Los Angeles

Barnett Newman

Nicholas Wilder Gallery

The problem of commenting on the recent Newman suite of color lithographs is that there is precious little to deal with visually. The whole exercise is about a “stance” taken by the artist in his preface, largely unsubstantiated by the work itself, while at the same time strongly implied by the sumptuousness of its presentation in hand crafted book form as a limited edition of eighteen volumes. Starting with the vellum-covered box, a faint, centered “BN” is discerned. Continuing to the red title page, with a flourish is written “18 Cantos” and the artist’s signature. Then the Preface. Then Canto I: a vellum-colored rectangular block, cleaved by a white-of-the-paper upright band that just falls short of reaching its bordering sea of like-white. Canto II: black ground with thin blue pole echoed in the now-thinned white margin. Canto III: black ground and centered white pole with expanded top and bottom margins. Canto IV: mottled black ground with denser black pole, centered. Canto V: a burnt out (with acid), white pole, shifts to the right in the same mottled ground. Canto VI: same stone, white pole more eaten, white side-margins are gone. Canto VII: lighter blue ground, with mottled darker blue overprinting leaving an off-center band. Canto VIII: darker blue retreats to right, leaving the field to the lighter blue. Canto IX: shiny black band appears on far left of lighter blue field. Cantos X, XI, XII, XIII are successive impressions in which the imprint area is split in two and changes from orange-green pairings to yellow-green to orange-brown pairings. Cantos XIV, XV and XVI: the dark purply red bands increasingly darken in overprinting a lighter red ground. Canto XVII: two deep rusty reds almost don’t separate, with the impression printed very tight into the narrowed margin. Canto XVIII: the two reds now separate clearly and in a balance of energy inhabit the largest white space since Canto I. And so it goes, with color changes from blues and blacks to warmer ranges of rusty and purply reds and browns, with changes in margin and density of inking. The view of each lithograph either lengthened or shortened, compressed or opened in a play of shifting, thinning, fattening bands or poles inside the rectangular molds. The whole of this exhibition is mounted on a simple, doubly slanted grey coffin-like table, as the artist did not intend these works to hang on a wall.

Newman, opening his preface, states: “I should say that it was the margins made in printing a lithographic stone that magnetized the challenge that lithography has had for me from the very beginning. No matter what one does, no matter how completely one works the stone (and I have always worked the stone the same way I paint and draw—using the area—complete), the stone, as soon as it is printed, makes an imprint that is surrounded by inevitable white margins. I would create a totality only to find it change after it was printed—into another totality.” He continues, “The struggle to overcome this intrusion—to give the imprint its necessary scale so that it could have its fullest expression, (and I feel that the matter of scale in a lithograph has usually not been considered) so that it would not be crushed by the paper margin and still have a margin—that was the challenge for me.”

The question of the artist’s “stance” mentioned earlier can now be returned to. The lithographs themselves, so inoperative, so inactive visually, simply cannot be accommodated to Newman’s program “challenge.” The significance of this focus on altering the rectangular white dashes that border the image is to betray a missing contact with the primal substance itself, that which is margined and affecting. For in these works, the printed configuration becomes “object,” worked upon by “subject,” the margins. And where there is no interpenetration between the two, as is the case here, the interest itself is “marginal” to the making of the work of art. Newman, in attempting to map a new position in lithography is really only designing a different “presentation.” This stance or position has over-born, inasmuch as it is unsupported by any new or demanding color-configuration in the imprint area itself. The monotony and boredom of this exercise is unrelieved by any of the eighteen Cantos and no amount of grave and pompous presentation will change a peripheral idea into one of substance.

Irving B. Petlin