PRINT March 2002


As the Philadelphia Museum of Art's retrospective “Barnett Newman” goes on view this month, art historian and Artforum contributing editor Yve-Alain Bois examines the legacy of an artist whose oeuvre he considers the most difficult of the last century.

As the first US retrospective of Barnett Newman’s work in thirty years goes on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, let us hope that this vastly underappreciated artist will at last get his due. By this I mean not only that he will be recognized, along with Pollock, as one of the two most important painters of the postwar period, but that his work will be better understood by those who profess to like it.

Newman’s early reception was disastrous. The reviews of his first two shows (at Betty Parsons in 1950 and 1951) were asinine—especially in journals supposedly supporting the avant-garde, like Art News. There the writer was Thomas Hess (who would change his mind a decade later and become one of Newman’s most vocal partisans). Read him on Be I, Newman's largest and starkest canvas from 1949, a vertical rectangle of deep red electrified by a thin white line running down its center: “It is quite like what happens to a hen when its beak is put on the ground and a chalk line [is] drawn away from it on the floor.” Newman expected such philistinism from the press, but the cold shower he got at his Parsons shows from his fellow Abstract Expressionists (for whom he had been a sort of benevolent impresario and public spokesman throughout the ’40s) left him with the feeling that the world out there was at best impervious to his art if not downright hostile. This accounts in part for his guns-ready attitude toward the pettiness of the art world (many of his voluminous “letters to the editor” remain masterpieces of the sarcastic genre); but it also explains his unfailing generosity toward younger artists and, more important, his inveterate perfectionism.

Throughout his life, Newman destroyed much of what he made: A work had to wholly satisfy him or it was banished, especially after he had completed what he often called his “first” painting, Onement I, 1948. This was how he managed to withstand the harsh treatment he received. He had to be confident in his own greatness; his confidence was his armor. When he finally received a measure of the attention he deserved, he was often urged by supporters (Greenberg, for example) to produce more work. He politely responded that he did not care for redundancies. Though Newman’s oeuvre looms large, it is quantitatively minute: At last count I tallied 122 paintings (11 predating Onement I, all of which are in the show, incidentally), 88 drawings (more than half pre-Onement I), 41 prints, 6 sculptures (7 if one distinguishes the 1950 plaster version of Here I from the 1962 bronze), 1 multiple (silk screen on Plexiglas), and 1 architectural model. That’s all. In the current context of market-driven overproduction, one can only admire such restraint.

It took a lot of guts, and Newman was called a dilettante as a result (by Dore Ashton, as late as 1966). He was literally boycotted by critics, colleagues, collectors, and museums for the first half of his mature career (that is, until his watershed exhibition at French & Co. in March 1959, his third one-man show in New York).1 Then the general indifference was suddenly replaced by a split attitude: A small but steadily growing minority headed by young artists looked at his work in awe while most critics remained hostile. As difficult as it is to imagine today, the majority of the reviews of the “Stations of the Cross” exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1966) were highly negative. And Newman’s fifth New York show, at Knoedler in 1969, did not fare much better—just one year before his death! (Artforum’s was not the nastiest review, but it was nasty enough.)

All this hurt, to be sure. But what was worse, perhaps, was the incomprehension of sympathizers. That Dore Ashton thought Newman was a geometric painter and compared him to Victor Vasarely was to be expected—after all, she was straightforward in her antipathy to his work. But given everything Newman had written to combat such blind misconceptions, he was understandably wounded when admirers professed similar opinions. The letter he sent to John Gordon, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who in 1962 wanted to include him in an exhibition on geometric abstraction, is a case in point. He thanked Gordon for his interest (“You are the only one at the Whitney, in the many years I have been on the scene, who has ever offered me an invitation to show, and it has not been easy for me to refuse you”) but affirmed the radical alterity of his work with regard to the tradition of “geometric abstract art,” whatever this meant at the time: “What is involved here are two separate realms.” (The silly idea of Newman as a geometric painter refused to go away. Exactly a quarter of a century later, in 1987, his widow, Annalee Newman, would send a copy of this same letter in response to a loan request for a similar show organized by the Albright-Knox Museum.) If the foregoing label was bad enough, what about Newman as proto-Minimalist? Newman was fond of his admirers among the Minimalist generation, particularly Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin—he even gave a speech at the opening of Flavin’s famous 1969 exhibition in Ottawa. He disliked, however, being presented as their guru or as a “cog in a formalist machine,” as he angrily wrote to poor Walter Hopps, who was organizing the 1965 São Paulo Bienal (to which Newman was invited hors concours with six younger artists). Perhaps the most lethal label is Newman as Conceptual artist, for it prevented people from paying attention to the extraordinarily varied quality of his touch, to the wide range of his pictorial effects. Sadly, it also provided a good excuse for what can only be described as a criminal lack of care for his canvases—Mondrian’s work dramatically suffered from a similar misconception: Why worry about painterly qualities if everything is just cosa mentale? Newman’s paintings almost invariably came back damaged from exhibitions and have been frequent victims of outright vandalism—perhaps more so than those of any other artist in this century. What's more, they have not always been afforded the best treatment by restorers. This is changing, at last.2 In all of these cases, Newman protested without end against the mislabeling to which his art was constantly subjected. He continued to say “not there—here,” a phrase he used for the title of a 1962 canvas.

