Published  01/02/1970

The stance of Barnett Newman

The stance of Barnett Newman

by Barbara Reise

Studio International, February 1970, Volume 179 Number 919

For me and many others, Barnett Newman establishes a prickly active presence of that something which has to do with the essence of being an artist and a human being. His standards of excellence and integrity for himself and everyone else are so awesomely wide-ranging that little has been written on him and that has been inadequate and fragmentary.1 No wonder, for the scope of his stance is such that no simplistic verbal categories fit: known primarily as a painter, he also expresses himself in sculpture, writing and even architecture; his interests, arguments and concerns range through philosophy, mythology, anthropology, ornithology, palaeontology, religion, politics, music – as well as the history of art, criticism, aesthetics and linguistics.

He is the modern Renaissance Man Old Master: accepting categories respected through human history, but always re-examining and re-making them within and through his own contributions. Other artists adapt; Newman’s art generates knowledge, terror, courage, pleasure, life; expressive of a context as historically particular as it is universally timeless.

I think that this generative quality has much to do with his manner of working. He is always direct in re-beginning at the beginning. He uses no preparatory drawings, nor does he apply a theoretical system or ritualised methodology. And he acts only when he thinks it is (morally) right: when he feels passionately that he has something to express of importance beyond himself – in a painting, an essay, or a one-man exhibition. In these statements, he is ruthless in limiting his language to the rudimentary essentials for clarity of expression: ‘For it is only the pure idea that has meaning. Everything else has everything else.’2

Part of the ‘everything else’ rejected by Newman has always been stylistic dogmas. Faced with the 1930s American fashion for the shoddy content and flaccid form of ‘Social Realism’ and the empty rigidity of pseudo-Mondrian geometric ‘Abstraction’, ‘In 1940, some of us woke up to find ourselves without hope — to find that painting did not really exist.’3 The immigration of the Surrealists during World War II opened up new possibilities, but presented equally dogmatic limitations:

‘The fact is that I was in opposition to the Surrealists. No question that the Surrealists made a great contribution by showing that it was possible to paint a subjective thought, a feeling, a subjective idea. No question that the Surrealists freed painting from its old subject matter of nature, of still life, the figure and formal abstraction. It is a debt that I willingly admit. But I found their dogmas, their subject-matter based on Freud and Marx, their techniques, and their failure to get away from the anecdote, to be without interest to me. My paintings are, in fact, a confrontation with Surrealism. Just as they are a confrontation with abstraction.’4

Certainly this double sort of confrontation is explicit in Newman’s paintings between 1945 and 1948. The mythic sensibility, primitive sexual allusions, human drama, and unstructured spaces of dreams associated with Surrealism are infused into the ‘abstract’ language of circles, lines and other almost-geometrical shapes. The ‘circle’ in Pagan Void has less heritage in the geometry of Bauhaus-Kandinsky than in the metaphysical sensuosity of the sexual generative act. In Euclidean Abyss and Genetic Moment of 1947, two linear bands enact a drama of sexual attraction and confrontation across an area as spatially mysterious as man’s subconscious or prehistoric past. If these bands can be read representationally as ‘figures’ from some nameless geometric form or primordial life viewed through a microscope, their essential character is that of human gravity-defying verticality whose colour and visual solidity holds tautly to the picture plane and its physical limits. This ‘pure plastic’ vitality is present even in Genetic Moment’s allusion to the notions of ‘moon’ and rough primeval forest: the circle’s reddish interior vibrates against its whiteness, animating its visual push against the bands’ attraction across the surface; the seemingly scrubbed ‘foliage’ is clearly painted in brushstrokes of such individuality of shape and colour interrelations that they scream ‘pure painting’ to the sensitized eye.5

