Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime

Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime


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.

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