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.
Here it is worth mentioning that after his arrival in New York Mondrian began working extensively with colored adhesive tape and that MOMA staged an exhibition of his unfinished work in 1945, three years before Onement I was painted. On the other hand Newman’s use of the zip and of masking tape was consciously and astonishingly varied. Sometimes he simply removed the tape to expose the raw canvas that he had scrupulously washed, rinsed, and dried so that it would not have too much texture and character of its own: “I then am in a better position to put my life into the canvas.” Often zips were allowed to bleed, producing softer edges, or were jaggedly inserted between the tapes. A favorite device was to feather the outer edges of the zips with dry, brushy paint strokes before the tape was removed. A historically important painting, The Wild of 1950, which is almost eight feet high but less than two inches across, is all zip and might be labeled Portrait of a Zip. It looks forward to Dan Flavin’s upright fluorescent neon strips.
As with zips, so with their surrounds. Newman achieved variety by working in different media (egg tempera and enamel as well as oil paint in a single work, for example) and this has rendered the surfaces of his paintings vulnerable and hard to clean or restore. There are many that cannot travel for reasons of conservation. Blue can overlie washes of green, to cool it, or conversely blacks can be made warmer by being laid down over softer browns. When the zips are widened into more architectural shapes and particularly when they are moved to the edges of the canvas there is sometimes a deliberate ambiguity about what is zip and what is ground. The supreme example of this comes in a vast blazing red and white canvas of 1968 called Anna’s Light (approximately nine feet high by twenty feet across). Is the all-dominant red a ground being held in place by the white uprights at its edges, or are we looking at the thickest red line ever painted, placed on a white ground?
Scale was beginning to obsess Newman by early in 1950. The use of very large formats had been pioneered largely by Clyfford Still. By the late 1940s Pollock had come to recognize that his work was poised somewhere between easel painting and the mural. Soon after this Newman decided that “scale equals feeling.” The question of scale brought with it the whole question of the sublime which Newman had already addressed in his essay of 1948, “The Sublime Is Now.” It is one of Newman’s most exhilarating literary efforts even though his conclusions are as reductive as his paintings were to become. European thinkers of the past—and these included Kant and Hegel as well as Burke—had pondered at some length on the different ways we apprehend ideal beauty and the grandeur of the sublime which thrills yet overawes us. To them all, Newman had a simple answer: just get rid of ideal beauty and with it all European art deriving from a classical or Renaissance tradition. Newman had never been in search of perfection. And it is true that if we stand back from many of his paintings and try to grasp them as compositions from a distance, some of the relationships of color become awkward (as they do in reproductions).
But Newman didn’t want his large paintings treated as if they were ordinary, gallery, or museum-sized pictures. He urged his viewer to stand close to the pictures and walk up and down in front of them, treating them as if they were places rather than objects. In 1949 Newman had visited the Native American earthworks in Ohio and had been overwhelmed by the emptiness and potency of the atmosphere. He wrote to a friend, “Talk about art for the wild and in the wild—It is overwhelming.” Seeing a gigantic Newman is more like being or going somewhere than like looking at a picture.
Newman enjoyed working on paired canvases of the same dimension, although he insisted that they were equally valid seen separately. The grandest of these are Vir Heroicus Sublimis of 1950–1951 and Cathedra of the latter year. The former is a red painting and the latter a blue one. Both measure eight by eighteen feet. Despite his distrust of mathematical calculation he was attached to the figure eighteen, which is highly significant in Judaic mystical thought, corresponding to the word chai, or “life.” The canvases can be seen, by implication at least, as thematically complementary. The one suggests man’s desire to act in a godlike way, the other, the Chair or presence of divinity itself. Speaking of Cathedra, Newman invoked Isaiah’s vision: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. The train of his mantle filled the temple.”
Both paintings make use of what Hess called Newman’s “secret symmetry.” At its simplest this involved the implicit division of the canvas into units and subsequently the addition (or subtraction) of a zip or stripe from one unit which would otherwise be identical to it. Thus insofar as Newman used geometry, it was dislocated. In Cathedra two eight-foot squares are separated by an off-white band, but symmetry is concealed or avoided by the way a subsidiary pale blue zip seems to unite the right-hand square to the area at the edge of the canvas beyond it, of the same blue, thus transforming it into a rectangle. Vir Heroicus (now in MOMA) was seen in the Philadelphia exhibit but was deemed too vulnerable to cross the Atlantic, and its absence at Tate Modern was much felt. Cathedra, a vandalized picture, has been carefully and lovingly restored, but its surfaces are so fragile that it will never again leave the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where it is now housed.
