“When you see a person for the first time, you have an immediate impact. You don’t have to really start looking at details. It’s a total reaction in which the entire personality of a person and your own personality make contact. To my mind that’s almost a metaphysical event. If you have to stand there examining the eyelashes and all that sort of thing, it becomes a cosmetic situation in which you remove yourself from the experience.”1
In the last post we saw how important Levinas thought it was to be able to get beyond ourselves to see the other person. The difficulty, though, as he knew, is that many of us are all too caught up in ourselves. The narcissistic allure of the real and metaphorical mirror is too much for some. Most of us keep this semi-under wraps and try not to let the beast out on the prowl that often. One man who didn’t was the artist Barnett Newman, who unfortunately wove himself into the fabric of post-war US art that became know as Abstract Expressionism.
Newman came late to painting via a philosophical education and life-style that included being a substitute art appreciation teacher, a mayoral candidate for New York City, a theatre manager, an amateur botanist, an elected member of the American Ornithologists Union, and a writer amongst other activities. After a brief spell of work protesting against geometry with such paintings as Euclidian Abyss and Death of Euclid, he came to create the work that would inaugurate the rest of his artistic production and give fulfilment to his life.
On the 29th of January 1948, on the occasion of his forty-third birthday Newman painted Onement I and then “lived with that painting for almost a year trying to understand it,”2 so he told David Sylvester in 1965.
From this creative moment something was borne out of Newman’s hand that would occupy him artistically for the rest of his life:
“I realised that I’d made a statement which was affecting me and which was, I suppose, the beginning of my present life, because from then on I had to give up any relation to nature, as seen. That doesn’t mean that I think my things are mathematical or removed from life. By ‘nature’ I mean something very specific. I think that some abstractions – for example, Kandinsky’s – are really nature paintings. The triangles and the spheres or circles could be bottles. They could be trees, or buildings. I think that in Euclidean Abyss and Onement I removed myself from nature. But I did not remove myself from life. And I think I got myself involved in what I began to realise was the true thing in relation to life for me, which in a sense was my life; it became more personal.”3
Clearly, Newman noted his turn away from illusionist art and any potential symbolism, such as he attributed to Kandinsky, into a new realm of abstraction, but it is in how he described this turn, which interests me. There was a deep personal identification with the work he produced: “I’d made a statement which was affecting me and which was… the beginning of my present life.” Onement 1, from what Newman said about it, appeared to overturn the traditional relationship of a work and its author to such an extreme extent that Newman felt himself to be the one created. At this moment of realisation, then, a vital relationship is built up between the painter and the painting, whereby the former has in some sense painted himself. This notion of self-creation is borne out, if you pardon the pun, by the fact that Newman painted Onement I on his birthday; the significance of which was certainly not overlooked by the artist. The validity of this ‘birth’ moment has been questioned, but ultimately the importance of its truth claim lies in the artist’s perception of it; to him it happened on his birthday. From this date on Newman was to start his life anew exploring the repercussions of what he had found in Onement I. Jeremy Lewison equates the period directly after its completion as that which resembles the Lacanian mirror stage in child development: “the ‘mirror stage’.”4 This Lacanian stage occurs between six and eighteen months in the life of a child and “is the period when the infant begins to recognise himself in the mirror.”5 In a certain sense, Newman was recognising himself in his mirror, Onement I, and this ‘mirror’ would be forever recreated by Newman, painting after painting. An oeuvre of self-fascination had begun.
“Just as I affect the canvas, so does the canvas affect me”6 was the way Newman expressed his personal identification with the work. And such was the identification that it also allowed the privilege of defying set relationship parameters by having multiple incarnations. So that each of Newman’s works post Onement I could perform the role of his ‘mirror’, affecting, reflecting, and even being Newman’s silent self. Indeed, the last quote, concerning the affect of the canvas, was written by Newman about his Stations of the Cross Series: Fourteen works from 1958 – 1966.
