Quantcast

Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime | The Nation

  •  

Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Henry James could not resist giving the hero of his 1877 novel The
American
the allegorical name "Newman," but he went out of his way
to describe him as a muscular Christian, to deflect the suggestion that
Newman might be Jewish, as the name would otherwise imply. He is, as an
American, a New Man, who has come to the Old World on a cultural
pilgrimage in 1868, having made his fortune manufacturing washtubs; and
James has a bit of fun at his hero's expense by inflicting him with an
aesthetic headache in the Louvre, where his story begins. "I know very
little about pictures or how they are painted," Newman concedes; and as
evidence, James has him ordering, as if buying shirts, half a dozen
copies of assorted Old Masters from a pretty young copyist who thinks he
is crazy, since, as she puts it, "I paint like a cat."

By a delicious historical coincidence, another New Man, this time
unequivocally Jewish--the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman--visits
the Louvre for the first time in 1968, exactly a century later. By
contrast with his fellow noble savage, this Newman has had the benefit
of reading Clement Greenberg and working through Surrealism. So he is
able to tell his somewhat patronizing guide, the French critic Pierre
Schneider, to see Uccello's The Battle of San Romano as a modern
painting, a flat painting, and to explain why Mantegna's Saint
Sebastian
bleeds no more than a piece of wood despite being pierced
with arrows. He sees Géricault's Raft of the Medusa as
tipped up like one of Cézanne's tables. "It has the kind of
modern space you wouldn't expect with that kind of rhetoric." And in
general the new New Man is able to show European aesthetes a thing or
two about how to talk about the Old Masters, and incidentally how to
look at his own work, which so many of his contemporaries found
intractable. In Rembrandt, for example, Newman sees "all that brown,
with a streak of light coming down the middle...as in my own painting."

"All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle" could be
taken as a description of the first of Newman's paintings with which the
artist felt he could identify himself, done exactly two decades earlier
than the Louvre visit, and retroactively titled by him Onement 1.
Most would have described it as a messy brown painting with an uneven
red stripe down the middle, and nobody but Newman himself would have
tolerated a comparison with Rembrandt. But Newman told Pierre Schneider,
"I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am
talking to Michelangelo. The great guys are concerned with the same
problems." We must not allow it to go unnoticed that Newman counted
himself as among the great guys, though it is something of a hoot to
imagine trying to convince Henry James, were he resurrected, that the
works that make up the wonderful Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art (until July 7, when they travel to the Tate Modern) are
concerned with the same issues as the Louvre masterworks that gave his
protagonist Newman a headache and eyestrain. Even critics otherwise
sympathetic to advanced painting in the 1950s were made apoplectic by
Newman's huge, minimally inflected canvases--fields of monochromatic
paint with a vertical stripe or two--and they have provoked vandalism
from the time of his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in
1950. As we shall see, Newman thought he had resolved the problems that
concerned the great guys who preceded him. They had been struggling to
make beautiful pictures, whereas he considered himself as having
transcended beauty and picturing alike. His achievement was to capture
the sublime in painting.

Newman regarded Onement 1 as marking a breakthrough for his work,
and a new beginning. The installation in Philadelphia dramatizes this by
framing the piece by means of a doorway leading from one gallery into
another. While standing in a gallery hung with pictures done by Newman
before the breakthrough, one glimpses a new order of painting in the
room beyond. Like all the great first generation of Abstract
Expressionists, Newman seems to have passed abruptly from mediocrity to
mastery with the invention of a new style--like the flung paint of
Pollock, the heavy brush-strokes of de Kooning, Kline's timberlike black
sweeps against white, Rothko's translucent rectangles of floating color.
The pre-Onement paintings may seem somehow to point toward it, in
the sense that there is in most of them a bandlike element that aspires,
one might say, to become the commanding vertical streak. But in them,
the streak (or band, or bar) shares space with other elements, splotches
and squiggles and smears that are tentative and uninspired. The vertical
streak alone survives a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence, to
become the exclusive and definitive element in Newman's vision, from
Onement 1 onward. The basic format of Newman's work for the
remainder of his career is that of one or more vertical bands, which run
from the top to the bottom of the panel, in colors that contrast with a
more or less undifferentiated surrounding field. Sometimes the bands
will be of differing widths in the same painting, and sometimes, again,
they will differ from one another in hue. But there will no longer be
the variety of forms he used in the pre-Onement period of his
work. It is as if he understood that with Onement 1, he had
entered a newfound land rich enough in expressive possibilities that he
need seek for nothing further by way of elementary forms. Onement
1
is planted like a flag at the threshold, and when one crosses over
it, one is in a very different world from that marked by the uncertain
pictures that preceded it.