As an alternative to Western Europe aesthetic ideas including Surrealism and Abstraction, in the aspiration ‘to start from scratch, to paint as if painting had never existed before’,6 Newman and his friends, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Pollock looked to art in its ‘beginnings’ in classically archaic, anthropologically primitive, and pre-historic times. Characteristically, Newman explored this sense of kinship with scholarly depths and active concreteness. In the 1940s he organized exhibitions, wrote catalogue introductions, and criticized contemporary understandings of Pre-Columbian Stone Sculpture, North-west Coast Indian Painting, and the Arts of the South Seas — constantly asserting their relevance to an understanding of the aspirations of himself and his friends.7 The line of thought in these writings culminated in the brilliant, purely created idea of the essay entitled ‘The First Man was an artist’ in the October 1947 issue of Tiger’s Eye. There, quarrelling with the philosophical basis of a recent palaeontological ‘discovery’ of the ‘first man’, Newman insisted on the importance of the ontological question ‘what’ to all scientific enquiry. He argued that the chronological and moral precedence of the aesthetic act over the social-utilitarian act established the ‘artist’ as answer to the timelessly relevant question ‘What is the first man?’ So closely did he identify with that ahistorical beginning that his examples for the metaphysically primordial human-aesthetic act read like anachronistic metaphors for his own subsequent work:

‘Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void.

‘Man’s first cry was a song. Man’s first address to a neighbour was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water.

... man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned an axe. Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.’

Onement No. 1, painted in January 1948, virtually represents the primitive aesthetic act of identifying a physically concrete line with the whole of a painting – like letting the cry of a consonant establish man’s ‘own self-awareness and ... his own helplessness before the void.’ More like ‘The First Man’ essay than Newman’s paintings of 1947, Onement No. 1 takes no defensively negative stance towards current art-world dogmas; it uses ostensibly primate plastic components to obtain an extraordinary thought complex; and it demands a sort of ontological agnosticism for full comprehension. What is ‘line’ there? The straight masking tape vertically bisecting the painting? Its edges? The agonized pigment impasto which overlays it like un-brushed cadmium red mud? Its edges? The vertically oriented bands laterally flanking the central ‘zip’ with their own regularity of uninfected surface? Their (canvas) edges? The only answer supportable by the painting itself is that ‘line’ is each of these and all; it is totally relational to and inextricable from the physical fact of the painting as a rectilinear whole. This would not be the case if Newman had stopped the vertical ‘line’ inside the painting’s physical limits. And if he had not limited ‘line’ to the primitive vertical of erect human stance, other concepts like ‘composition’ would have intruded upon the shocking directness of part to whole.

Here then is Newman’s contribution to ‘drawing’: not the freedom of ‘line’ from representation, nor its dissolution into merged edges, but the articulation of those relational measures (which we call ‘scale’ to differentiate from ‘size’) amongst infinitely variable vertical ‘constants’ in direct relation to the wholeness of a rectilinear entity. But the whole size of Onement No. 1 was related more to commercially standardized drawing paper and stretched canvasses than to that of a human being. And our direct understanding of scale is based on perceived relations with the various size of ourselves (both as whole physical bodies and relations of parts such as fingers to hands to arms to whole). Without this human scale relation, Onement No. 1 reads more as an idea about artistic scale than as a painting generating empathy with its own vitality through externally directed scale.

Newman obviously understood this, and the potential for direct involvement of a total human being in the larger sized formats of Rothko and Pollock at the time. For in 1949 his Abraham, Concord and Onement No. 3 had heights of six to seven feet; from a close viewing distance (which Newman requested in a note pinned to the wall of his first one-man exhibitions), such sizes fill the eyes as analogues of a heroic human height, establish empathy between their verticals and the wholeness of a human stance, and subtly accentuate the otherness of the paintings to any self-aware person. Since 1949 this ‘otherness’ has been explored by Newman in the variable usage of every conceivable ‘constant’ offered by the physical language of painting: size in relation to internally and externally directed scale; physical tangibility of material in canvas, pigment, and even masking tape; colour in terms of hue, tonal value and intensity, warmth and coolness, opacity or translucency – all relative to material and physical scale of area; line relative to rigidity of axis, edge, width of plane, and colouristic discretion from contiguous areas. And in this flexibility of language, Newman has created works which establish their own particularly discrete characterizations of space, mood, persona and place.

