Fumbling with his zip: Barnett Newman at Tate Modern

1 November, 2002
ART: Fumbling with his zip
Barnett Newman at Tate Modern

Half a century after the paint dried on the works that earned his place in art history and more than thirty years after his own death, Barnett Newman still manages to make people angry. More than most artists’, his work has been attacked – and not just in the usual ‘all modern art is rubbish’ sense of the word, either, but literally. Newman’s canvasses have been slashed and ripped and punctured more frequently than those of any other artist – a remarkable fact, given that he only completed about 120 works, compared with Jackson Pollock’s 800 or so, let alone with Picasso’s many thousands, so this distinction can hardly be accidental. But even when it comes to more conventional modes of critical engagement, Newman’s work remains capable of stirring up levels of outrage, incomprehension and fury that would flatter any aspiring yBa. It’s the vehemence of these assaults, more than anything else, that surprises. So what is it about these fifty-year old paintings and sculptures that still sets pulses racing? How is it that Newman is successfully picking fights – ERO insists on expressing a measure of admiration at this point – a full thirty years after his death?

Londoners will soon have a chance to discover the answer for themselves. This autumn sees almost 100 of Newman’s 120 works on show at Tate Modern, in a major exhibition supported by The Henry Luce Foundation and organised jointly with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Given the relative scarcity of his work, coupled with its extreme vulnerability, Barnett Newman is probably the most thorough Newman retrospective that most of us will ever experience. So for those of us who admire the products of Newman’s real if limited achievement, then, this can only be a source of pure delight. And for everyone else – those people who have not yet managed to get to grips with the century-old period style that is modernism, for instance, let alone the knife-wielding maniacs – the pleasures will be considerably more complex.

The enemies of modernism, obviously, could hardly hope to find a softer target. Between 1948 and 1952, in particular, and to a lesser extent afterwards, Newman created a small group of paintings that still push boundaries by denying the viewer not only figuration and the illusion of depth, but gesture and surface incident as well. Of course others had been there before – Kasimir Malevich, for instance, who took abstraction as far as it could go before most of the world even knew what ‘abstraction’ was – but Newman’s unique achievement was to inject this rhetoric of extreme restraint and reservation into an art scene which not only made hegemonic claims for itself to anyone who could be forced to listen, but one which staked almost everything on the individual gesture, the visible hand of the maker, the artist as Heroic Individual. Against this, Newman took a rectangle of monochrome canvas and painted a stripe across it. (Actually, there’s a lot more to the facture than that, but this is the impression he produced.) The result looked extreme, perhaps parodic, and radically unlike most New York School art – Rothko’s richly visceral colour, Pollock’s messy contrapposto of anguish – since its flat bright surfaces appeared to discourage engagement, to deny entry, which may be why psychopaths are inexorably drawn to it. Heaven knows, virtually no one else was. For twenty years Newman’s art found little critical support. When recognition came, it came largely from a new generation of artists – Dan Flavin, Donald Judd – who saw it as a prefiguring of the Minimalism of which they are the Old Masters. Yet Newman’s grandiose, immodest and frankly silly claims for his own work were at variance with the claims that Minimalists made for theirs. These claims, indeed created – along with some inexpressibly pompous titles – yet another barrier to appreciating the art itself.

In short, for the sort of person who says without irony ‘but a child could do that!’ or who makes what he or she believes to be clever references to the Emperor’s New Clothes, Newman is a dream come true. Since even his fellow New York School artists thought he lacked skill, it is hard to defend him from this charge – assuming that one thinks ‘skill’ is the point of art in the first place, or assuming that one can easily measure it from looking at a finished painting. His work was not entirely original – for those who think ‘originality’ matters, which is somewhat at variance with rejecting the modernist project. And it is hard, in our time, to appreciate his work in the ways in which he seemed to want people to appreciate it – for those who believe they can do this with other historic painting, although frankly I think if they do so they are fibbing, knowingly or otherwise. But certainly in his writings, Newman almost invariably comes across as a pompous fool. His claims for a ‘universal’ and ‘timeless’ art now appear inextricable, like the art he created, from a very particular time and place. So where does this catalogue of failure leave Tate Modern’s current show?

