Barnett Newman and the Sublime: The Terror of the Unknowable

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 might emerge.

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 Onement, 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.

Onement, No. 1, 1948, o/c, 
27 x 16"
Moment, 1946, o/c, 30 x 16"

Newman, Giacometti, and existentialism

The New York artists would have been familiar with Sartre's ideas about existentialism, in part through reading translations of some of his work and in part because he had been to New York himself.  Newman and Rothko were both interested in the work of the Swiss sculptor Giacometti, and they may have been aware of Sartre's aesthetic writings about Giacometti's paintings and sculpture.  As I said in class, Giacometti's sculpture raises questions about the relationship of the figure to space and the sculptural figure to the model.  Giacometti's figures do not reward the viewer who comes closer to the figure, and they do not provide a more detailed or refined view of the model.  They are something quite unique or different from the model, since the most we can say about them is that this is how someone looks in space at a great distance from where we are standing.  But it is not how someone looks when we get closer to them, when the distance between us decreases.  So this figure, seen at a distance, is always seen at a distance, even when we approach.  Its existence in space is a priority, regardless of whether we are there or not, which means that we do not create the presence of this object: it exists for itself and not for us.  In that respect, this imaginary figure has a reality (an existence) which has become part of the imaginary space we associate with all works of art.  The sculpture is not a surrogate for a person; it is not real.  But because its existence precedes our own and because it will never change, this imaginary is absolute and real.  What Sartre describes as the experience of a Giacometti sculpture is similar to the experience that we have in architectural space.  Architecture gives unbounded space a shape and meaning, and when a person enters that space, he or she perceives the existence of the space as something which has been valorized by his or her own presence.  Likewise, the person's experience of self has been affected by the space.  It's a type of double negation: space is emptiness and it makes you aware of what isn't there.  At the same time, your presence in that empty space makes you aware of yourself (and the type of "catching up" that you can never do).  In the end, you experience both the sense of presence and absence simultaneously and probably on a less-than-conscious level.  But it is through this experience of two competing conditions that you become aware of the meaning of existence.
Newman: Concord, 1949, o/c, 90x54" Giacometti: two views of Man Pointing, 1947
Newman: Here 1 (to Marcia), 1950/62 Newman: Here 2, 1965

Newman: The Stations of the Cross (1958-66; all paintings are 78x60")

Lema Sabachthani:  "Why are you doing this to me?"
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.