Take some of the paintings exhibited in his first one-man show at Betty Parsons in 1950, Abraham and Concord are both painted in thin oils with the translucency found in old master techniques of scumbling and glazing; both establish verticals of a visual tangibility through edges articulated by value contrasts shaded with the subtlety of sfumato. But Abraham presents a surface of relative consistent pigmentation; the double bands in Concord are actually strips of masking tape over-laid by the thinly swirled, scrubbed, brownish-ultramarine paint — using colour properties of different physical materials directly in a collage which has nothing to do with Cubism. Abraham evokes the solidity of the mourned great father of a race through the constancy of its relative darkness and width of bands taut against the painting’s surface. Concord establishes a particularly physical sense of place localized through the internal dialogue between the two seemingly rounded strips of tape; a place which seems to circulate a light and moisture-filled atmosphere spherically against and beyond the painting’s physical limits. Tundra also establishes a sense of place: but more through the evenly textured visual brilliance of its large field of slightly inflected orange shivering in assonance of hue with the off-centre vertical zip of red. Identification with this zip relates oneself with a light-exuding field so much larger than one’s lateral reach that the painting holds a terror through total scale which Burke would have recognized as ‘sublime’ rather than ‘beautiful’.

Or take Newman’s exhibition at Betty Parsons in 1951. It consisted mostly of work done in 1950 and early 1951 which had heights of about eight feet – just beyond human reach, if one credits Corbusier’s modular theory. But amongst these works there was a greater variety – both in individual expression and in interrelation with their environment – than was evident in the previous exhibition. Adam and Eve could be seen as a pair, although they were exhibited on separate walls of the same room in 1951. Similarly characterized as personae by widths comprehensible by human reach, they also work through matte, flat-edged verticals distinguished by colour within the warm end of the spectrum. Each has one lateral edge supported by a contiguous band – that on Adam’s left complimenting the thinner band on Eve’s right. But they have the ‘vive la difference’ of timeless mates capable of living independently — as they do. Adam is essentially masculine: an earthy warm surface firmly structured by verticals equi-distance from the lateral edges. On the right this vertical is a line receding in alizarin crimson; on the left it is an edge of the matte-surfaced band of pinkish vermilion overlaid with a sort of cadmium red light for a pulsating spatial glow. Eve is thoroughly feminine: a total glow of soft-surfaced brilliant cadmium orange expanding beyond its canvas limitations, a glow given shape solely through the shiny translucent, dark alizarin crimson edge which relates her to the red verticals of the more self-contained Adam. There was the unique The Voice. Its whitenesses are colouristically differentiated by the discretion between enamel and egg-tempera (yes, egg-tempera, with its thirteenth-century heritage). As an all-over ‘white on white’ painting it has the softness of a vowel slightly wider than square – and it is more romantically ‘impure’ in the subjectivity of its expression than the non-colour geometry-related absolutisms of earlier Malevich or later Reinhardt. There were the extraordinary Vir Heroicus Sublimis and The Wild: both using physical proportions with a dramatically externally directed scale, contrasts of hue and intensity rather than tonal value in colour, and strongly tactile experiences of pigment and canvas. Vir Heroicus Sublimis has an almost 18-foot width which fills one’s lateral vision and dominates one’s personal ‘place’ experience. Its close harmonies of colour – of intensities and hue between the flat-edged vertical zips and lateral expanse of red – complement the tactile softness of the canvas texture omnipresent through the thin matte pigment. This warm softness holds the crisp cool ‘logic’ of the bands’ placement, so that one’s empathy with any vertical carries a gently ordered participation with the ‘we’ of others.

The Wild is more physically violent: itself a material ‘zip’ as tall as the others but less than two inches wide, its dominating, searing gash of shiny cadmium red impasto seems to squeeze the translucent ultramarine base pigment into tenuously spatial lateral edges crispened by the edges of the frame which accentuates the painting’s protrusion from the wall. On one hand, The Wild is like an attenuated slice of the left side of Joshua, a small painting exhibited simultaneously; but its extreme contrasts in scale of colour, pigment, and physical proportions create an energy which bursts through its character as a physical line to radiate vitality into its environment.