Newman had his first heart attack at the end of November 1957. He had been unable to finish a painting for the previous two years, but his brush with death acted as “instant psychoanalysis.” He now produced another narrow portrait of a zip, Outcry, a jagged, emotive black upright which virtually cancels the pale ground behind it. In both its title and its visual intensity it anticipates The Stations of the Cross, which occupied him for eight years between 1958 and 1966. These mark a pivotal point in his career and constituted one of the glories of the recent exhibition. He said,
It was while painting them that it came to me that I had something particular here. It was at that moment that the intensity that I felt the paintings had made me think of them as the Stations of the Cross. It is as I work that the work itself begins to have an effect on me. Just as I affect the canvas, so does the canvas affect me.
The complete series was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966 under the title The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani.2 To the fourteen paintings Newman added another, Be II of 1961 to 1964, which he felt belonged with them.
These are the only works by Newman (if we except his graphics) which can be conceived of as a true series. They do not represent successive stages of the Calvary but rather are variations on a single cry. The canvases are not large by Newman’s standards (seventy-eight by sixty inches), and just above the proportionate dimensions of a human figure with arms reaching upward or outstretched.
For them Newman chose the most restricted palette at his command: black, white, and the raw canvas itself. Because of this, and faced by the series as a whole, we become aware more than ever before both of the empiricism of Newman’s art and of the variety of his handling of the zip and of its expressive possibilities. The first six paintings employ a broad black band adhering to the left-hand edge of the support, treated always slightly differently; the zips, even more diversely handled, are to the right, tracing paths up and down the light ground. In the seventh Station the black zip has been broadened into a slab and moved to the right edge, and in the eighth band and zip have been given equal weight. The next three Stations abandon black and simply play off-whites against bare canvas, giving the return to a more insistent use of black in the next two paintings dramatic impact. The final Station is the palest and emptiest of all. Of a painting related to the series, Black Fire of 1961, Newman talked of striving for “the living quality of color without the use of color.” He achieved it.
Because of the emotive implications of the title Newman chose for the great series, critics have discussed it in relationship to the Holocaust. Newman never talked of the Holocaust publicly, but clearly it was deeply ingrained in his consciousness. Art dealing with the tragedy had often used the Crucifixion as a metaphor for it.3 Newman was proud of his Jewishness but he rejected the idea of being classified as a Jewish artist. His ambitions as an artist were more universal. On a trip to Europe in 1964 he had encountered Matthias Grünewald’s painting of the Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece at Colmar and considered it “maybe the greatest painting in Europe.” Significantly it was not just the overwhelming power of the altarpiece itself that had moved him, but the fact that it had been originally erected and placed in a hospital for syphilitics. He said, “Now this is one of the boldest things that anyone can have done. I think this is part of his genius.” Surely the Stations are really about human endurance in the face of terrible suffering.
Installation photographs of the Stations at the Guggenheim reveal that although the building’s architecture was not entirely sympathetic to the paintings—the ramp and the curved shallow staircase descending into the more box-like lower-floor gallery interfere with the purity of Newman’s simple verticals—they were nevertheless displayed in such a way that the viewer had constantly in mind a system of cross-referencing backward and forward from painting to painting. In other words a visit to the exhibition involved not only a journey through time, and from place to place, but also a journey through memory—time recaptured from painting to painting. In 1949, after his visit to the earthworks in Ohio, Newman had written:
The sensation is a sensation of time…. Space is common property. Only time is personal, a private experience…. Space is the given fact of art…. The concern with space bores me. I insist on my experiences of sensations in time.
In August 1959 Newman traveled to Emma Lake in Saskatchewan to lead a summer workshop for Canadian artists. There he had been enthralled by the openness and breadth of the prairies: 360 degrees’ worth of horizon. Richard Shiff in his original and imaginative essay for the catalog of the present exhibition has entitled its final section “No Direction: Mounds, Prairie, Tundra, Whiteout.” Whiteout refers to extreme northern conditions in which it is not possible to see any horizon at all.
There can be little doubt that The Stations of the Cross had reinforced Newman’s sense of the importance of “place” and of the importance of memory in recalling and reinforcing it. He had stopped talking about terror and the sublime, in public at least. In 1966 he decided to confront in a new way aspects of earlier twentieth-century art that he had initially dismissed and consciously rejected. He now produced his first work named Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue; four paintings bear the title, but they are not truly a series in that they are of different dimensions and project very different auras. He said:
I was now confronting the dogma that color must be reduced to the primaries, red, yellow and blue. Just as I had confronted other dogmatic positions of the purists, neo-plasticists and other formalists, I was now in confrontation with their dogma, which had reduced red, yellow and blue into an idea-didact, or at best, had made them picturesque [nothing very picturesque about Mondrian, one might interject, although when Barney was in full flow there was no holding him back]…. I had, therefore, the double incentive of using these colors to express what I wanted to do—of making these colors expressive rather than didactic.
It was a battle fought on a large scale but not entirely won.
