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Divide and Conquer

Barnett Newman

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Ann Temkin, with essays by Ann Temkin and Richard Shiff, and contributions by Suzanne Penn and Melissa Ho
an exhibition held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 24–July 7, 2002, and at Tate Modern, London, September 9, 2002–January 5, 2003.
Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 351 pp., $65.00

Although Barnett Newman, through his writings, did as much as any other single figure to create the climate in which Abstract Expressionism was to be born and subsequently to flourish, he was the least expressionistic of the Abstract Expressionists. Alfred Barr was until the last moment doubtful about including him in the exhibition entitled “The New American Painting” launched by MOMA in 1958,1 because he didn’t appear to fit into it comfortably. Newman was probably pleased to get the recognition but he would also have been pleased about the doubt; throughout his career he refused to be categorized.

Newman was in many respects the most radical of the Abstract Expressionists and certainly the least productive. The exhibition which opened in Philadelphia last March and was on view at Tate Modern in London until early January included some seventy paintings, just over half his works on canvas, and almost all his graphic work (even more restricted in terms of number). Newman was also the most erudite of the Abstract Expressionists. A man of dignified bearing, he was invariably referred to as Barney, even by those who did not know him. Apart from Andy Warhol, I can think of no other major artist of the twentieth century (and of very few of the more distant past) who was known universally by his nickname. Even today young artists speak of “Barney” and view him as a sort of universal uncle. Andy was to fall somewhat irreverently under Barney’s spell. In an interview given shortly after Newman’s death in 1970 he said, “The only way I knew Barney was I think Barney went to more parties than I did…. Maybe he didn’t have to work a lot if he just painted one line, so he had time for parties.” The reference is to Newman’s visual or painterly signature: his invention of the vertical stripe, or “zip.”

Newman found his vocation during the 1930s, when he was in his twenties; but he was the slowest of developers and during the 1940s he was known primarily as a writer and organizer of exhibitions. It is doubtful whether even his closest associates at the time, men such as Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, took him seriously as a painter, although they welcomed him as a spokesman and herald. In 1943 Newman wrote a foreword to the catalog for the first exhibition of American Modern Artists, held at the Riverside Museum in New York and a protest against the Metropolitan’s exclusion of progressive art from its juried exhibitions. Newman himself was not a member of AMA, but during the 1930s he was politically active and was responsible for the composition of a manifesto, “On the Need for Political Action by Men of Culture.” He was to remain the most politically conscious of all his painter colleagues and clung throughout his life to the independent anarchistic views he had formulated in youth. In 1968, the year that he produced Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, his only overtly political visual statement, he wrote a foreword to a new edition of Kropotkin’s memoirs. During the 1940s his writings on art are apocalyptic, even messianic in tone, although his style is simultaneously tinged with a certain jauntiness that seems at odds with the fervor of his message. Despite the monolithic character of his mature artistic output, his aesthetics were not devoid of contradictions.

None of Newman’s very early work survives. It is possible that he destroyed it, possible, too, that little got executed. For from the start he was aware of the fact that when he came to formulate his own visual language it would have to be of a completely new order. In an interview in 1970 he said, “When Hitler was ravaging Europe [could we] express ourselves by having a beautiful girl lying naked on a divan? I felt the issue in those years was—what can a painter do?” As a first-generation American he felt deeply that a new art must be specifically American. His earliest surviving works, of 1944–1945, executed when he was around forty, show him putting fragments of nature under a hypothetical microscope. Seed-like shapes and others designating opening pods or egg cells are evocative of plant life and germination. In some, upright linear forms reminiscent of saplings—zips in embryo—are sexually differentiated and are surrounded by sperm-like squiggles. To this extent these Newmans bear comparison with roughly contemporary works by Arshile Gorky and André Masson, artists who were supremely aware of the sexuality of nature. By contrast Newman’s works look dry and sometimes even diagrammatic, thought processes made visible. Although he saw himself as a romantic, and his writings confirm this, often to a somewhat embarrassing extent, he was also of a scientific disposition: he was interested in botany and was a passionate ornithologist.