The ultimate kiss of death was posthumous, however: Thomas Hess’s interpretation of Newman’s art as entirely governed by a deep interest in the Kabbalah and its computational riddles, which forms the core of Hess's monograph accompanying the 1971 MoMA retrospective. Taking his cue from the inclusion of two books by the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem in Newman’s library (among myriad other titles on various religions, including Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Christianity), as well as from the clear borrowing of cabalistic terms by the artist for the titles of some of his works (Zim Zum, for example—but even then he altered the spelling, which is usually tsimtsum), Hess went overboard and read every painting as a rebus encoded with an arcane language of numbers—getting most of the proportions wrong, by the way, and endlessly revealing “secret” symmetry where nothing was more plain for us to see. The fact that Newman never spoke of the Kabbalah—and certainly not with Hess, who would otherwise have mentioned it in the small book he wrote about (and largely with) the artist two years earlier—did nothing short of confirm for the critic his own circular logic, that if the artist never mentioned this esoteric strain of Jewish mysticism, it was precisely because he was an adept, sworn to secrecy. There were voices to protest such nonsense (Annalee Newman, for one, but also Lawrence Alloway and Harold Rosenberg) but to no avail. Hess’s paranoiac reading seemed the perfect antidote to the purely “formalist” (Greenbergian) take on Newman’s art—a perspective for which the artist himself had only contempt—and it was considered for some time the most authoritative interpretation (it remains so to this day in some quarters).

Will the Philadelphia show succeed in turning the tide of sloppy art writing on Newman? The time is ripe, and I think in many ways the exhibition will overcome the failure of his critics. Above all, the stunning diversity of Newman’s achievement—even given the artist’s small output—should surprise everyone not thoroughly familiar with his work, and that is a good start. Organizing a Newman retrospective at this juncture is a spectacularly difficult enterprise. At the outset one has to cope with the fact that the ideal exhibition—one in which all his paintings, at least from 1948 on, would be on view—is plainly impossible. After so many disasters, potential lenders have finally become aware of the fragility of Newman’s canvases; many cannot travel. As for those that can, wrenching a loan from their owners (private or institutional) requires Schwarzeneggerian curatorial muscle as well as great diplomatic finesse. That the Philadelphia team managed to assemble more than half of the paintings testifies that they are not lacking in either attribute.

Setting aside for the moment the issue of Newman’s work in other media, why would the ideal exhibition be an exhaustive one, as far as the post-Onement I paintings are concerned, rather than a judiciously edited selection? I have become convinced, after several years of research on the artist, that Newman—uniquely in the twentieth century—conceived of his pictorial oeuvre as a deck of cards in which every work has a particular function and the specific role each plays varies according to the changing context. I was not the first to have this idea—Alloway stated it as far back as 1969, in an essay modestly titled “Notes on Barnett Newman” (Art International, Summer) for which he consulted with the painter: “As his total work increases so do the number of connections between paintings. Newman is almost alone as a painter in insisting on maintaining this web of internal correspondences.” Comparing the manner in which the artist selected his works for his (rare) exhibitions to that of “a poet who arranges the order of poems in a book,” he added: “Each poem is complete but the proximity of old and new elicits continuity and echoes.” I would emend his quote to say each poem is unique, for Newman’s dream of the absolute unicity of the work of art—this is one of the meanings of the word onement—is perhaps what most distinguished him from ’60s proponents of the “serial attitude,” contrary to what was written by friend and foe alike at the time of the “Stations of the Cross” exhibition.