Such was the impact that Onement I had on Newman’s idea of self that at the end of his year trying to understand the painting he wrote, speaking on behalf American artists:
“We are freeing ourselves of the impediment of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making Cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”7
Newman’s art, as seen by him then, was in some way himself. The work on canvas was a manifestation of the very being of the artist; it was Barnett Newman, a member of the human species, in paint. For Newman this was true of all his works from that moment on. Lewison takes this idea further when suggesting the possibility of particular paintings relating to individual events in Newman’s life:
“[W]ithout attempting to psychoanalyse Newman through the limited biographical information we have – within Newman’s life there were very specific moments that might be interpreted as the cause of traumatic experience and which, I propose, he unconsciously abreacted through the process of painting. The first was the creation of Onement I, the recognition of the self as other… The second was the death of his father, after which he painted Abraham (1949); the third was his heart attack which engendered Outcry (1958) and The Stations of the Cross; the fourth was the death of his brother George, memorialised in Shining Forth (to George) (1961); and the fifth was the death of his mother, commemorated in Anna’s Light (1968).”8
That these paintings relate to known events in Newman’s life, and indeed three are named after close family members who died, one has to ask the question whether Newman also painted personal episodes of his self-hood that were not traumatic, because he declared on numerous occasions his painting to be of his self. The answer to be conclusive would involve a far deeper investigation than space will allow us here, but as a reasonable question to ask I believe it still stands even if one acknowledges that Newman did not actually name any of his post Onement I (inclusive) works until 1957-58. The painting of Abraham might not have been named until later, but who could deny that Newman painted it the time because of the death of his father.
Lewison sums up his essay on Newman by connecting the issue of ‘self’ with that of Newman’s signature on the canvas:
“The painter stands before the canvas and projects his thoughts and feelings onto it such that it becomes an extension or reflection of him… [Newman] stood before them and sensed his own presence while contemplating his ‘other’. The emphatic signatures on the front face of many paintings merely confirm such a reading. He could have signed them on the back like Rothko and Still, but he made a conscious decision to sign the front.”9
In 1950, for his first solo exhibition, Newman was photographed by Aaron Siskind. One shot shows him looking at Be I from a distance of ten feet; and the other cleverly uses double exposure to produce the vertical upright of a door superimposed on top of Newman as he stands at the entrance to the exhibition room.
The next year Hans Namuth takes three photos of Newman’s second solo exhibition with the artist included. In one he and Betty Parsons stand on either side of The Wild, in the second his body is only half seen from behind a door way, and in the third he is superimposed twice on top of Vir Heroicus Sublimus each time with a ‘zip’ slicing through his body.
Finally in 1958, he and an unidentified woman stand in front of Cathedra, approximately eighteen inches from the canvas.
In the last five of these photographs Newman was conspicuously at pains to position himself in such a way as to either demonstrate the equivalence he saw between the ‘zip’ and himself or in the last two cases to physically exert his presence in the work. In all five of these photos the artist is trying to make us see his presence within his art. The double exposure over Vir Heroicus Sublimus even seems to joke with his dual appearance and is potentially suggesting that the work itself is a ‘double’ of him. With this in mind the photo of him and Betty Parsons either side of The Wild becomes a shot of the gallery owner with two Newmans.
The last photo for us to consider is actually a series taken by Ugo Mulas in 1965 of Newman standing in front of a primed canvas.
There are actually fifteen shots showing Newman waving his hands about him in all manner of gestures, presumably as he held forth vocally. Ann Temkin suggests that:
“In Mulas’s photographs Newman ‘speaks’ his paintings, reconciling the paradox of a mute painting that he claimed presents his ‘self’ with his life as a voluble, opinionated man who to an extraordinary degree lived for language.”10
Personally, I see the photos as yet another opportunity taken by Newman to graphically illustrate the content of his work, his physical presence acting as a signifier, and replacement, for his usual presence articulated in paint.
Combined together, themes such as Newman’s desire to show his presence photographically, the role of the signature as another method of presenting his presence, the painting of personal events in his life, the declared painting of the ‘self’, and the idea of the artist being created – birthday and all – reveal what is surely an immense personal involvement with his art by the artist. Although all these themes, individually, could be suggestive of alternative thinking, when placed together there appears a body of evidence that is virtually irrefutable and points solely towards Newman as an artist with a specific purpose: a self-revelation that left no room for any other person – a self-obsession.
