Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk(1963-67)
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo by Graydon Wood, 2002.
"Barnett Newman" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
with works from the artist's first solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950
Museum of Modern Art
"Barnett Newman" at the Philadelphia Museum, with, from left,
Here I (to Marcia), The Wild and Vir Heroicus Sublimis
Daros Collection, Switzerland
"Fei Fei Drawings"
at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert,
installation view at Von Lintel Gallery,
2002, with, from left,
Sulfur Paradise, Return from Xenon and
A work from 1976 by Alexander Calder at PaceWildenstein
Julian Schnabel, "Big Girl Paintings," at Gagosian, 2002
Julian Schnabel at his opening with Ben Gazzara and Salman Rushdie
Marcus Harvey at Mary Boone Gallery, 2002
Georgie Hopton with Josephine Soughan
Still from Blip Movie
at Marcus Ritter
Saint Clair Cemin
In the Center
at Cheim & Read
Saint Clair Cemin
at Cheim & Read
by Walter Robinson
Barnett Newman is just what the art world needs right now, when we're all focused on callow "art-kid scenes," as the critic Peter Schjeldahl put it in his New Yorker review of the Whitney Biennial. "A painting is a declaration . . . not some esthetic calculation," Newman said in the 1966 NET documentary that plays in one of the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has just opened "Barnett Newman," a new retrospective of about 60 works by the Abstract Expressionist avatar, Mar. 24-July 7, 2002.
In the age of Warhol, when art happily embraces the notion that it is just so much product, Newman's search for transcendence is refreshing, even inspiring in a romantic sort of way. For Newman, art could be "a vehicle for miracles" and the artist something like a prophet, to paraphrase exhibition curator Ann Temkin's excellent catalogue essay. His triumphant color fields with their occasional vertical stripes, or "zips," are meant to be like the beginnings of the world in Genesis, when God made it all from scratch simply by dividing one thing from another.
One problem with this approach, apparently, is that it provides scant motivation to produce that many artworks. Like his pal Tony Smith, Newman was a slow-starter in the object-making game, given to producing in fits and starts. He was more of an idea man. Newman only made about 120 paintings in his lifetime, while Mark Rothko made something more than 400, Jackson Pollock made 800 and, as was pointed out with the recent publication of volume one of Warhol's catalogue raisonné, the prince of pop made 17,000.
Born on the Lower East Side in 1905, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Newman studied philosophy at CUNY and art at the Art Students League. During the Depression, he helped in the family clothing business, worked as a substitute art teacher in the New York public schools (he couldn't pass the regular art-teaching exam) and in 1933 put himself forward as a candidate for mayor, seeking the "cultural write-in vote," as the headline for A.J. Liebling's story in the New York World-Telegram had it. (Fiorello La Guardia won.)
During the 1940s -- Newman was both 4-F and a conscientious objector -- he wrote art reviews and helped Betty Parsons at her gallery, which she opened in 1946. He made his watershed work, Onement I, on his 43rd birthday in 1948, and had his first solo show at Parsons in 1950. Newman's second show the following year was a critical disaster -- though it included the 8 x 18-ft. Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman's work was widely seen as an empty gesture, even by the ur-Ab-Ex critic Thomas Hess -- and he didn't show again until 1958.
In a new gallery at Bennington College, under the auspices of the critic and curator E.C. Goosen, Newman installed a retrospective group of works, accompanied by a catalogue essay written by Clement Greenberg. A year later, Newman inaugurated French and Company's extravagant new fifth floor contemporary gallery, designed as a clean white space by Tony Smith, in what is now the Carlyle Galleries building on Madison Avenue at 77th Street.
In 1957 Newman had a heart attack, and then made "Stations of the Cross," the series of 14 paintings done in black on raw canvas that is now housed in a special art chapel at the National Gallery of Art and here is exhibited in a large and airy rectangular space (the series had its debut at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966). By the mid-'60s, Newman had achieved a degree of success. He died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1970 on the 4th of July. He and his wife Annalee, who he married in 1936 and who died two years ago, had no children.
Newman was no Minimalist machine. He signed many of his paintings on the front, which now seems a quaint affectation (and was then supposedly necessary to settle disputes with collectors over which way to hang the things). And from the very beginning he had a pictorial flexibility that is surprising for those who know him for only his monumental canvases.
Onement I, for instance, Newman's first real "zip" painting, is very humanist, marked by a blotchy cadmium line down its center that looks like Newman smudged the paint on with his thumb. In the fourth gallery of the exhibition, which presents a close recreation of Newman's first exhibition at Betty Parsons, are two paintings with horizontal stripes, including Horizon Light (1949), a landscapey, green and brown painting that suggests the later work of Helen Frankenthaler.
As the show continues, more works depart from "classic" Newman. One gallery features color works of teal and burnt sienna, another gold and red triangles that look like Pop, still other paintings look like the kind of color exercises pioneered by Ellsworth Kelly. Even Newman couldn't remain entirely in the realm of the incommensurate.
The show also includes Newman's great contribution to a 1968 anti-war protest show at the Richard Feigen Gallery in Chicago -- a metal square, hung with a grid of barbed wire that was splashed with red paint.