All I can say – and I fully anticipate the horror this will produce in many of ERO’s more persistent readers – is that it leaves room after room of beautiful, faintly inscrutable yet lushly attractive paintings, and that for those who can be bothered, the exhibition also provides a unprecedented overview of the career of a pivotal New York School figure, and that as such, it seems to me an entirely worthwhile and admirable project.

The show was installed by Sir Nicholas Serota (Director of Tate, aka general hate figure), Sheena Wagstaff (Head of Exhibitions at Tate Modern) and Juliet Bingham (an assistant curator). While it is easy to take exception to a few of their decisions, most of them strike me as entirely correct. Despite a chronological organisation, the emphasis is overpoweringly aesthetic. The large canvases hang opulently against milk-white walls, while the tiny identifying labels cringe apologetically, and sometimes almost invisibly, in the corners. Biographical material appears in the form of an admirable leaflet (free with admission) and a downright brilliant catalogue (£40 hb/£25 pb) but not on the walls. There are some ‘look at me’ moments of curatorial artfulness, as canonical works in further rooms gradually loom into view, framed by moulding-free doorways, or in the extravagant staging (it is hard to put it any other way) of Newman’s Stations of the Cross. And these do produce the odd gasp of breath, the odd involuntary smile of recognition. For what it’s worth, I think the curators were right to appeal to aesthetic ‘wow’ factor over didactic responsibility. The Tate, in this respect at least, rarely lets us down. At the same time, I think the decision to mask the windows was a foolish one. The other-worldly, faintly arch disengagement of Newman’s signature style should have been forced into an encounter with the gun-metal Thames, the façade of St Paul’s and the ugly clutter of buildings around it. The scale of these paintings, even the larger ones, is always human, not architectural, and a long view would have underlined this.

Or was there a concern that the works would be damaged by natural light? I fear there may have been. Since Newman’s surfaces tend to be so large, so flat and (if all is going well) so regular, curatorial solicitude towards them is particularly intense. A discernable pattern or story can carry the viewer’s eye over a discoloured patch or a tear, but in a Newman canvas, there is nothing but the colour and the surface. If one stabs them, they remain wounded; if they are damaged during instillation or travel, there is no way back. Newman knew this, since several of his works were thus damaged in his lifetime. I think this sense of a fragile, vulnerable skin was something that he consciously intended for them. Thus it is understandable that several of the works that appeared in Philadelphia did not make it across the Atlantic. Onement I was not a terrible loss – Onement III can stand in for it – but I lamented, and still lament, the fact that big, sexy, radiant Vir Heroicus Sublimis – America’s answer to Matisse’s Red Room – did not come to London. Anna’s Light, another ‘big red’ painting, is good in its own right, but does not have the – all right then, the ‘heroic’ quality of Vir. Of course if lenders (in this case, the Museum of Modern Art in New York) won’t allow it, there is not much a curator can do, so this is not a dig at Sir Nick, or his museum, or anything else. Rather, it is an admission of the obvious: that the absence of Newman’s greatest painting means a show that builds up towards a climax that turns out to be taking place 3,000 miles away. It is difficult not to feel just a little frustrated by this.

So we’ll simply have to concentrate on what is actually there in the show. Anne Temkin, the author of the excellent catalogue, said recently that she did not think that Newman’s life made much of a difference when it came to looking at his paintings. Well, her catalogue is a marvel of lucidity, bemused affection for her subject and even charm, but I think she is wrong about his life. Surely, what an artist chooses not to say is at least as important as what he ends up saying? And surely, to understand what that constitutes, it’s worth casting a glance over the life itself?

Newman was born in 1905 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the eldest son of a Jewish couple who had moved to New York from a place called Lomza (then in Russia, now in Poland) only five years before. By the time he was ten, his father was able to celebrate the success of his clothing manufacturing company by moving his young family to a middle-class neighbourhood in the Bronx. As a teenager, ‘Barney’ attended his local high-school as well as Hebrew school, had extra Hebrew tuition and played baseball, but frequently skipped all of the above to spend time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – although he would later claim of his generation that

we are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.