Newman felt that he had changed perceived notions about color, and so he had, if only because never before had flat areas of color been applied to such large pictorial surfaces. But true colorists are those who are able to work with a wide palette and to orchestrate it. One thinks, for example, of Sassetta, Titian, Veronese, Delacroix, or, more recently, of Bonnard and Matisse. To balance the primary colors at full intensity or hue with no intermediaries is extremely difficult, doubly so on a very large scale. (Ellsworth Kelly is a painter who can do it.) To my eye at least the Red, Yellow and Blue paintings are the least resolved and least moving of Newman’s major works. The color equivalences do not hold together. It is perhaps revealing that in the last of the Who’s Afraids (another vandalized painting now in the National Gallery of Berlin) of 1969–1970, and the largest picture he ever painted, Newman has been forced into a symmetry he had much condemned, and the central blue has been darkened to read almost as blue-black.
The first and third of the Who’s Afraid group were executed in oils, the other two in acrylic, a synthetic resin that had been recently invented. Newman had first used acrylic in 1950. He used it quite extensively in the Stations, mostly playing it off against raw canvas. Afterward it became his prime vehicle as a medium. This brought about a certain transformation in his art. It is fairly easy to cover large areas smoothly in acrylic and it can be applied by rollers. It dries rapidly and can be overpainted al-most at once. Because it is slightly viscous, masking tape adheres to it more closely than it does to surfaces covered with oil paint. By adopting acrylic, Newman was in a sense once again challenging earlier abstraction through modern, more recent technical resources, just as he had in his initial reliance on masking tape.
Inevitably this affected the appearance of the very late work. Previously when he was working in oils or in mixed media the canvases bear very patently the touch of his brush, of his hand. In the late works the surfaces become more impersonal. Lines become sharper and cleaner. Colors dazzle and at times almost assault the eye, admittedly often in a thrilling way, as for example in Anna’s Light. Whereas previously Newman’s surfaces had pulsed and glowed, these late paintings are more static in their effects. Brightness has been substituted for subtler effects that often produce a sensation of light itself.
Reviewing the 1969 exhibition of Newman’s work at the Knoedler Gallery for The New York Times, Philip Leider (then editor of Artforum) had expressed disappointment at the most recent work but had also asked, “What is it about Barnett Newman that commands the respect of perhaps a wider spectrum of artists than any other artist living?” Newman’s exhibitions of the early Fifties had been critical failures. Yet in 1958, in an essay entitled “‘American-Type’ Painting,” Clement Greenberg asserted that Newman had “replaced Pollock as the enfant terrible of abstract expressionism,” a claim that would still have been greeted with derision by many in the New York art world. Subsequently Newman was to cut himself off from many of his former associates. Rothko and Still were to become enemies. He continued to see Pollock and remained loyal to him until his death in 1956, although Pollock’s alcoholism was making his behavior increasingly unstable and Pollock did not in any case care for Newman’s painting. After 1950 Newman ceased writing long articles for publication, although he continued to fire off letters to the editor for the rest of his life and enjoyed being interviewed.
Newman undoubtedly saw The Stations of the Cross as tragic. But he appears to have left the concept of the sublime, and with it that of terror, behind him. These were ideas that would probably have been an embarrassment to the younger generation of revolutionary artists who during the 1960s were closing ranks around him. Besides, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, Morris Louis, Jasper Johns, Kenneth Noland, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Robert Mangold—themselves artists of different persuasions—now viewed him both as a mentor and a legend. The tide had begun to turn at the joint exhibition of De Kooning and Newman, held at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1962 (an event that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, when De Kooning was already a celebrity and Newman was still struggling for recognition). To young artists Newman now seemed the more relevant. His totally ungestural and, superficially at least, less emotive works helped them to turn their backs on Abstract Expression, which they were trying to put behind them.
Above all, Newman didn’t appear to be trying to persuade them of anything or involve them in anything. In 1966 he stated, “I think [my influence] is precisely because I have not insisted on a dogmatic situation. Somehow what I’ve done has, I think, inspired… other people to free themselves of these conventions.” There was a sense in which Newman was now presenting a new generation of artists with a blank check, just as Duchamp had done slightly less than fifty years before. Without these two men, conceptual art and subsequently minimal art as we now view them (and the movements are in a sense cousins) would be unthinkable.
The catalog for the recent exhibition is in effect a new and extremely important book on Newman and opens up fresh perspectives on viewing him. Shiff’s more discursive essay is complemented perfectly by Ann Temkin’s. She has structured her piece around the history of Newman’s exhibitions and tells us as much about it as one could hope to know, but a great deal else besides. The notes which accompany the individual works or groups of work are also exemplary.
January 16, 2003
This was a traveling exhibition which toured European cities, making an enormous impact. It reached MOMA itself in 1959. ↩
From the Gospel of Mark 15:34—Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ↩
I am grateful to Mark Godfrey for allowing me to read the paper that he delivered at the Newman Symposium held in Philadelphia on April 5 and 6. This is the best account of the Stations that I have ever read. I hope it will be published. ↩