|Barnett Newman, standing in front of Onement VI (1953); photo taken in 1961|
If we can reduce Newman's goals
to only three, they would be a call for an art which would embody the essence
of myth, embody the sublime, and an art which would be the pure idea.
This last belief is central to Newman's goals: that a shape is alive and
contains the awesome feelings which a person has in front of the terror
of the unknowable, or the sublime. But sublime terror is not the
same as horror: horror is what you feel in the aftermath of tragedy, when
it is too late to do anything. Terror is what you feel in the face
of the sublime: humans can overcome terror through acts of creation and
this is the value of art. Yet, this act of creation implies an act
of starting over, and for Newman, this is the fundamental issue facing
the twentieth century artist: the search for what to paint without making
any references to previous artistic tradition.
|Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-1, 96 x 216"|
In his writings, he refers to chaos and to the artist's engagement in the discovery and creation of new forms as a process and as the result of diving into the chaos that precedes creation. This analogy makes the artist a metaphor or embodiment of the true creator, creating the world from the void.
Newman, speaking on the search for what to paint, put it like this: "Years ago...we felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of painting that we were doing...[at this point, he lists various representative subjects]...At the same time we could not move into the situation of a pure world of unorganized shapes, forms...color...a world of sensation....this was our moral crisis in relation to what to paint. So that we actually began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but never existed."
Newman wanted the painting to be
an ideograph of the idea of original creation. In his writing,
he defined the ideograph as the direct expression of the idea; it is not
expressed through a name, through a substitute image, through a symbol--the
image and the idea are one; no translation is necessary.
|Pagan Void, 1946, oil on canvas, 33 x 38"||The Song of Orpheus, 1944-5, mixed media on paper, 19 x 14"|
Like the other abstract expressionists, Newman's early work shows the influence of surrealistic biomorphism and automatism. They seem to evoke cosmic and mythological themes, themes of beginnings and origins. Pagan Void, for example, is a painting about the need for a new life and the egg, as the source of a new life. The Song of Orpheus makes a reference to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and the power of art to heal and restore life.
The next three paintings, all from
1946, while still making references to beginnings, reveal a greatly simplified
composition. The surrealistic overtones have been eliminated although
the background still suggests a type of watery cosmos out of which something
|The Beginning, 1946, o/c, 40 x 29"||The Command, 1946, o/c, 48 x 36"||The Word 1, 1946, o/c, 48 x 36"|
Newman's "breakthrough" comes with
No. 1, in 1948, a painting which seems to defy the notion of the abstract
expressionist as an action painter. In light of this myth, Newman
tells us that he stopped working on Onement for a period of about
8 months during which he thought about the implications of where he was
going. Onement sets up a new relationship of the "zip" to
the field of color because it is impossible to separate the two, to say
which comes first and which is the result of the other. It is a unitary
visual experience, partly because the field is symmetric, partly because
the band does not have clean edges and therefore does not create the sense
in which something has been placed on top of something else (the experience
which is created by Moment or Command or the other paintings
from 1946). In Onement, the band or zip is "at one" with the field.
No. 1, 1948, o/c,
27 x 16"
|Moment, 1946, o/c, 30 x 16"|
|Newman: Concord, 1949, o/c, 90x54"||Giacometti: two views of Man Pointing, 1947|
|Newman: Here 1 (to Marcia), 1950/62||Newman: Here 2, 1965|
|First Station||The Third Station||The Fourth Station|
Newman began working on the fourteen
paintings in this series shortly after his first heart attack. He
didn't have a name for them when he began, and only gave them their name
after having completed the first four. After naming them, he decided
to add the remaining 11 paintings (a 15th painting has a different name--Be
Two--but is treated as part of the series). He wrote about how
he realized, while working on the fourth painting, that the paintings were
having a profound emotional impact on him; it was that emotional impact
which gave him the name for the series. In other words, he did not
search for iconographic meaning; nor did he try to create it. In
fact, as he worked, he treated each painting as a distinct, independent
painting at the same time that he conceptualized it as part of the series.
Because of this ontology, it is difficult to say when Newman decided to
make a series in order to limit the parameters of choice, to have to work
within a predetermined framework. There are restrictions in the series--of
color and scale--and these restrictions are experienced in a much fuller
fashion by seeing 15 paintings than they might have been experienced or
even noticed in one or two paintings.
If, as Harold Rosenberg has suggested, Newman's "mission" or passion was the destruction and transformation of self, then in the Stations of the Cross he has applied this goal to what had become his signature style. Conversely, if Newman's Stations is about the Holocaust, than the viewer's experience of this series is one in which the viewer, placed in this position of moving from one painting to the next and visually responding to the restrictions and differences, actively participates in the act of memory and loss, or the memorialization of the Holocaust.
|Be Two, 1961-4, o/c, 80 x 72|
|Shining Forth (to George), 1968, o/c, 114 x 174"|
|Broken Obelisk, 1963-7|
Newman's Broken Obelisk is another statement of the themes that can be found in the Stations and in Shining Forth. In this case, he uses scultpure instead of two-dimensional art. The union of the the Egyptian pyramid, a symbol of death and eternity, and the obelisk, a symbol of the sun and regeneration, suggests the union of life and death. But the broken edge implies that death is united with life only to lead to death, ultimately creating an unbroken circle with the rough base of the pyramid.