Such a view regarding unicity would seem to speak in favor of curatorial choice, but given Newman’s very limited corpus, I am afraid to say I would not trust anyone in the role of its editor, and for that matter I don’t think one should. I’d like us visitors to have a totally free hand, an opportunity to play at matchmaking ourselves, with no restrictions or guidelines other than those provided by the artist. Given today’s situation, we’ll get neither a complete deck of cards nor one that seems to have been preselected for any reason other than availability (the only exception being the pre-Onement I canvases, for which an enormous effort has obviously been made to gather all the works, but those are not in the deck of cards I have in mind).

We will nonetheless have ample occasion to construct families of works even if not every member is present—that is, of course, unless some unforeseeable catastrophe scares off certain paintings (I’m thinking in particular of the rarely sighted White Fire I, 1954, scheduled to come to Philadelphia from Tel Aviv). Some groupings will be obvious: We will be able to see not only three of the Onements together (Onement I, 1948; III,1949; and V, 1952) but also several related works in which a field is “declared” (Newman’s favorite word) by a “zip” smack along the axis of symmetry: from the almost never shown End of Silence, 1949 (which is absolutely singular in its impastoed paint kneaded over the entire surface with a palette knife), to the second version of Be I, dating from 1970. We will have the pleasure of seeing together four of the six extraordinary “skinny” canvases Newman painted in 1950 (including The Wild, eight feet high and one and a half inches wide—hopefully hung proximate to Vir Heroicus Sublimis, to which it is directly related; all these works were in the 1951 Parsons show). We will see Joshua, 1950, and Jericho, 1968-69, the only two canvases in which a black field is struck by a bright red zip, and be able to ponder the different ways in which the zip offsets the compositional balance in each work. And several of Newman’s largest paintings will probably steal the show (the sheer fact of their presence being just short of a miracle—does one realize what it takes to bring from Japan a twenty-foot-wide canvas that cannot be rolled?). Here I have in mind not only VHS (I always wondered whether Newman would have liked the abbreviation; I think he might have, as he took pleasure in this kind of serendipitous interplay with mass culture) but Uriel, 1955, enigmatic in terms of both color and composition (it is the last painting before a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, a painter’s block broken with Outcry in 1958, after a brush with death and a prolonged hospital stay), and the oceanic Anna’s Light, 1968, perhaps Newman’s most powerful painting. Unfortunately, the Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue clan is not to be reunited here—and never will be, I’m afraid, since III is only a ghost of itself, with no chance of recovering its original radiance—but we’ll get a taste of the clan with the inclusion of I and II (a good pairing in that it will force us to look at the difference in painterly treatment between I, in which Newman took advantage of the modulations and transparency of oil, and II, rock hard in acrylic).

Many elaborate filial relations will be lost on us. The exhibition is rather deficient in works from the early ’60s, so a whole group of paintings directly related by their titles (including Tertia, Triad, and The Three) is represented only by the Day-Glo-orange fire of The Third. But at least we will be able to observe many subtle color variations from one canvas to the next (is the bright red-orange/reddish-maroon chord Newman favored in 1948–49 always the same? and what about his inimitable deep blues?) and ponder the infinite diversity of Newman's blacks, sometimes within the same work, as in the spectacular Black Fire I, 1961, an aspect that will finally be noticed if the fourteen Stations of the Cross are hung in the painting’s vicinity. We will also reflect on the pattern of Newman’s use of color throughout his career. Until 195s it was mainly tonal, Newman juxtaposing various shades of the same hue or of hues coming from the same region of the spectrum. From 1958 to 1966 he worked mainly in black and white. In the end his work became fiercely nominalist—his colors became spectral, fully saturated, unambiguous, and easy to name, as if taken from a color chart-after he decided to break what he called Mondrian’s mortgage (in this he was encouraged by the example of younger artists; in fact, at one point he considered dedicating Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue I to Jasper Johns). We’ll be startled by the range of formats, and we'll have enough ammunition to realize that, given the radical economy of Newman’s pictorial world, every single detail counts—that, as he continually pointed out, there is no void in his work.

