new-york

Barnett Newman

Pace/MacGill Gallery

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

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