Fortunately none of this prevented him, when later creating his signature style, from basking in the reflected glory of Matisse, Mondrian and Giacommetti, and by extension, their predecessors as well.

Newman dreamed of becoming an artist; his parents, unsurprisingly, lived up to the usual cliché and wanted him to get a proper job. In a compromise, he took – in a desultory and non-committal sort of way – a degree in philosophy from the City College of New York while concurrently studying drawing at the Art Students League where he made friends with Adolph Gottlieb and, through him, Marcus Rothkowitz (later Mark Rothko). In 1931 Newman failed to gain his permit to work as a school teacher, but obtained a position as an art supply teacher in the state school system – a job in which he would persist for eighteen years. This was just as well, since his father’s company was eventually destroyed by the Great Depression. But there was another, greater benefit to this career choice. The teaching job occasioned a chance meeting in 1934 with Analee Greenhouse, a fantastically well-educated Russian immigrant whom financial constraints had forced to work as a teacher. In 1936 the couple married. The marriage, though childless, was apparently a very happy one. Certainly, it had profound implications for Newman’s career. Analee was an utterly unflagging advocate of her husband’s art, staying in a thankless and unrewarding job so that she could support him financially as well as emotionally. Between his death and hers, in 2000, she administered his estate with shrewdness, efficacy and devotion, and I can only hope that the first suggestions of the present exhibition gave her some satisfaction.

But that takes us too far into the future. The 1930s swim with other revealing vignettes. In 1933, Newman offered himself as a write-in opponent to Fiorello La Guardia, of all people, in the New York mayoral election – with, it must be said, no great success. By this time, Newman had identified himself as an anarchist. Newman’s personal politics were interesting. There were few other anarchists in the United States at the time, but that was exactly the point. It was an elitist, dandyish stance – the sort of thing a middle-class boy from Brooklyn would do. Anarchism meant on one hand contempt for the communist sympathies of most of his CCNY colleagues, and on the other an ability to avoid the WPA arts programmes that sustained most of the New York School through the worst of the Great Depression. During the Second World War he claimed conscientious objector status even after he had been classified as physically unfit. But then this was quite typical of Newman, who simply could not stand the idea of being associated with any group or tendency. He would later come to respond badly to critics who bracketed him with other artists, or who tried to define what he was doing. If there was definition to be done, Barnett Newman wanted to do it himself. This was at least as true in his art as in his life.

But Newman’s career as an artist had hardly begun, even though his career as a writer about art was already well underway. In 1943 he met and befriended Betty Parsons. He was interested in the American Transcendentalists, in Amerindian burial mounds, in the ‘primitive’ as an alternative to European art. As the 1940s passed, Newman continued – while working as a supply teacher – to paint, to write about art, to help Betty Parsons set up her gallery, and in doing so moved in circles that included, inter alia, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning. In other words, his drinking pals included some of the greatest artists who would ever paint in America, but Newman was to remain uncomfortable about the subject of their influence, if any, on his career. He was wary of art-historical ‘fathers’.

In 1947 Newman’s father Abraham died; almost immediately, Newman quit his teaching job and relied on Analee’s salary in order to devote all his time to art. In some sense, this decision paid off. In 1948 he painted his ‘breakthrough’ work, Onement I. (Although this odd word tends to be pronounced ‘won-ment’, it apparently stemmed in Newman’s mind from the word ‘Atonement’ – relevant not only to his rather uncomfortably secularised Judaism, in which atonement was a powerful metaphor, but also to his status as the male head of his family, responsible for the rituals which kept an assimilated American family moored to their powerful yet problematic roots.)

