New York

Barnett Newman

I think it is time to stop taking Barnett Newman at his word. He’s a fine and important painter, but not for the reasons he gives. To believe that carefully placing a zip in a field of atmospheric color is an act of heroism, or the esthetic equivalent of terrifying primordial awareness, is an absurdly ambitious idea. While Newman’s understanding of his works is an overinterpretation, the formalist understanding of them is an underinterpretation. I would suggest that the truth of Newman’s achievement lies somewhere between his own grandiose claims and the formalist emphasis on pedestrian deconstruction—on art’s increasingly tedious self-scourging, its masochistic exposure of its ground of being.

Newman’s significance is more art-historical than crypto-philosophical or pseudo-esthetic. His work is profound, but its profundity has a source closer to home. His pictures are best comprehended as Modernist landscapes; more particularly, as 20th-century reconceptualizations of 19th-century American Luminist, “open” landscapes, having the same concern with ideal space, but implicitly recognizing that there is no longer any material for it. Space can only be abstractly articulated: Newman offers us interior landscapes, insufficiently concrete to be called scenic, yet relying on the idea of the panoramic. They are emptied panoramas, whose emptiness can be ambiguously interpreted as representing either the bankruptcy of American nature or its “respiritualization.”

Newman’s landscapes are sublime, but there is a special edge to their sublimity. Too often the sublime has been regarded as an end in itself, and as a rationalization for vagueness, when it usually leads back to a specific attitude toward reality. The effect of Newman’s paintings depends largely on atmosphere and light. Their sense of scale is conveyed by the “figural” zip. That zip is a flattened, abstract repoussoir device, serving the purposes of what Kant called the mathematical—as distinct from the dynamic—sublime. The zip is really dense atmosphere, blackened light, a precipitate of infinite space: the space of light materialized, codified, conventionalized, finally trivialized into a simple sign, yet made strangely opulent by its atmospheric articulation. It is the articulate element within an inarticulate—inchoate—space/light.

One can truly see this space/light by comparing Newman’s interior landscapes with the mythological ones of Thomas Cole, as well as with other, less obviously constructed allusive landscapes. Newman, I think, concludes the “argument” Cole began: namely, that the “empire” of American nature is in decline. In Newman’s pictures, nature is memorialized beyond history—it is a nostalgically commemorated ghost of itself. In Profile of Light, 1967, Newman’s zip is like the entrance to Eden—a monumental rock with a gap, through which light pours; in Anna’s Light, 1968, the “broken column” can be regarded as a repoussoir zip (no doubt all too static from Newman’s point of view). Newman may deconstruct the narrative painting, but his work rearticulates and extends that tradition: his landscapes function as impacted narratives.

Newman, employing the same rhetorical hyperbole as Cole—if now in the language of abstract art—uses landscape to suggest the destruction and, more acutely, the falsification of nature by American civilization. Newman’s paintings articulate the violation and redemption of the ideal American space of nature. They show us paradise lost, but preserved—rediscovered through art, the only space in which paradise can survive and be steadily contemplated. Newman’s heroism is founded on his trust in this fiction, his belief in its power to intervene in degraded reality. It is this belief that is embodied by the uncompromising look of his paintings.

Donald Kuspit