The problem is, this is only one part of the job we'll have to perform if we want to avenge Newman of past injustices—and put to shame those who still dismiss the work today (the most vocal being Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes). The rest of our task is even more difficult—appropriately enough, since in my opinion Newman himself is the most difficult artist I can name. We will have to reflect on the signification of this art—to think about what his fascination with inaugural moments, in particular the Book of Genesis, entailed, or about his numerous declarations concerning presence and his wish to give the beholder “a sense of place.”

All these thematic complexes (creation, presence, sense of place) are interrelated and enhanced in every canvas, albeit differently each time. Perhaps the most telling case remains Onement I, which looks so similar to Moment, painted two years before. Both small canvases consist of a vertical rectangular field divided symmetrically by a central vertical element—but a gulf separates the two works. A hint is given by the respective “grounds.” While the field of Onement I is painted as evenly as can be, in Moment we are confronted with a differentiated field that functions as an indeterminate background and is pushed still farther back in space by the band—the band is not yet a zip; it still functions as a repoussoir. As Newman would later say of this work and the few other paintings of the period that remain, it gives a “sense of atmospheric background,” of something that can be thought of as “natural atmosphere.” As a result, what he procured was an image, something that was not congruent with but applied to its field and thus could pretend to extend beyond its limits—something that had no adherence to its support (conceived as a neutral receptacle) and could have been worked out previously in a sketch (as indeed it was). Or, to put it otherwise, Moment, a pre-Onement I work like Gea, Genesis—The Break, The Word I, and The Command, contained an ideograph, a visual symbol of the idea of Creation, the original vision of light and dark. By contrast Onement I is, in itself, an ideograph of Creation. (One has only to recall that Gea had figured in the show titled “The Ideographic Picture,” curated by Newman in January 1947 to measure the distance he had traveled since then in his understanding of the concept of the ideograph.) Onement, an archaic English word from which atonement derives, means “the fact of being made into one”: The painting does not represent wholeness but declares it in uniting the field and the zip into a single entity. In other words, the field asserts itself as such through its stark symmetrical division by the zip.

Of course, the zip is still a simple vertical “line,” hence a ready-made sign preexisting in some absent stock of signs that—like all linguistic symbols—can be summoned and used at will. There is no escape, in other words, from the play of absence and deferral inherent in all forms of language; but at least the significance of the zip depends entirely on its coexistence with the field to which it refers and which it measures and declares for the beholder. Onement I is indeed an ideograph or, to put it more generally, a sign, but it is a sign of a special kind, one that emphasizes a certain circularity between its signification as a sign and the actual situation of its utterance: It partakes of the category of words that linguists call “shifters,” such as personal pronouns or markers like now, here, right here (not coincidentally, these are Newman titles). Like all previous paintings by Newman, Onement I is concerned with the myth of origin (the initial split), but for the first time this myth is told in the present tense. And this present tense is an attempt to address the spectator directly, immediately, as an “I” to a “You.”

Analyzing the precise means through which Newman conveys this present tense in each of his canvases—he does so differently each time—would require a whole treatise, so I’ll go at the issue of meaning in his work by returning to the matchmaking strategy I have focused on to this point.

The worst consequence of Hess’s biased (and often dishonest) metonymic confusing of something as ultrasectarian as the Kabbalah and the whole of the Judaic tradition was that it prevented those few Newman fans who were not taken in by the critic’s symbolist mania from paying attention to the artist’s titles (I speak from my own experience, but I am far from alone). In resisting the cabalistic mantra, some of us threw the baby out with the bathwater—the baby here being the important function that a title, biblical or otherwise, had for Newman not only as a metaphor (for the mood the artist was in when he painted the work, as he himself stated) but also, along with color, format, and composition, as an invitation to establish links between work from different periods. The links are not always as obvious as those between Joshua and Jericho, which escaped no one. I’ll give an example: that of the family I call “Abraham and its progeny.”

Abraham, 1949, was one of Newman's most prized works. He always insisted that it was the first black on black painting (and blasted anyone who would praise Ad Reinhardt’s “Ultimate” paintings without mentioning this precedent). He also associated it with the “tragic figure of the father” (and much has been made of the fact that, indeed, Abraham was his own father’s name). Less known is the fact that Abraham was a painting born under the condition of utter terror—in an unpublished interview, Newman tells how long it took him to overcome his fear of painting the central band black (and indeed, he would return to a black-black juxtaposition only in his prints). Terror, Firstness, Fatherhood: Which biblical name could better evoke simultaneously these three states of being than that of Abraham, the first patriarch, the father of the three monotheistic religions, the poor soul shaking from head to toe at God’s request that he kill his own son? (Needless to say, Krerkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which mainly concerns Abraham's plight, was in Newman’s library.)

