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    Time and Barnett Newman
by Charlie Finch
 
     
 
Barnett Newman
Vir Heroicus Sublimis
1950-51
at MoMA (with works by Maillol
and Frank Stella
 
Barnett Newman
Vir Heroicus Sublimis
 
Vir Heroicus Sublimis
(detail)
 
Newman's
Broken Obelisk, 1963-67
in the MoMA garden
 
Newman's
Broken Obelisk
in the MoMA garden
 
Broken Obelisk
(detail)
 

A few years back David Sylvester wrote a short piece in Artforum about a Barnett Newman print that had hung over his desk for decades, a black, grey and white zip piece.

One day, Sylvester remarked, the zip hit him and all at once, he understood its meaning, yet (typically for Artforum) Silver Syl neglected to tell us exactly what that was!

Now, the truth can be told -- the zip is you; your life and mine is that thin line, between the vast rectangle of time before oneís birth and the infinite sea beyond our demise.

Whatís abstract suddenly becomes very concrete, in the viewing, as it did to Mr. Sylvester.

And you, too, can get it if you whisk over to the Museum of Modern Artís rigorous and challenging "Modern Starts" exhibition, where two classic Newmans stride the show like a ghostly colossus.

Time has been good to Newmanís work. What was once derided by Robert Motherwell as "reductio ad absurdum," now emanates elegance.

Newman, the anti-esthetician, would be appalled and pleased at the burnished beauty of Vir Heroicus Sublimis, beckoning us at one gallery entrance, happily separated from its normal Ab-Ex partners in MoMAís permanent collection.

The great painting now extends a strange autumnal comfort to one who first revered it 30 years ago. The God of Jacob, David and Jesus seems to have a refuge here.

Not so with the great Newman sculpture Broken Obelisk, once more divined into its rightful sepulcher, the MoMA garden.

Here, the finger of God breaks off in the act of creation, as manís perfect pyramid rises to meet it.

Thereís nothing abstract about Broken Obelisk, which extremely concretizes existence in inert matter.

Barnett Newman was a querulous fellow, quick to defend himself over minor matters in the art mags of his day (such as his use of "sublimis," not "sublimus"; his influence on Clyfford Still, not vice versa; his dislike of Motherwellís work; his condemnation of Mondrianís utopianism, etc.).

The petulant, irascible Newman had to let off steam, surely, from the strict demands of his own creation. Itís poignant to see photos of a last painting, to be continued, in his White Street studio at the time of his death in 1970.

Yet Newman was clearly misunderstood by both detractors and admirers like Tom Hess, who bound him in the amorphous Ab-Ex matrix of Rothko, Still and Gorky. Itís not what Newman is about.

Newmanís work is pure, and impure, realism, the mortal dilemma, dark and raw.

Perhaps Kirk Varnedoe and the gang will include "The Stations of the Cross" in the next round of the MoMA millenniale.


CHARLIE FINCH is author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (1998).