The two years following Abraham’s death were the most productive of Newman’s life. His first solo show came in January 1950 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, just after a show by Jackson Pollock – who, strangely, had made his own breakthrough work in 1948, as had Mark Rothko. Critics, however, responded badly, if at all, to Newman; one of the works in the show was even vandalised. Nor was he ever due to receive much critical success during his life. He was given solo shows in 1951 (Betty Parsons again), in 1958 (Bennington College, an internment camp for high-strung debutantes with an interest in cutting-edge culture and the men who create it) and in 1969 (the smart NYC gallery M. Knoedler, where Newman was pleased to supplant the usual Old Masters). Newman occasionally signed AbEx manifestos; he dressed like a dandy and sported the moustache and elderly mien of a comedy brigadier. Until the mid 1960s, Newman’s finances remained precarious – he spent part of the 1950s trying to devise a scheme for winning money by racetrack gambling, with predictable results – and he suffered from depression, heart trouble and the standard-issue sub-clinical alcoholism that came with the New York School membership card. The late 1960s, however, saw an improvement in Newman’s critical reception and in his fortunes generally. And not a moment too soon, either. In 1970, he died of a heart attack, aged only 65 years.

Given his friendships with Parsons, Rothko and Pollock, it might seem that Newman had been well-placed to become a prestigious, if not pivotal member of the New York School. Yet several things militated against this. Newman was quick to write about his colleagues’ work, but was unwilling to invite these same colleagues into his own studio. Hence when his work appeared, no one had much sense of what lay behind the work or – Jackson Pollock excepted – much sympathy for it. Nor did Newman’s work appeal to critics, nor did Newman do much to boost its appeal. When, in 1955, Newman received an admiring mention from Clement Greenberg in the Partisan Review, his response was to attack Greenberg for daring to suggest either that he had been influenced by Clyfford Still (which he surely had been) or that he stained his canvases rather than painting them (which he surely did not ). Newman also attacked Clyfford Still, mostly for having arrived at Newman-type compositions some months before Newman had. Still responded by forwarding Newman’s letters to others, including Greenberg. Perhaps Greenberg warmed to Newman’s pointless, self-destructive belligerence, recognising something oddly familiar about it. But although Newman lost Still’s friendship, his inability to accept criticism never really altered. So vehemently did Newman object to a bad review from artist Ad Reinhardt that he sued him (unsuccessfully, but expensively) for libel. In 1961 he picked a fight with art historian Erwin Panofsky in ArtNews over the spelling of a picture caption. He objected to Mayor Daley of Chicago, to the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish citizens, and to the building of an expressway in Lower Manhattan. In his tweeds and with his pompous verbiage, in other words, he was everything in real life that his paintings refrained from being. But most of all, he objected to attempts to categorise, interpret or even describe his work, unless he was attempting these things himself. And in that case, he objected to criticism of his attempts.

Although Newman had apparently hoped to be an artist since childhood, none of his work survives from any earlier than 1944, when he was nearly 40 years old. This is because he carefully destroyed all his work prior to that date. Probably, as with Francis Bacon, this was a complicated tribute to the modernist cliché that great art must be entirely original – hence the need to kill off those father-figures and pretend that nothing he had seen had ever influenced his work, that the visual language he had created was all his own. Thus although elements of his mature style – the flat planes of uninflected colour, the lines, even the use of masking-tape – looked back to Mondrian, Newman was quick to attack Mondrian at every opportunity. The work that survives from 1944 up until Onement I owes a clear debt to Jean Miro and perhaps Arshile Gorky, and has affinities with what Rothko was doing at the same time – not that Newman ever acknowledged these. And then, once Newman had arrived at Onement I, his oeuvre for the rest of his life consisted of variations – sculptural, chromatic, whatever – on his one great discovery, his famous ‘zip’.

What was the zip? It was a vertical band of colour – that, and whatever one wanted to read into it. As for the word itself, Newman first used it only in 1966, nearly 15 years after he had first created the rat’s tail of pigment that earned the appellation. His work from 1946 to 1948 shows him fumbling for his zip, as it were, and his work after 1948 shows him hanging onto it for dear life. Newman wrote a great deal about his own art, and a handful of sympathetic critics – Thomas Hess, Harold Rosenberg – wrote even more. None of these writings have aged very well, although they look less embarrassing when seen in the context of the grossly engorged claims made for American painting at the time. It takes an effort of will to remember that in the late 1940s, it still seemed possible that painting might do all sorts of desirable things – speak a language that was at once universal and utterly personal, intone truths about tragedy and timeless qualities, even provide a new start for a world that was tired and morally soiled by economic depression, an awful war and the prospect of nuclear destruction. As much as Greenberg insisted on formal priority, Newman insisted on content – content in inverse proportion to the evidence for it on the canvas itself. Or as Newman described it with typical humility in 1962,

Almost fifteen years ago Harold Rosenberg challenged me to explain what one of my paintings could possibly mean to the world. My answer was that if he and others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism. That answer still goes.

And the thing one must remember, hard as it seems, is that as far as one can tell, Newman really meant this, really believed it. Heaven forbid that the colours should simply look marvellous, or that a painting might just look great on the wall. Loving Newman’s art now almost certainly means forgetting everything he wrote about it, and doing violence to his truths by substituting our own. Well, if he could see off those father-figures, why can’t we do the same?

Make no mistake: I don’t think I could ever love any of Newman’s work as he wanted us all to love, or at any rate to experience it. The early work is hard to like, not least since Newman’s own editing of his art encourages a teleological reading that gets in the way of direct experience – ‘That stripe! Yeah, that one! Go for it, and forget the wood-grain!’ Once we get to Onement III, however, we are in business. It is smaller than one might have expected, and the zip looks more handmade and tentative. But it certainly gives off a buzz, if only in art-historical terms. ‘That’s it, Barney! Go for it!’ And after this point, the cheering can stop, because Barney knows where he is, and simply works for the best effects – some of which are all but staggering. Abraham, a black-on-black work, is all gravitas, weight, a poignant confusion of power and mourning. The Name I almost sizzles – it is the ultimate rebuff to anyone who ever suggested that Newman painted on a monochrome ‘background’ and no photograph does justice to the kinetic qualities which animate it in real life. Joshua is a testament to the kind of belligerence that Newman could pack into even a very small (36” x 25”) painting. The Wild – the zip without the background, as it were – looks as silly in real life as it ever does in any photograph. Day Before One is a bleak, beautiful, tall thing surging with significance, heavier than canvas ought to be, half door and half grave. White Fire IV is a marvel, a cream-on-white painting, so pure and otherworldly that one catches one’s breath – this is perhaps as close to nothing as a painting ever should be, which I mean as praise, by the way. Its scale is human, as is the scale of all these paintings. It reads like a demigod standing before one, or a door to something one probably should not enter. Newman’s touch is very sure here, in a work that dates from 1968, less than two years before his death. The effect works. I passed this painting three times, and each time found its force almost disconcerting.

Having robbed us of Vir Heroics Sublimis, this show’s tour de force is the Stations of the Cross. And yes, it’s a silly title. Newman, according to Analee, had wanted to call the series by its subtitle – Lama Sabachthani. Of course this is what poured from Christ in that terrible ninth hour – Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? – not long before He gave up the ghost, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from top to bottom. But it is also part of the text of Psalm 22. In other words, it is a Christian truth prefigured in the Old Testament, as well as a familiar phrase from the Jewish ritual year. I wish that Newman had, for all the obscurity, been able to retain this awful phrase as his title. For the Stations of the Cross have nothing to do with the iconography of Christ’s long journey towards His death, if for no other reason than that their visual language offers no hope of redemption. I do not think, as some do, that one has to go as far as the Holocaust to find a meaning for this remarkable series of works. Newman, after all, like many American Jews of his background, had a complex series of views about the Holocaust which, frankly, one shrinks back from interrupting with stupid commentary. Suffice to say that on one hand, he had lost most of his uncles, aunts and cousins, the whole village in which his parents had grown to adulthood, but at the same time he felt very sure that he was an American, a largely secular individual and certainly part of no group. If I respect nothing else in his career, this stance is surely is worthy of everyone’s respect, if not their silence. Baseball meant a lot to Newman. So did racing. So did the Amerindians. So did the Holocaust. Why not leave it at that?

But if one looks to the origins of the Stations, I think they lie elsewhere. Newman lost his younger brother, George, in 1961, and afterwards knew a terrible and debilitating depression. It’s obviously a subjective reading, but for me, that is what the Stations express – bleak theme and variations of despair – that whole emptiness, the epistemological impossibility of consolation, that is long-term depression. Redemption simply is not there. For this reason, Stations of the Cross is a near-blasphemy, whereas Lama Sabachthani is exactly right. Is there anyone out there who has never, in their heart of hearts, thought that?