Now, Abraham is the first major canvas in which Newman departs from bilateral symmetry (yet without entirely freeing his composition from its hold) and the one in which he begins to investigate the power of lateral expansion. The next step is Galaxy (the first painting with two zips, according to Tony Smith, who acquired it), immediately followed by Covenant and The Promise (all works from 1949). Here is how the music of titles tells us to look for compositional links (the titles were probably chosen at the same time, in the late ’50s, long after the canvases had first been exhibited). Abraham is the one who made a Covenant with God—who in turn promised Abraham a miraculous son (in his old age, from his infertile wife) and through him a multitudinous seed, equal in number to the stars of the heavens. Fortunately, in this case, the Philadelphia exhibition deals us enough of the cards—only Galaxy is absent—to almost fill the hand.

There is, of course, much more one could say about Newman on the eve of this major retrospective. I have not discussed his prints, sculptures, and drawings, not only because I think they are less important than his paintings (only slightly so: Newman’s etchings and aquatints of 1968, which he called Notes, are for me the best prints made in the second half of this century, bar none) but because I think that Newman approached each medium very differently, with a very different set of questions and rules in mind (he himself was clear about this, notably in his preface to his 1963–64 portfolio of lithographs, 18 Cantos). In particular, and contrary to what has become a commonplace of the Newman literature, I believe that he kept the domains of drawing and painting almost entirely separate, rarely thinking of his accomplishment in one medium while working in the other—which is in part why he insisted that he never made any sketches. Given that one can’t have all the paintings in one place, we should be thankful to have all his sculptures in Philadelphia. And as for Newman’s pre-Onement I works, to which so much gallery space is devoted: It’s a service to be able to see all the early paintings, if only because it helps us understand how definitively the page was turned in 1948.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modem Art at Harvard University and a contributing editor of Artforum.



1. For example, Newman was conspicuously left out of the “15 Americans” exhibition curated at MoMA by Dorothy Miller in 1952, which included among others Pollock, Rothko, and Still. Until Ben Heller began to collect his work (in 1957), he had sold only four (small) canvases, mainly to friends. And it is thanks to Heller's indefatigable insistence that he was included in the landmark exhibition “The New American Painting” that toured Europe for a year and a half and finally landed at MoMA (which had organized it) in summer 1959 (after the French & Co. show). It was only at that moment, while scores of paintings by his friends had long adorned the walls of the museum, that Alfred Barr purchased Abraham, Newman's first painting ro enter the permanent collection of an American museum (it remained the only one for quite some time).

2. The link between the notion that Newman is a Conceptual artist and the irresponsible way his works have been handled was never made clearer than in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous restoration of Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, which had been slashed three rimes along its entire width by a deranged iconoclast. Both Wim Beeren, the director of the Stedelijk Museum at the time, and his soon to be successor, Rudi Fuchs, put forth this idea of a Conceptualist Newman in defense of the shoddy conservation treatment. (Noting the “conceptual origin” of the painting, Fuchs went as far as to write: “Actually, it is a strongly non-material work that appears to the eye like a mirage. The question of the handwriting of the artist only comes up as a sentimental problem. The painting could also have been painted again from scratch. If the painter were still alive, that is what he probably would have done” [“Het rode vlak,” NRC Handelsblad, September 27, 1991]. This last part of the statement is perhaps not entirely erroneous: Newman did make a second version of Be I at the very end of his life, when it had become clear that the first version, dating from 1949, was damaged beyond repair—but, on the one hand, this is exceptional, and, on the other, it does not mean in the least that Newman was indifferent to texture—on the contrary.) To be fair, Fuchs made amends when he had to deal with the restoration of Cathedra, yet another work savagely slashed by the same lunatic and in exactly the same manner. This time Fuchs gave his full financial and moral support to the team that dealt with this immensely difficult repair, headed by Irene Glanzer. The treatment of the work is Finally completed, after four years of agony: It is absolutely splendid and should definitively raise the standard of conservation practice.