From The Wild, it is not a surprising jump to an urge to work in free-standing sculpture; and Here I, made in wood and plaster at the time he was under pressure to complete paintings for his 1951 exhibition, seems an inevitable concretion of Newman’s concern with the physicality of the vertical. Again, it is not just the material uprights which achieve this, but the relation between two verticals establishing a spatial place (alluded to in Concord) around which one can walk. As in The Wild, the rough edges of one vertical slow vision along its axis and, with the slight curve closing the verticals towards the top, help to maintain attention within the piece. This curve (seldom evident in photographs) and the proportions of the base(s) also help to make Here I seem to rise, rather than to be gravitationally rooted in the existentially morose clay footwork of Giacometti’s Walking Men. The base also accentuates the interval between spatial and material verticals as a place ‘other’ than everyday useable space – a place as specially artistic in its human stance as the verticals in Newman’s paintings to which it relates.

I am not surprised that Newman’s 1950 and 1951 exhibitions met ignorance, hostility and complete incredulity on the part of the New York art establishment. Even today, in a context extraordinarily influenced by twenty years of Newman’s activity, his early work is still shocking in its variety of language, intensity of feeling, and austerity of scale dominated by wholeness. And when it was first exhibited, there was nothing to prepare the ground for its open reception: Pollock had worked in scale and size relating to a viewer’s body-sense as a whole; Rothko had used the tactility of canvas texture, and Still the tactility of torn impasto surfaces as integral parts of their painting’s expression. But no one had understood all these aspects of style as interrelated in the total plastic language of painting as related to sculpture. And no one had achieved such intensely poetic metaphors through austere means almost scientific in the isolation and exploration of individual phenomena. I doubt if Newman expected critics, curators and collectors to give up enough of the traditional props in approaching painting to comprehend his achievement instantaneously; but it must have hurt him deeply to find cool silence from his artist friends and colleagues at the ‘Subject of the Artist’ school as they simultaneously modified their sense of scale to his overall wholeness – and were praised and supported by museums and collectors on this basis.8

Even without this critical hostility it would not be surprising for Newman to have gone through a period of reflection and self-criticism after his wide-ranging burst of activity. He had never been one to ignore a work once ‘complete’. In the late 1940s he had ruminated over Onement No. 1 for a year, and he was disturbed by the sale of Euclidean Abyss from its immediate exhibition because it prevented him from living with and coming to grips with the painting. And in the early fifties he had a wealth of unsold work to live with, modify and improve, and instigate further explorations. Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Adam received additional stripes which improved their essential characters;9 more than ten years later the addition of a lateral edge band changed Resurrection so distinctly that it was re-titled Be II. These historical additions are not immediately apparent or intrinsically relevant in any of these paintings now. Just this fact points to Newman’s peculiar ability to stand outside even his own history to re-enter it through his particular sense of timeless time. It is as if his own body of ‘past’ painting and sculpture after 1950 formed a present context richer in potentialities than that of his contemporary or ‘primitive’ colleagues; and his confrontations with himself through his own past opened further possibilities as well.

In this past and future dialogue in the present, Newman’s work of the 1950s obviously plays a pivotal role. Ulysses of 1952 relates to both the earlier Abraham and Eve in format and pigmentation, but its physical proportions have the lofty dominance of the equally sized Now II of 1967. Onement No. 6 of 1953 relates to both the earlier Onements and the 1963–64 18 Cantos in format; but its scale of physical area relates to the earlier Tundra, while its colour scale of brilliant blue-white contrast relates to the 1967 Profile of Light. Adam’s colour scale of reds against brown extends that of Onement No. 1 and 3; its verticals equi-distant from the lateral edges can be seen as a precursor of the format of The Third (1962) and Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II (1967), while its opposition of lateral band and sharp line appears in the 1962 fifth and sixth Stations of the Cross. Adam is also roughly the size of The Gate of 1954; the colours of The Gate are virtually identical to those in Uriel of 1955; and Uriel is the same size as both the earlier Vir Heroicus Sublimis and the 1966–67 Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III.