Tate Modern have placed considerable weight on the 14 Stations, bracketing them with another work, Be II. In a room all by themselves, they looked staggering. The scale of each work is small – surely not much over six feet tall – while the colour is almost entirely monochrome. Where the canvas remains uncovered, it has darkened, creating perhaps more contrast than Newman would have liked. One stares, at length, around a chapel-like room. Perhaps I should not say this, but since I first saw the show at a press view, I had a good five minutes alone with it, seated on a bench, able to scan the entire sequence, over time, with no interruption other than the occasional passing of an amiable security-guard. After five minutes, another critic came and sat quietly on the bench across from me. The point? Oh, as much as anyone ever has, I detest the insertion of the aesthetic as a substitute for the seriously spiritual, but in this room I really felt something very moving, and I’d be a doctrinaire old fraud if I didn’t own up to it. What I felt had nothing to do with Christ, and everything to do with the objectification of a certain sort of terminal despair. Objectifying it made it better, because there was at least a sense that it was real, rather than subjective and personal.

But was it this – whatever it was that I experienced – actually there in the picture? Almost certainly not, which I think perhaps takes us some way towards explaining why Newman’s canvasses are attacked more than those of any other artist. There is something extremely reflective about these works – they beam back at you what you expose before them. If you want them to mean nothing, this is precisely what they will mean. But if you wander amongst them with no very clear interpretive programme, there’s a chance that what you will find will have more to do with self-revelation than with art criticism. No wonder people occasionally start stabbling.

So in another mood, I expect my reading of the Stations, as well as some of the other works in the show, might have been different. Certainly, though, there is something profoundly beautiful and grave about this series, which the chapel-like hang brought out. I hope Sir Nicholas & Co are proud of this, because they ought to be. I also hope they realise that the powerful moment I enjoyed was perhaps almost a unique one. Had there been any standing figure in the room – let alone any speaking one, let alone three dozen, all babbling to each other – the experience would not have worked. What’s a critic to do? I saw something beautiful yesterday, and I can only hope that someone else out there may have the chance to see it, too.

Many, of course, will not. Many will stay away, hating the whole idea of Barnett Newman at Tate Modern. The brighter ones will hate the idea of Barnett Newman, the thicker ones the idea of Tate Modern per se. As ever, it is their own loss. Personally, I shall never understand the sort of sensibility that admires amorphous tonality in a Turner sunset, but hates it in a Rothko – or rather, if I understand it, I shall never feel anything more than contempt for it. I don’t read a Turner as Turner would, not do I read a Newman as Newman would. Does it matter? No, surely not. Most of what works for me at Tate Modern this week works because it looks beautiful on the wall, and because it reminds me of a long-ago era in which people believed things about art that no one could accept with a straight face now. I embrace it, tentatively, out of nostalgia – and more whole-heartedly, out of something close to admiration. This was once the future – now it’s a period style! It looks beautiful, though. Those of you with knives should stay away. As for those of you who are simply suspicious – come and look, and reserve your prejudices, and realise that after all it’s only art and not worth getting too upset about. Perhaps if you are lucky, you’ll end up finding more than you expected.

Barnett Newman is sponsored by The Henry Luce Foundation; it runs at Tate Modern from 20 September 2002 to 5 January 2003. Admission £7.50 (concessions £5.50).
Bunny Smedley, November 1, 2002 04:04 PM

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Fumbling with his zip: Barnett Newman at Tate Modern

  1. Gaw

    Just thinking about Newman and wondered whether you’d written a piece on him. Just superb – you have the happy knack (for me anyway) of eloquently expressing what I had been inchoately thinking. Kicking myself that I didn’t go to the show, though…

  2. Thanks, Gareth! High praise indeed.

    On the other hand, you are, on this occasion at least, right to kick yourself, because while there’s plenty that doesn’t really work at Tate Modern, the Newman canvases looked spectacular there — indeed, I’d be pleasantly surprised if Newman ever looks as good anywhere again, at least within our lifetimes — that being the sort of cheery reflection the artist himself would, perhaps, have slyly enjoyed.