In his interview with David Sylvester, Newman tackled the issue of the viewer’s engagement by optimistically expressing what he believed the viewer could gain from his work:
“I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”11
In this hope Newman expected the painting to potentially act as a catalyst for the existential self-realisation of the viewer unlocking an awareness of self that has until now lain dormant. As well as the existential benefits for the viewer Newman also suggested the environmental:
“One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there.”12
Newman, therefore wanted to provide a ‘sense of place’ for the viewer in which they could both feel their own presence and Newman’s. From the viewer’s perspective, then, Newman saw his work as an environment to encounter the self, the artist, and one’s existential situation. Ultimately, Newman believed the viewer could realise their humanity in front of his work. Indeed Newman himself implored us to go beyond standard criticism: “You don’t have to stand and scrutinize how the canvas moves in and out and so on.”13 Instead, according to Newman, one should enter into something akin to a personal relationship with the work, and to this end he provided a precise analogy of what shape this relationship should take in interview with Emile de Antonio in 1970:
“When you see a person for the first time, you have an immediate impact. You don’t have to really start looking at details. It’s a total reaction in which the entire personality of a person and your own personality make contact. To my mind that’s almost a metaphysical event. If you have to stand there examining the eyelashes and all that sort of thing, it becomes a cosmetic situation in which you remove yourself from the experience.”14
If only Newman hadn’t so completely totalised his artworks after Onement I, so that they read like an autobiography, then maybe one could believe him and possibly see something other than ‘Barnett Newman’ in his works. The impact that he so desired from his viewers is right, although when he substituted the “cosmetic situation” with a ‘biographical narrative’ he demolished all hope of such an impact. When one looks at a painting by Barnett Newman all one really sees is Barnett Newman, every other possibility is subsumed beneath the waves and torrents of Newman, Newman, Newman.
In the final analysis Newman was a painter who had a particular agenda. His thought and paintings were united together in bringing about the resolution of that agenda. With the production of Onement I, Newman not only found a work that could be continually re-worked, but he also found the means of expression that could embody all the necessary qualities that he wanted a work of art to have. He had found his muse: the Galatea to his Pygmalion who would come alive in the hands of the artist and encapsulate all that he held dear. Because Newman’s art was ultimately a holistic enterprise, all the differing aspects of his work combined together to produce something of great significance to the artist. From his own undeniable presence in terms of self-revelation, to his control over his materials; from his insistence upon the primacy of the mind to his continual concern with surrounding artists; from his views on art objects to the removal of entertainment value; from his desire for his work to be an existential catalyst to his creation of a ‘place,’ Newman’s art was a study in the coherence of thought and paint: the merging of the rational with the visual. All aspects were part of a greater whole, with the only problem being that such an undertaking was so utterly full of the artist himself that no room was left for anyone to discover anything else.
When Barnett Newman looked at his work he saw Barnett Newman just as surely as if he lived inside a mirror-lined bubble or world. The disappointment, of course, is that everyone else looking in at his works also only sees Barnett Newman. No otherness is present and hence no ethical light can be found in such a flat two-dimensional series of works. But, hey, there were other Abstract Expressionist painters who didn’t blot out otherness by their shadows. We’ll get to them in due course, but next we need to get back Levinas’ Face.
- Newman, B., ‘Interview with Emile de Antonio’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by John P. O’Neil, p. 306.
- Sylvester, D., Interviews with American Artists, 37.
- Lewison, J., Looking at Barnett Newman, p. 14.
- Newman, B., ‘The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, 1958 – 1966’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, p. 189.
- Newman, B., ‘The Sublime is Now’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, p. 173.
- Lewison, J., Looking at Barnett Newman, p. 24.
- Lewison, J., Looking at Barnett Newman, p. 40.
- Temkin, A., ‘Barnett Newman on Exhibition’ included in Barnett Newman, edited by Ann Temkin. 46.
- