic Moment of 1947 (fig. 1), though not really a figurative painting, has other elements that allow for interpretation. Two tree trunk-like shapes sit on either side of a circle, recalling genetic emblems. On the left the female component, a slender stroke that splits at the bottom to reveal an abstracted pubic triangle. On the right the male element appears to stand with rigid force with a phallic extension. The circle between the two emanates energy of some kind. It could possibly be an allusion to the sun, though a horizon is indeterminable. It could be an egg about to be fertilized, surrounded by smeary brushstrokes reminiscent of sperm. Is this Newman’s call back to a prehistory? To the moment, as though viewed under a microscope, of creation itself?
At this point Newman’s “painted thought processes” embodied the idea, but there remained problems in portraying it. Genetic Moment spoke to creation and origins, it did not make the impact of being confronted with the moment of creation. Newman wanted his paintings to be, be the moment that had arrived. He was obsessed with time, in that “time equals the picture itself” . Newman was close to his breakthrough, as was evident in another essay at this time, ‘The Ideographic Picture’. In this exhibition forward for the Betty Parsons’ Gallery Newman was struggling with his craving for a new type of picture . He admired the primitive artists he was discussing, and like them wanted to create a shape that was a living thing, a “vehicle for an abstract thought complex” . For clearer distinction he turned to the dictionary for the term ideograph, “a character, symbol or figure which suggests the idea of an object without saying its name” . Newman had pinpointed the exact format in which he wanted to present his art. Not just sublime content, not just non-geometric abstraction. The whole package was an ideograph.
Genetic Moment was close but no cigar. It contained the idea of creation, but it wasn’t the idea itself. The making of his Onement I, 1948, (fig. 2) marked his absolute, his line in the mud. Onement I is a relatively small canvas, 27” x 16”, with a ground of dark cadmium red, bisected by a narrow stripe of light cadmium red. Its simplicity marks Newman’s triumph in a “totality in reduction, wholeness and harmony” . The subject matter is essentially the same as Genetic Moment, but much had changed. Before, Newman’s attempts to create an atmospheric ground and thus depth revealed a pre-existing notion in his mind as he painted. Newman imagined ideographs and put them on the canvas, thus representing them, not creating one. Onement I was entirely intuitive, and because the meaning Newman sought was not embodied before it was painted allowed for a direct translation onto the canvas . Newman had created the ideograph of creation, his abstract image was now imbued with life.
There is a definite sense of spirituality infused in Onement I. The aura of the work is analogous, a human’s desire to define themselves in relation to the infinite or the unknown. Newman’s title refers to events of the Kabbalist Yom Kippur, ‘At-onement’, or Atonement, during which one meditates on “the coming which symbolizes rebirth and the possibility of a new and radiant life” . The ‘zip’ in the center acts as a two-edged line, simultaneously dividing and merging the two sections of the canvas, and in the process achieves its own self-definition in relation to the color field . The zip is presence, of the artist and that artist’s creative act , in essence announcing itself to the viewer, ‘here I am’. Newman accomplishes a face-to-face relationship between the painting and the viewer, a bare bones encounter in which “the message is the presentation, but it presents nothing; it is, that is, presence” . Newman was able to take the idea of creation and push it into the present to directly confront the viewer. Is this not the epitome of creating a bridge between humanity and divinity? It’s as if the gendered elements of Genetic Moment have merged into one , thereby marking in a flash of an instant, the act of our origin in this world. There we stand, confronting the unknown directly.
By the 1950’s, Newman decided to increase the scale of his paintings, thinking that ‘scale equals feeling’ . The increased size indicated increased presence, of “being somewhere as much as of looking at something” . Two of his monumental works, Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Uriel, are exemplary in conveying how his ideology progressed to make a stronger image. Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51 (fig. 3), with its extensive canvas of intense red, broken by five zips spaced intermittently, certainly inspires a feeling of awe. The intensity in size and color palette was intended to indicate “man’s attempt to transcend his human limitations and hence his desire to act in a god-like way” , and in turn inspire a presence of divinity itself. The fact that Newman required his viewers to look at these works from a short distance must have enhanced this emotional experience. Uriel, 1955 (fig. 4), pushes further an aura of the human struggle towards unattainable perfection . Its title refers to the angel of light from the Torah who brought the flame to earth, instead of Prometheus. In his monumental paintings Newman appeared to work in a spiritual style of Annunciations and Epiphanies, moments of great amazement . In his larger canvases especially, it takes no time to absorb, “the feeling of the instant is instantaneous” .
The passion to communicate this sublimity, this feeling of awe in face of the unknown, has evidence enough, but does it effectively converse with the viewer? Does this grand idea make itself known? In Newman’s ‘The Sublime is Now’, he stipulates that “the image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history” . But does Onement I and his subsequent work project an obvious message? Newman’s effort to establish a level of interpretation becomes a double-edged sword. He had succeeded in creating an image that was an ideograph itself, a sublime image of transcendent quality. Yet he created problems by determining a set of stipulations in how to make that image. Newman narrowed it down to transcendent sublimity and non-geometric abstract art , but this technique ended up being both the solution and the poison. To do away with any recognizable elements leaves the viewer with lack of ability to interpret. The titles themselves allow for some guidance, but this is problematic as well. Newman stressed that his paintings were ‘anti-anecdotal’, thus one must not look for subject matter in the title, but rather connotations of “the ultimate and universal experience of the sublime” . It seems that if looking to the title (even if it is a flawed direction) is one of the viewer’s only interpretative aides, it is unlikely that the image’s message is clear. Unless one is familiar with Newman’s theory, how can one interpret Onement I, Vir Heroicus Sublimis or Uriel?
Interpretative issues aside, by defining his practice so stringently, Newman creates a certain lack of ability for his art to evolve. Though he creates many different approaches to his zip/color field format, in that format it remains. Apart from affecting Newman himself, it affects the viewer’s ability to continually, if at all, experience the sublime in his work. To reduce sublimity essentially to a formula generates repetition. To the viewer, this repetition has a negative affect on the availability of emotional experience, and in a way Newman almost “deadens all but [the viewer’s] intellectual sensitivity” . Does Newman most effectively embody the sublime in his art by stripping away all pictorial elements that could prove ‘distracting’? Or are these discarded pictorial elements necessary to instill in the viewer that moment of ‘ah!’ in an instant, of the sublime?
Newman was headstrong in his determination to discover the new avenue down which to lead modern art practice. He held his beliefs strongly, and thus wanted to project a strong image and a strong idea to his viewers. But it appears his resolve had a tendency to hinder his overall mission. It would seem that though the viewer, when looking at works like Onement I or Vir Heroicus Sublimis, may gather some sense of divinity from the work itself, the whole package may not be interpreted correctly without prior knowledge of the vision behind it. Certainly Barnett Newman accomplished part of his task, but perhaps not to the degree which he wished. He transferred his passion for the arts into his art, and in his oeuvre it cannot be denied that a grand statement was made. Though that grand statement is at least recognized as such, it is doubtful if his works instilled that majestic sense of the sublime in many of his later viewers.
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