Let’s look to the centre of this maelstrom, at Uriel and The Gate. Both establish verticals by the sharp juxtaposition of areas of colour different in pigment, texture, warmth, tonal value and hue. This is very different from the way in which verticals read as concrete entities separately coloured from their ground in Adam and Vir Heroicus Sublimis. It is as if Newman, after making the vertical physically concrete in Here I, was turning to the concrete physicality of pigmented, coloured surfaces in his paintings. The pale, cold sort of duck-egg ‘sky’ blue has a thin, opaque, very shiny surface that reflects as well as materializes light; it contrasts strongly with the recessive warmth of the indian-reddish brown and the more solid opaque brownish black. In The Gate these colours work with ironic tension: the blue beckons like open sky between dark encroaching walls, but its expansively solid light inhibits entrance and presses the soft warmth of its lateral flanks into compression strengths of architectural solidity. In Uriel, the almost 14-foot swath of pure blue glistens outwards like the Angel of Light visiting the earthy textural warmth of the scrubbed stained canvas at the right. The contrast in surface texture is a detail which is very important: just as it is to the impact of Here III of 1966. In Uriel the two colours’ meeting is isolated by white brushed edges into tripartite black-blue-brown bands compressed into a visual intensity different from the colours’ wider expanses. This region reads like a vertical horizon line establishing a place rather than a landscape; and it provides an internal focus of scale. In its overall effect, Uriel’s internal scale is less important than its external scale of pigmental surface directed externally to the viewer; this is an important shift from Vir Heroicus Sublimis, on the way to the almost purely externally directed scale of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III. This painting ‘works’ only when the viewer is in the place predetermined by the painting: centred, and close enough so that the painting’s blue and yellow lateral edges hit the lateral extremities of one’s visual perception. At this point, the elliptical nature of human sight bends the painting’s rectilinearity into a solid surface bulging forth from the wall through the aggression of its central cadmium red. The sort of inert internal, but intense external scale in ... Red, Yellow and Blue III is light miles away from Vir Heroicus Sublimis; but it is shared by more contemporary paintings like Now II and Profile of Light of 1967 and Anna’s Light of 1968.

In a sense, Newman had a physical, economic, and professional resurrection in 1958. Since then his work has been as widely varied as that exhibited in 1951, but its variety has been on a much larger and more complex scale. He has done series of paintings and lithographs, individual etchings and paintings; sculpture, but also the more public place problem of the monument and architecture. There seems to be a larger scope of relational consistency in his work, a greater apparent simplicity of means and expression, and an intensity of feeling ranging from agony to droll wit.

The agonized terror of Newman’s personal confrontation with death is objectified in the raw black against raw canvas of the 1958 paintings like Outcry. The outcry with which Newman was coming to grips from 1958 to 1966 was Lema Sabachthani: ‘My God, my God, why forsake me?’ — in the present tense characteristic of Newman’s focus on the Here and Now. In the first of the Stations of the Cross subtitled with this particular cry, the skinny un-primed zip at the right seems to screech like fingernails up and down a blackboard of dry-brushed edges, as if in terror of the solid vertical band which seems to move with the ominous slowness into the painting’s space. This painting almost shrieks vital terror in the face of death as an inevitable absolute: which is the essence of the cry of Jesus, the sacrifice of Abraham, the timeless tragedy of humanity begun with Adam – as well as the essential cry of each of the fourteen paintings in the series, and the series itself as a statement with its own poetic and historic, concrete limitations.