* * *
Back in New York, the many shows of abstraction are cast in somewhat sharper relief. At Danese last month, veteran painter Bill Jensen's "Fei Fei Drawings," made in a Northern Italian village but named after a group of contemporary Chinese poets who reject everything ("fei fei" means "no no"), seem richly organic, their colors tied to the earth in a direct, no-nonsense way.
Peter Zimmermann's color abstractions at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, by contrast, seem synthetic and pure in the way that only plastic resins can be. The pictures here -- tall, monolithic shapes -- begin on the computer despite the "biomorphic" patterns that are carefully transferred to the canvas surface.
At Von Lintel Gallery, the new paintings by John Zinsser are bluntly materialist -- colored pigment, brush strokes, skeins of paint. They have the sense of being "intoxicated and beguiled by color," to use Newman's words about his own work from the early '50s, but also approach the transcendent in their condition as art works.
One of the more interesting shows this winter was PaceWildenstein's exhibition of works by Alexander Calder all made in 1976, the last year of his life. Like so many senior artists, Calder displays an almost casual mastery in his late works, though sculpture doesn't usually lend itself to such an effect. The show includes a mobile hanging from the ceiling, done entirely in funereal black, as well as several smaller mobiles that can only be called wilted -- their leaves are brightly colored, as if lively at heart, but hanging dispiritedly, as if weary in body.
* * *
Julian Schnabel's "Big Girl" paintings, exhibited bicoastally at Gagosian galleries in both Chelsea and Los Angeles, are a group of 13 giant-scaled, simple portraits of the same blonde girl in a blue dress, all copies of an old thrift-store painting. Schnabel has added a horizontal paint stroke or bar across the girl's eyes, which he explains as a ruse to cause the viewer to look beyond the eyes at the entire image.
More likely it's a displaced castration fetish, which gives these pictures their strange allure. In memory they soared to 50 feet tall in that giant Gagosian garage -- welcome to the giantess zone! -- whereas in fact they're a mere 15 feet tall or so. Still, they are oversized, like Schnabel himself, like his ambition and his achievement. (At the New York opening, which swarmed with the artist's Hollywood friends, one wondered who could be a "Celebrity Boxing" opponent for the burly, leonine Schnabel?) What Newman, who was more often than not restricted to townhouse galleries, might have done with today's industrial spaces.
* * *
Two years ago, Matthew Marks exhibited a video installation called "Third Party" by the British yBa Sam Taylor-Wood, whose multiple film projections of smoking, drinking partyers, including Marianne Faithfull, were riven with sexual tension. According to Charlie Finch, the new paintings at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea by another yBa, Marcus Harvey, represent the morning after --- oversized tableaux of empty bottles, dirty plates and an excessive assortment of dildos.
They're expertly though uneventfully painted, presumably from slide projections. One frieze of plastic phalluses has a border across the bottom of exquisitely done lace -- it's the tablecloth -- like the ersatz Roman pediment bordering the giant Raphael tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum.
People with experience in this sort of thing say that authenticity would be better served were the still lifes to have included some lube and used condoms along with the vibrators and cock rings.
Harvey is of course the artist who provided the original sensation in "Sensation" -- when it appeared first in London -- for his portrait of the celebrated British child-murderer done with tiny child handprints. Then, several years ago, he exhibited finger-painted pictures of women's naked torsos, images drawn from sex pictures, at Tanya Bonakdar, paintings that brought an almost violent tactility to their delightfully pornographic subject.
* * *
As long as we're on the subject of young British artists, see Georgie Hopton's slide projection made with Josephine Soughan at Marcus Ritter, the young German dealer who took over AC Project Room's former 17th Street space. We see the artist, who is wife to yBa painter Gary Hume, from the rear, dressed in ballet gear and standing in an unprepossessing studio, as she takes three successive positions, all used by Edgar Degas in his sculptures of the young dancer, with a magical "ding" sound as the figure disappears altogether in the fourth slide. It's a citaion of Tinkerbell, a Midsummer Night's Dream and a particularly earthly kind of magic. "Wear the pink!"
* * *
In the eternal "if you haven't seen it by now, you're too late" category is Saint-Clair Cemin's exhibition at Cheim & Read, which closed on Mar. 23. Cemin is one of our most literary artists, whose works are like mixed metaphors, making the kind of odd poetry that comes from living on the thresholds between forms. "The show is inspired by the birth of my daughter, Sara," he wrote in a statement. "Sara, like my work and my thinking, does not want to distinguish between knowing and being, between being-with and being it, or between being and doing."
The exhibition included a 14-foot-tall, ghostly white sculpture of a kind of Latin priest holding a dowsing rod, called In the Center, that was immaculately installed in the small front gallery, like an icon in its niche. Another standout was Memory, a work in bronze in an edition of three that was perched high on one wall, and that most closely resembles a cross between a monkey and an end table.
* * *
Speaking of Newman, Jeremy Lewison is leaving the Tate after 17 years for life as a freelance curator. He organized the Pollock show in London, and was slated to install Newman there, too. His essay, Interpreting Newman, which is a Lacanian, Freudian, trauma-theory view of the artist's work, is to be published separately.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.