New York

Barnett Newman

Knoedler And Co.

The show of work done by Barnett Newman between 1960 and the present was a great disappointment, and there are still other reasons why it is not an interesting show to review. The principal one is that the issues it raises have been settled for some time. It is not important to ask, for example, why a painter who paints this kind of picture, and who has in the past shown himself to be so very sensitive about the respect paid to his work, should allow his paintings to be hung on brown velvet walls, as half of them are, and under uneven lighting, as most of them are. One can suppose it is because velvet is velvet, whatever the color, but to say that the creative avant-garde has allied itself to that extent with the Money Establishment is not news in New York and has not been for over a decade. My only reason for voicing the surmise now is that it might be relevant to the decline in the quality of the work, which is really spectacular. It often happens that an artist in his older years will be influenced by younger men, but with the best artists the younger men whose influence they undergo are themselves outstanding and their influence does not involve any lowering of the quality of the older man’s work. So if I say that Chartres, a triangular canvas done in 1969, reminds me of what Charles Hinman must have been doing in his sophomore year my readers will understand how dismayed I was. In fact in the entire show I found only one work of any interest: Jericho (1968–69) is a black triangular canvas with a strip of cadmium red light running from the middle of its base to the top, where its left edge intersects the apex while the right edge is slightly down one of the sides, and of course one wonders how it can seem to be straight. But I found the problem too gimmicky to be suitable as the finest moment in any worthwhile show.

At any rate, what I began by suggesting is that perhaps changes in the situation in which these works were painted have something to do with the loss of achievement and, so far as one can see, of ambition, concentration and impetus. I am not being ironical, or even pejorative, in trying to suggest how greatly the work of a painter such as Newman might be affected when he finds himself recognized and famous and his work bought at high prices: the change in his entire outlook would have to be vast. A friend of mine suggested that perhaps the work shown in this exhibition might not be the best that Newman did during the period that it covers––during much of it he was busy painting the Stations of the Cross, and it may be that the best of his energies were going into that; but of course this could only be true for a part of the period covered by the show. More interesting to me is the hypothesis that Newman’s interest in painting was weakened as he turned to sculpture and an entirely new group of problems.

These are all possibilities, but it seems vain to speculate about them since to evaluate them properly one would have to know what the artist himself was thinking and feeling, so I want instead to offer a final reason and one I can suggest with greater confidence, since all it involves is what I myself think and feel. It is that one reason why the show looks so bad is what has happened in the twenty years or so since Newman did his first characteristic work. A mere suggestion is all I can offer without trying to characterize what has happened since then, which this is not the place to do, but compared to what Louis was doing in the last four years of his life or to what Noland has been doing for half a dozen years, Newman’s surfaces are uninteresting and crude; even his color seems gross; the entire conception of the work is rudimentary. As I say, the work in the present show ranges from mediocre to wretched, but when I think back to earlier things by him, which I once liked, I see that they, too, seem now to present roughly the same deficiencies. It is true that what Louis did and what Noland has done in recent years is easier, from a certain point of view: the more elements a painting contains, the less precise their relationships have to be. The great number of intermediate degrees will obscure any error, provided only that the overall development is clear enough to subsume the parts. To put it very baldly, I think that Louis and Noland say more, even if one compares them with Newman’s good work. The Stations of the Cross, for instance, were excellent, and I am sure that everyone will agree that their interest was based on a kind of musicality, on variations and intervals as these were worked out over the whole series, of which the experience and the meaning were continuous, unitary things. Individually, how much would any of those paintings have amounted to? But even the entire series had no more in the way of incident than a single one of Noland’s horizontally striped paintings of 1967, let us say. It seems that it is very hard for paintings with only a little incident to amount to very much, and Newman’s paintings have always contained very few relationships.

In retrospect I wonder if Newman’s exegetes, myself included, have not always sensed this deficiency. It seems to me that we attempted to explain it away by suggesting that, in effect, the relationships in Newman’s work were implicit and historical––the idea was that an eye accustomed to other kinds of work will, in the presence of this radically new kind of painting, try to discover relationships of the kind it is used to and, failing to find them, will be interested in the syncopation between what it expects and what it finds. It is true that this would be visual incident enough! But whether this suggestion is convincing, or even plausible, I must leave to the judgment of the reader.

––Jerrold Lanes