PRINT November 1994


USUALLY THE WORKS that are going to matter most to one, like the people who are going to matter most, start doing so as one first sets eyes on them. The work I’ve chosen to write about is a piece I managed to live with for many years without seeing anything very special in it, and this despite the fact that it’s by a painter whose art I normally respond to so immediately that when I’m in museums I use it like a drug. I would not, though, have bothered to go on living with this particular example had it not been for the circumstances in which I acquired it.

It is a lithograph from an edition of 30 printed in 1961, one of three untitled lithographs of that year which were Barnett Newman’s first attempts at printmaking. Two years after he died, in 1970, his widow, Annalee Newman, whom I had not seen since his death, came to London at the time of his retrospective at the Tate and brought the print with her as a present for me. (It is a print she has given to several friends, as the artist had done.) I was very touched by her gesture and was glad to have a copy of one of Newman’s three first prints to go with the copy I already had of one of his two last prints, Untitled Etching #1 of 1969, also in monochrome, which I had bought from Newman’s dealer shortly after it was pulled. But I wasn’t so moved by the lithograph itself, and though I kept it on the wall, twenty years passed before I began to see it.

This happened when I finally started responding to the richness of the black, its simultaneous flatness and depth, hardness and softness. Black was a sacred color for the Abstract Expressionists, it was their lapis lazuli; they made a mystique of it, partly perhaps because of its austerity, partly perhaps because there was something splendidly macho in being able to produce a good strong black. If it took me so long to respond to the obvious beauty of the black in the Newman print, it must have been because I was somehow thrown by the adjacent gray, with its rubbed texture—thrown, I think, by a scratchiness that made it seem awkward. But then that awkwardness suddenly became interesting, the rubbed gray suddenly took on a strange, elusive color, and the whole thing was singing.

And now it was stopping me in my tracks every day, several times a day. It was not only gripping but incredibly sufficient. The more I looked at it, the more it made me wonder why painters since time immemorial had bothered to put in all those arms and legs and heads. (And I’m no Modernist by persuasion: Michelangelo and Poussin are my cup of tea.) The print’s elementary scope seemed to encompass everything a picture needed, yet I couldn’t explain to myself why it was so absorbing and compelling. This mystery only added to its stature.

Nevertheless, I kept on asking myself what it was in the work that could give it such a hold. One possible answer was that the print is a wonderfully condensed embodiment of two opposing and basic forms of existence in Modern painting—that the adjacent rectangles juxtapose the essence of Bonnard with the essence of Matisse. Another was the thought that in making this piece Newman was beginning even more than was his custom with a tabula rasa. It was one of his great strengths that his work asked fundamental questions about whatever medium he worked in, asked what were its first principles and requirements. So it was as if, making prints for the first time, working for the first time on a surface that was not going to be the surface of the actual work, he started thinking about the first principles of filling a surface, and proceeded to do exercises exemplifying them upon this unfamiliar surface, the lithographic stone.

Perhaps he started with the thought that it would be a good idea to separate the dimensions of the image from the dimensions of the surface. Why not do the obvious and draw a rectangle within that of the sheet? Next, why not articulate this inner rectangle by simply dividing it into two with a line, which might as well be a vertical line? Ought the line to bisect the rectangle? It would be more interesting if it didn’t, but the asymmetry should be close enough to symmetry to suggest that that had been a possibility. Next, how to distinguish between the two halves? Since the sheet was going to be white, why not begin with its opposite, black? And then why not use the other half to mediate between white and black—not just to mediate but to show the transition between them by having them intermingle, in such a way as to leave no doubt that the white had been the ground, the black the additive? And so as to convey the sense of a process?

Perhaps the attribution to the work of such a program helps to explain its air of improvised inevitability. Perhaps, too, the thought of that program gives a meaning to its minimalism, implying that it is not only an exemplar but a sort of allegory of the principle of less is more. That is speculation. What I know is that when I stand and look at it the whole of art is there.