Black and White and Read All Over by Phyllis Tuchman
Jeremy Lewison, Looking at Barnett Newman, August Media, London, 124 pp., 14.95.
The Barnett Newman retrospective mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art last spring was a must-see show. It had been 30 years since a full-scale exhibition of Newman's wall-sized fields of monochromatic color interrupted by a vertical stripe or two or three was held in the United States. Between 1944-45 and 1970, the year the abstractionist died at the age of 65, he painted about 120 works. 90 of them were on view at the Museum of Modern Art three decades ago. This round, only 65 of them were lent to the PMA (a truncated version of the show was exhibited at the Tate Modern several months later). Because insurance is costly and the delicate canvas surfaces could easily be damaged in transit, it's doubtful another retrospective will ever be mounted again.
Newman was not a natural-born painter. He was not as talented a draftsman nor as facile with a brushstroke as Arshile Gorky or Willem de Kooning. And unlike Jackson Pollock, he wasn't able to will himself to a state of genius. Newman was more cerebral. He made the type of work that tends to be called "interesting" rather than visceral or tragic or awesome, adjectives often applied to art by Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Newman painted ideas, not feelings.
Newman's friends and associates created a heroic language. He mastered their vocabulary. His yards of color, on a picture by picture basis, can be mesmerizing. While he revealed that an artist doesn't necessarily need great touch to execute a canvas that engages, the special exhibition rooms at the PMA were as emotionally and metaphorically chilly as the galleries were at MoMA 30 years ago. To paraphrase something he once said, more blue is bluer than less blue. But where a Pollock can evoke glorious night skies and constellatory space, a Newman remains "blue."
With few exceptions, this fresh look at Newman did not engender fresh criticism. For a number of daily and weekly journalists working on deadline, this was their first prolonged encounter with the artist; and they treated his work much the way their colleagues did decades ago. Old battles were fought anew. The quality and nature of the show, including its hang, got ignored. The eminent British emeritus professor John Golding's contribution to the dialogue was particularly surprising. His essay for the New York Review of Books read as if it were a lecture he delivered at the time of the MoMA retrospective.
But now comes Looking at Barnett Newman, a brilliant catalogue-length essay in book form by former Tate Gallery curator Jeremy Lewison. Bound with it are excellent color reproductions and selections from the abstractionist's writings, catalogue statements and a radio broadcast. This publication should become the essential text on Newman. To come to terms with the artist, Lewison did not base his sensitive interpretations on tired criticism or trendy intellectual theories. Instead he looked closely at the artist's paintings and at such primary sources as the painter's own explanations to curators and interviewers and what Newman wrote about other artists.
Newman never connected the dots as cogently or succinctly as Lewison does. To be sure, while the abstractionist was impressed by a pool of philosophical and psychological notions that attracted many New York intellectuals during the 1940s and '50s, he expressed his interest in these ideas visually rather than verbally. By reviewing the artist's statements; the titles he gave to his paintings, sculptures and works on paper; and such, Lewison lets his readers experience Newman as if for the first time.
Looking at Barnett Newman isn't peppered with the names of other members of the New York School. Its protagonists are Jacques Lacan, Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Freud, Nietzsche, Jung, Edmund Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. In the near future, an enterprising publisher might consider putting a painting by Newman on the cover of a book by one of these esteemed thinkers (Art 101 meets Philosophy 101). Recapping the artist, Lewison notes, "For Newman, however, the issue was not how to paint but what to paint." More broadly, during World War II, the Abstract Expressionist opined, "If we could describe the art of this, the first half of the 20th century, in a phrase, it would read as 'the search for something to paint.'"
At the outset, Lewison states that "there is no definitive way of reading Newman. . . ." And he mentions what other critics and curators have had to say about a body of work "that is difficult to grasp [in] its entirety," though it has "an appearance of consistency."
As if chanting a religious prayer, Lewison begins three sections of his text with the same paragraph, one in which he describes how he feels standing in front of Onement I. This abstraction was the first Newman made with one of his so-called "zips," the term many apply when referring to the vertical stripes found in his fields of color. (In a 1965 radio broadcast the artist himself called these elements "lines"; and four years later, after a high school student mentioned his "zips" at a seminar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the artist appeared momentarily to forget what the word meant.)
Newman executed Onement I on his birthday in 1948. After he made it, he didn't paint for nine months. To David Sylvester, he explained, that was "the beginning of my present life." Before then, as Lewison points out, Newman made work concerned with "biblical and human creation represented in biomorphic forms." But, by the end of the 1940s, he "was not interested in the language of painting as an end in itself but as a means to express the verbally inexpressible, a means to recover something lost." Just as Max Beckmann changed his subject matter as well as his pictorial style after the carnage he witnessed during the first world war, Newman, after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, rethought his earlier efforts.
Lewison suggests Newman examined "The self, terrible and constant" in one color panel after another. Instead of introducing vertical lines to "divide" his canvases, the artist used them in "a quest for wholeness, a search for salvation and reparation in the post-war period of uncertainty and anxiety." Death, even more than birth, emerged as "the greatest of all life's mysteries." Many of Newman's most important works are practically elegies, canvases executed after the loss of father (Abraham), brother (Shining Forth) and mother (Anna's Life). After his own heart attack, he embarked on his 14 "Stations of the Cross," his crowning achievement.
For Lewison, Newman's art "is a declaration of the immediate, the here and now, a temporal and spatial statement." The artist could not have articulated it better. But then, he did -- in about 120 paintings, several sculptures, many drawings and a number of prints.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.