I have followed Newman in respecting a distinction between pictures and
paintings. Onement 1 was a painting, whereas what he had done
before were merely pictures. How are we to understand the difference? My
own sense is that a picture creates an illusory space, within which
various objects are represented. The viewer, as it were, looks through
the surface of a picture, as if through a window, into a virtual space,
in which various objects are deployed and composed: the Virgin and Child
surrounded by saints in an adoration; stripes surrounded by squiggles in
an abstraction. In the Renaissance, a picture was regarded as
transparent, so to speak, the way the front of the stage is, through
which we see men and women caught up in actions that we know are not
occurring in the space we ourselves occupy. In a painting, by contrast,
the surface is opaque, like a wall. We are not supposed to see through
it. We stand in a real relationship with it, rather than in an illusory
relationship with what it represents. I expect that this is the
distinction Newman is eager to make. His paintings are objects in their
own right. A picture represents something other than itself; a painting
presents itself. A picture mediates between a viewer and an object in
pictorial space; a painting is an object to which the viewer relates
without mediation. An early work that externally resembles Onement
1
is Moment, done in 1946. A widish yellow stripe bisects a
brownish space. Newman said of it, "The streak was always going through
an atmosphere; I was trying to create a world around it." The
streak in Onement 1 is not in an atmosphere of its own, namely
pictorial space. It is on the surface and in the same space as we are.
Painting and viewer coexist in the same reality.

At the same time, a painting is not just so much pigment laid across a
surface. It has, or we might say it embodies, a meaning. Newman did not
give Onement 1 a title when it was first exhibited, but it is
reasonable to suppose that the meaning the work embodied was somehow
connected with this strange and exalted term. In general, the suffix
"-ment" is attached to a verb like "atone" or "endow" or "command,"
where it designates a state--the state of atoning, for example--or a
product. So what does "onement" mean? My own sense is that it means the
condition of being one, as in the incantation "God is one." It refers,
one might say, to the oneness of God. And this might help us better
understand the difference between a picture and a painting. Since Newman
thinks of himself and Michelangelo as concerned with the same kinds of
problems, consider the Sistine ceiling, where Michelangelo produces a
number of pictures of God. Great as these are, they are constrained by
the limitation that pictures can show only what is visible, and
decisions have to be made regarding what God looks like. How would one
picture the fact that God is one? Since Onement 1 is not a
picture, it does not inherit the limitations inherent in picturing. The
catalogue text says that Onement 1 represents nothing but itself
and that it is about itself as a painting. I can't believe, though, that
what Newman regarded in such momentous terms was simply a painting about
painting. It is about something that can be said but cannot be shown, at
least not pictorially. Abstract painting is not without content. Rather,
it enables the presentation of content without pictorial limits. That is
why, from the beginning, abstraction was believed by its inventors to be
invested with a spiritual reality. It was as though Newman had hit upon
a way of being a painter without violating the Second Commandment, which
prohibits images.

Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment that "perhaps the most
sublime passage in Jewish Law is the commandment Thou shalt not make
unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in
heaven or on earth, or under the earth," etc. This commandment alone can
explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people felt for their religion
when compared with that of other peoples, or can explain the pride that
Islam inspires. But this in effect prohibited Jews from being artists,
since, until Modernism, there was no way of being a painter without
making pictures and hence violating the prohibition against images!
Paintings that are not pictures would have been a contradiction in
terms. But this in effect ruled out the possibility of making paintings
that were sublime, an aesthetic category to which Kant dedicated a
fascinating and extended analysis. And while one cannot be certain how
important the possibility of Jewish art was to Newman, there can be
little question not only that the sublime figured centrally in his
conception of his art but that it was part of what made the difference
in his mind between American and European art. Indeed, sublimity figured
prominently in the way the Abstract Expressionists conceived of their
difference from European artists. Robert Motherwell characterized
American painting as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime," adding, "No
Parisian is a sublime painter." In the same year that Newman broke
through with Onement 1, he published an important article, "The
Sublime Is Now," in the avant-garde magazine Tiger's Eye. And my
sense is that in his view, there could not be a sublime picture--that
sublimity became available to visual artists only when they stopped
making pictures and started making paintings.

Peter Schjeldahl recently dismissed the sublime as a hopelessly jumbled
philosophical notion that has had more than two centuries to start
meaning something cogent and has not succeeded yet. But the term had
definite cogency in the eighteenth century, when philosophers of art
were seeking an aesthetics of nature that went beyond the concept of
beauty. Beauty for them meant taste and form, whereas the sublime
concerned feeling and formlessness. Kant wrote that "nature excites the
ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular
disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived," and he
cited, as illustrations,

Bold overhanging and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piled up in
the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in
all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of
devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty
waterfall of a mighty river, these exhibit our faculty of resistance as
insignificantly small in comparison with their might.

Since Kant was constrained to think of art in terms of pictures as
mimetic representations, there was no way in which painting could be
sublime. It could only consist in pictures of sublime natural things,
like waterfalls or volcanoes. While these might indeed be sublime,
pictures of them could at most be beautiful. Kant does consider
architecture capable of producing the feeling of sublimity. He cites
Saint Peter's Basilica as a case in point because it makes us feel small
and insignificant relative to its scale.

