9 November 2012

American Abstract Expressionist painters Adolf Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman issued a joint statement in the New York Times in 1943 that has been the focus of attention for me for the past fortnight.  There are five points to it:

1)    To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.

I find this an attractive description of what art is, and it certainly appeals to the explorer in me.  What they don’t explain is how much courage it takes to paint as if you really believe it.  Take the painting by Barnett Newman called ‘The Wild’ (1950).

Here it is seen next to his well-known work ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, and yes, it’s the thin ‘stripe’ on the right.  At eight feet tall but only one and a half inches wide, it represents to me a launching out into uncharted territory, a visual interpretation of the pioneer spirit.  It’s also a work that forces the viewer to be very aware of her own presence in front of it.  Newman was very interested in the awareness in time and space of his own being.  Writing about a visit to native American sites in 1949, he struggles with putting this into words:

“Looking at the site you feel, Here I am, here . . . and out beyond there (beyond the limits of the site) there is chaos, nature, rivers, landscapes . . . But here you get a sense of your own presence . . . I became involved with the idea of making the viewer present: the idea that ‘Man is Present’.”  (‘Abstract Expressionism’, Barbara Hess p52)


This sense of ‘here’, of presence is very clear in Newman’s seminal painting ‘Onement 1’  (1948)

On impulse, he decided to keep the masking tape on the canvas instead of removing it to allow the white stripe underneath to divide the colour, as he had been in the habit of doing.  Using a palette knife, he painted over the tape, stepped back, and then apparently realised that he’d achieved something special, though he was not sure at first exactly what that was.  However, it would be fair for us to describe his achievement as being an effective expression of the human presence in the world, of a sense of self-awareness in space.  Curiously, I understand that viewers tend to stand directly in front of the ‘zip’ when they contemplate the painting, as if aligning themselves with the human presence on the canvas.  I find that most intriguing.  I wonder if I would do just that if I saw one of his ‘zip’ paintings in the flesh?

Which brings me to the second part of the statement issued in the New York Times:

2)    This world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense

It is not common sense to think that a vertical stripe on a field of colour can cause the viewer to have a sense of what it is to be human, and to be conscious of her own presence in space and time, yet this is what Newman achieved.  The words of the statement sound a little immature in some ways, yet the work he made belies that completely.

3)    It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way.

Again Newman had the courage of his convictions, illustrated by his painting ‘Adam’  (1951):

Such a popular subject for painting in previous centuries.  Compare it with more conventional examples, from the Renaissance, for example . . . .

Yet no-one could have envisaged that it would be possible to create a visual image of the beginnings of humanity in such an abstract, intellectual way as Newman did.  Truly not the world as the average spectator sees it.  Does this tell us more about humanness?  Or more about Newman?

4)    We favour a simple expression of the complex thought.  We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal.  We wish to reassert the picture plane.  We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

Both Rothko and Newman used large flat forms, but the fascination that they have for the viewer is to do with a sense of space that is far deeper than the picture plane, a sense of living presence within the flat area.  It is this contradiction that has captivated so many.

Newman wrote: “One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there. And one of the nicest things that anybody ever said about my work is…that standing in front of my paintings [you] had sense of your own scale.”

Barnett Newman  –  ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’  1950 -51  


This could be something that is communicated in Newman’s canvases, a contact with the presence of the artist in his own work.  And that could owe something to the final point of the declaration:

5)    It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted.  This is the essence of academism.  There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.  We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.  That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.

Newman’s later paintings may only seem to some to be just a flat colour with a stripe on it, but it is evident that the very simplicity of the composition reveals a highly developed approach to the handling of complex thought.  His paintings are never about nothing.  The thinking behind his work was of the utmost importance, it was the very subject demonstrated on the canvas  Such pared down complexity challenges the viewer to think more about their own self-awareness, to have a better appreciation of their own individuality and, ultimately, of their freedom.


Barnett Newman  –  ‘ Genesis –  The Break’  (1946)


Carmen Mills



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