Newman experienced his moment of revelation on his forty-third birthday, January 29, 1948. During the previous two years he had been executing oils on canvas (earlier works are in mixed media), experimenting with the use of masking tape to divide the picture surface into separate areas which he then embellished or treated in deliberately varied techniques. Almost all of these featured upright, often slightly bent or tapering bands that read like shafts of light and convey somewhat mystic implications. Now, in the picture that was to become known as Onement I, he laid down a strip of masking tape, vertically, on a canvas stained Indian red, presumably with a view to subsequently modifying the adjacent areas. On an impulse he covered the tape with cadmium red, squeezed directly from the tube and flattened roughly with a palette knife. The zip had been born, and within a matter of moments Newman had created the tabula rasa that he felt must lie behind a new and simplified art that would yet be charged with meaning and emotional depth. The cadmium strip, he felt, now “declared” the space on its sides rather than simply dividing it.

Newman was then finding visual and literary inspiration in pre-Columbian and Northwest American tribal and ethnic art; in view of this it is a source of some wonderment that masking tape, invented in America for commercial purposes in 1925 to facilitate the decoration of two-tone motor cars, should have led him to the path down which he strode in his search for the sublime. He was to use it for the rest of his life. In its reductiveness and in the possibilities it opened up for other artists, Onement I can be compared only to Malevich’s Black Square of 1915.

Newman originally referred to his thin uprights as “bands” or “stripes,” but in an interview of 1966 his by-then close friend Thomas Hess, the editor of Art News, suggested “zips,” and Newman saw how the word fitted his intentions perfectly. The zips read as lines with a double-edged effect: when we read a Newman upward the zip seems to pull the areas to the sides together; read downward it pushes them apart. At a different and psychological level we measure ourselves as viewers up to the verticals; they force a sense of scale upon us. In his 1947 essay “The First Man Was an Artist,” Newman wrote,

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 hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick.

With Onement I Newman had dragged his metaphorical stick through the metaphorical primeval mud, even if he did it with the knowledge of several decades of sophisticated abstract painting behind him. And he had found himself: “The self, terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting,” he declared.

When we take account of the importance that Newman came to attach to titles—and he clearly felt the titles gave to the works greater presence and resonance—it comes as something of a surprise that he only began assigning them in 1957 and 1958. Onement I was originally shown, untitled, at Newman’s first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. However, against a checklist to his exhibition of the following year, at the same gallery, he had written opposite Onement II the word “atonement,” an indication of how his mind was already working. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, signifies the act of atonement which shrives the believer of past sins and prepares the way for a new beginning. “Onement” also conveys the sense of male and female conjoining.

The extent of the influence of Judaic belief on Newman’s art is the subject of some controversy. Newman’s father, though not a practicing Jew, was a passionate Zionist. Newman taught himself Yiddish simply in order to be able to read New York’s only remaining anarchist newspaper. Hess, writing in 1969 and 1971, stressed strongly the effect upon Newman of his Jewish heritage. Harold Rosenberg in his monograph of 1978 presents his hero almost as someone out of the Old Testament. Clement Greenberg, a formalist critic, in an essay of 1958 which introduced Newman’s exhibition at Bennington College, emphasizes simply his originality as both a painter and thinker: “[Newman’s] art is all statement, all content; and fullness of content can be attained through an execution that calls the least possible attention to itself.” In fact Newman drew upon a wealth of different cultures and philosophies—Greek and Christian as well as Judaic—not only for his titles but for his cultural support system. It is perhaps this which makes his work, despite its reductiveness, so varied and so layered in meaning and content.

Despite his rejection of the idea of formalism, the late Forties and early Fifties were a time of intense painterly experiment. Newman had a grudging respect for Mondrian and saw him as one of the most original artists of his age, although he could also be quite nasty about his work (“founded on bad philosophy and on faulty logic”). But he also condemned him as a formalist—“the geometry swallowed up his metaphysics.” In fact Mondrian, like Newman, worked intuitively, and although until the last years of his life Newman avoided geometry and symmetry, he did keep a notebook in which he jotted down measurements and proportions for future reference. Then again, despite his harping on “the tragic” (Mondrian said the tragic was exactly what he tried to eliminate from his art), Newman, like Mondrian, was basically an optimist in his belief that art could transform life for the better. Above all Newman shared with Mondrian the ability to vary his deliberately limited set of principles from picture to picture so that each canvas he produced had a slightly different presence or personality. And Mondrian remains the artist of the past to whom Newman can be most fruitfully compared.

  1. 1

    This was a traveling exhibition which toured European cities, making an enormous impact. It reached MOMA itself in 1959.

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