Symmetry within the spectrum of academic colour theory of the last century is recently combatted with witty irreverence in Newman’s series of Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. This series returns to Newman’s twenty-year-old confrontation with Neo-Plasticist dogmas, as well as constituting a confrontation with ‘colour-field painters’ like Poons, Noland and Olitski whose reticence in the face of such aggressive primary colours is noteworthy. The three paintings of this series have virtually identical colours, with the aggressive cadmium red dominating in area as well as in intensity. Numbers one and three have the same format of central red flanked by lateral edges of solid yellow versus transparently spatial ultramarine; the difference in lateral hue and band width makes asymmetry out of symmetry. A parallel in similarity of format and difference in scale-size is found in White and Hot and Anna’s Light; but their lateral whites work more sculpturally against the fullness of their central red, and their effect is more solidly physical than the optical planarity of the ... Red, Yellow and Blue series ... Red, Yellow and Blue II is less self-expressive as a particular object through colour-pigmentation, and more tough as a plane in which symmetry of position of line is allied to symmetry of primary colour; at first it reads like an intellectual exercise, but its dark blue centre and sharp light sides begin to buckle the surface into energies not unlike those of White Fire II.

Similar principles are used in Chartres to tackle the epitome of triangular symmetry by sheer position and area scale of the primary triad of colours. The lateral reds, confined to the lower half of the triangle, maintain one’s attraction to the sides and bottom of the painting and combat the upward sweep of the three blue verticals and the perspectival shape of the canvas. The central field of yellow radiates light against all the limitations of the canvas. But the difference amongst the blue vertical zips (ultramarine in the centre, thalo blue at the sides) is the ultimately vitalizing element in the painting – breaking the surface plane by spatial jumps as well as bending the yellows in arcs held by the lower red corners.

It is difficult for many to see the triangular shape of Chartres and Jericho as other than being a Newman version of ‘the shaped canvas’ of post-Stella and Noland popularity. Of course all canvases have ‘shape’, and Newman’s ‘internal shapes’ have taken cognizance of the ‘literal shape’ of their canvas limits for over twenty years. What distinguishes Newman’s triangular paintings from his others is primarily the obvious excitement of non-perpendicular, non-parallel relations between internal, verticals and external shape. The triangle, a more fixed geometric gestalt than the rectangle, is broken with more punch. That Newman’s interest in using a triangular canvas was related to his work on Broken Obelisk is not irrelevant.

For in monuments (not sculpture), the pyramid and obelisk have epitomized images of death and geometry since the time of the pharaohs; and three years before he began to plan Broken Obelisk, Newman had stated in the catalogue of The New American Painting (1959) that ‘It is precisely this death image, the grip of geometry that has to be confronted.’ He did just that, with an explicitness which is most literal in treating the obelisk as if it had been stood upside-down on the apex of the pyramid by some super-human hand, leaving rough edges to limit its skyward thrust; but the real break is made by the internal vertical axis, accentuated by pinching the overall triangular shape into a meeting point more powerful for its seeming fragility. But it was only in the late sixties that Newman gave such explicit combat to canvas shapes other than rectangles. Although he had used the rectangle in an exploratory way before, he had accepted its five-hundred-year tradition, and his shift is surely related to his involvement with his younger contemporaries as much as to the geometry which had plagued him for twenty years. This is not only apparent in the triangular canvases, but also in Shimmer Bright: the only painting I know in Newman’s oeuvre which uses a perfect square. Its white square is opposed and extended in the alteration of white and blue bands at the left – a format which relates to some of Noland’s work. But the translucent brilliancy of the blues, and their hold against rather than within the geometrical figure, makes Shimmer Bright more visually exciting and conceptually concrete than Noland’s more reticent painting.

The beautiful thing about this is that Newman is still in dialogue with his context – with other artists whose work interests him, no matter what their style, age, or public reputation. The character of his context has changed, but Newman’s erect and combatant stance in relation to his present and past has not. It is just more lofty in scale and wide-ranging in scope. A major retrospective of his work – all of it – is long overdue. It would be a concrete refutation of cherished art-world clichés like: ‘Painters are verbally inarticulate’; ‘Stylistic revolutions are made only by artists under thirty’; ‘Conceptual art requires the negation of objects’; ‘An artist over fifty is relatively dead’; ‘A sense of history inhibits creativity.’

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