What recommended the sublime to Newman is that it meant a liberation
from beauty, and hence a liberation from an essentially European
aesthetic in favor of an American one. The European artist, Newman
wrote,

has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of
beauty and the desire for the sublime.... The impulse of modern art was
this desire to destroy beauty. Meanwhile, I believe that here in
America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are
finding the answer, by denying that art has any concern with the problem
of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how can
we be creating an art that is sublime?

There can be little doubt that in Newman's sense of his own achievement,
he had solved this problem with Onement 1. It is certainly not a
beautiful painting, and one would miss its point entirely if one
supposed that sooner or later, through close looking, the painting would
disclose its beauty as a reward. There was a standing argument, often
enlisted in defense of Modernism, that the reason we were unable to see
modern art as beautiful was because it was difficult. Roger Fry had
written, early in the twentieth century, that "every new work of
creative design is ugly until it becomes beautiful; that we usually
apply the word beautiful to those works of art in which familiarity has
enabled us to grasp the unity easily, and that we find ugly those works
in which we still perceive only by an effort." Newman's response to this
would have been that he had achieved a liberation from what feminism
would later call the beauty trap. He had achieved something grander and
more exalted, a new art for new men and women.

Newman used the term "sublime" in the title of his Vir Heroicus
Sublimis
(1950-51). It is a tremendous canvas, nearly eight feet high and eighteen feet
wide, a vast cascade of red paint punctuated by five vertical stripes of
varying widths, set at varying intervals. Newman discussed this work
(which the critic for The New Republic called asinine) in an
interview with the British art critic David Sylvester in 1965.

One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting
should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he's there, so he's
aware of himself. In that sense he related to me when I made the
painting because in that sense I was there. Standing in front of my
paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my
painting knows that he's there. To me, the sense of place not only has a
mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact.

Newman studied philosophy at City College, and Kant sprang to his lips
almost as a reflex when he discussed art. But it is difficult not to
invoke the central idea of Martin Heidegger's philosophy in connection
with his comment to Sylvester. Heidegger speaks of human beings as
Dasein
, as "being there," and it is part of the intended experience
of Newman's paintings that our thereness is implied by the scale of the
paintings themselves. In his 1950 exhibition at the Betty Parsons
Gallery, he put up a notice that while there is a tendency to look at
large paintings from a distance, these works were intended to be seen
from close up. One should feel oneself there, in relationship to the
work, like someone standing by a waterfall. The title of the painting
meant, he told Sylvester, "that man can be or is sublime in his relation
to his sense of being aware." The paintings, one might say, are about us
as self-aware beings.

A high point of the Philadelphia show is Newman's The Stations of the
Cross
, a series of fourteen paintings that is certainly one of the
masterpieces of twentieth-century art. As a spiritual testament, it
bears comparison with the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I have the most
vivid recollection of being quite overcome when I first experienced
The Stations of the Cross in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966.
Newman used as subtitle the Hebrew words Lema
Sabachthani
--Christ's human cry on the Cross. The means could not be
more simple: black and white paint on raw canvas, which he used as a
third color. The fourteen paintings do not map onto corresponding points
on the road to Calvary. But Newman seems to use black to represent a
profound change of state.

The first several paintings have black as well as white stripes (or
"zips," as he came to call them, referring perhaps to the sound that
masking tape makes when it is pulled away). Black entirely disappears in
the Ninth Station, in which a stripe of white paint runs up the
left edge, and two thin parallel white stripes are placed near the right
edge. The rest is raw canvas. The Tenth and Eleventh
stations resemble it, through the fact that they too are composed of
white stripes placed on raw canvas. Then, all at once, Twelfth
Station
is dramatically black, as is the Thirteenth Station.
And then, in the Fourteenth Station, black again abruptly
disappears. There is a strip of raw canvas at the left, and the rest is
white, as if Christ yielded up the ghost as St. Matthew narrates it. The
work demonstrates how it is possible for essentially abstract paintings
to create a religious narrative.

No one today, I suppose, would hold painting in the same exalted state
that seemed possible in the 1950s. Newman became a hero to the younger
generation of the 1960s, when the history of art that he climaxed gave
way to a very different era. He triumphed over his savage critics, as
great artists always do; and all who are interested in the spiritual
ambitions of painting at its most sublime owe themselves a trip to
Philadelphia to see one of the last of the great guys in this thoughtful
and inspired exhibition, the first to be devoted to his work in more
than thirty years.

Subscriber Log In:

Subscribe Now!
The only way to read this article and the full contents of each week's issue of The Nation online on the day the print magazine is published is by subscribing. Subscribe now and read this article—and every article published since 1865 in our 148 year digital archive—right now.
There's no obligation—try The Nation for four weeks free.

 

 
  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.