PRINT May 2002




To the Editor:

In reviewing Brushes with History: Writing on Art from The Nation 1865–2001 [“Weekly Standard,” March], Jonathan Weinberg says that I was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and kindly remarks that it was “richly merited.” No writer was ever the victim of a more delightful mistake. The Pulitzer in question was not “the prize” but a fellowship in critical writing (1962-63), discontinued, I think, shortly after they had me. Ah, well.

Max Kozloff
New York


To the Editor:

While it is hard to disagree with Yve-AlainBois’s contention that Barnett Newman has been ill-served by both his critics and his admirers [“Here to There and Back,” March], I do want to take issue with his categorical dismissal of the importance of the Kabbalah in Newman’s work. To be sure, Thomas Hess’s attempt to find in the Kabbalah the master key to Newman’s paintings was overdone. But to call the Kabbalah “ultrasectarian” is to miss the attraction that Gershom Scholem’s books must have held for Newman—and we must assume that Newman’s use of cabalistic titles derives from his reading of Scholem. (As for the transliteration of the Hebrew, zimzum and tzimtzum are both permissible, and Newman of course used the latter in the exhibition “Recent American Synagogue Architecture.”)

Scholem’s revolutionary argument—repeated from his first book in English (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism) through to his last—is that the Kabbalah is neither authoritarian nor sectarian. In Scholem’s own words, it is “anarchistic,” and this anarchism allows the individual Kabbalist remarkable room for self- assertion. Given Newman’s own political anarchism, his strongly non-normative reading of Judaism (as witnessed again by his contribution to “Recent American Synagogue Architecture”), and his commitment to heroic and creative individualism, the appeal of Scholem’s interpretation of the Kabbalah should be obvious.

I am sure that Bois would accept that Judaism—which Kant and Hegel typified as the religion of the sublime—became an important (though not the sole) intellectual and emotional source of Newman’s great work of the ’50s and ’60s. Indeed, given the prominence of biblical titles as his examples, Bois’s article appears to admit as much.We might then want to ask about the relation between this source and Newman’s particular work. How did Newman’s peculiar understanding of Judaism inflect his formal choices? Following this line of questioning,we can begin to locate some of the resistance to Newman’s work in precisely that conjunction between source and work, title and painting that, as Bois shows, is so important. Among other things, such an approach would go a long way toward explaining the crypto-anti-Semitism of Hubert Crehan’s supersessionist rhetoric in his review of the 1959 French & Company show.

Although Bois has shown himself once again to be our most astute interpreter of Newman’s paintings, his article indicates, however unwittingly, that we might do Newman an injustice if we ignore the sectarian—in either his work or the reactions of his critics.

David Kaufmann
Chair, Philosophy and Religious Studies
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

Yve-Alain Bois replies:

I’m glad to retract “ultrasectarian” as characterizing the Kabbalah, but I would substitute the words esoteric and hermetic, qualities that Newman would have found just as antithetical to his mode of thinking. And he was deeply steeped in political anarchism decades before he read anything by Scholem. I find it unlikely that the great historian’s take on the Kabbalah as being “anarchist” would have made him forget Blanqui’s famous motto “Neither God nor Master.” This is not to deny Nauman’s interest in the Kabbalah, in Scholem, or the role his Jewish background played in his aesthetic formation. There are three issues at stake: the Kabbalah, Jewish identity, and religion.

Kabbalah: My main complaint is that Hess chose to read every Judaic or even biblical reference as cabalistic. Interviewed in 1981 by Lily Mark about Hess’s book, Scholem pointed out that almost everything presented by Hess as derived from the Kabbalah was Talmudic or Midrashic—that is, common in the Jewish literature centuries before the Kabbalah—and that Newman could have found his cabalistic-sounding titles (even Zimzum) in many other sources, such as Louis Ginzberg, whom he read as well. The phrases White Fire and Black Fire, for example, which send Hess’s cabalistic Geiger counter ticking wildly, are to be found in the first sentence of Ginzberg’s multivolume The Legend of the Jews, etc, etc.

Jewish identity: If Newman was vehemently opposed to being labeled a Jewish artist, it was not because he feared anti-Semitism on the part of his public. He was proud of his identity but found any balkanization of consciousness abhorrent.

Religion: Newman did not like to hear people speak of his art as “religious” (he had no qualms with “metaphysical”), and he did not complain when Hess called him an “atheist” in a public discussion about The Stations of the Cross. (Newman’s response: “I don’t think that I have to be a believer in that sense to say something about a subject that has meant something to me all these years.”) But he remained attached to the romantic idea of art as an originary experience and as a kind of ur-religion (in that sense he was much closer to Hegel,whose philosophy he despised, than he was aware). Probably around the same time that he wrote “The First Man Was an Artist” (1947). Newman scribbled in a notebook: “Religion was an attempt to institutionalize the art impulse. Art came before religion. Instead of art being derived or even concerned with religion or religious questions, religion is a concern with art.” What at first might seem a sacralization of art often turns out to be, in his writings, a secularization of religion. Newman’s library testifies to an anthropological taste for the comparative study of world religions, whose sacred texts he understood as myths. A great admirer of Spinoza’s biblical criticism,he conceived of the Scriptures as poetry, a reservoir of metaphors, and of theology as poetics. His attitude with regard to the Kabbalah is in the same vein.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge an omission in my text and to clear up a point of ambiguity: The first is the absence of the name of the Philadelphia exhibition’s curator, Ann Temkin, as well as that of her assistant, Melissa Ho, and of the museum’s twentieth-century conservator, Suzanne Penn. This show is one of the most intelligently installed I have ever seen, and its creators should receive full credit for it. Second, when I stated that Newman thought of drawing and painting as utterly separate domains, I failed to make clear that this concerned only the post-Onement I works. I believe the opposite is true for everything that preceded.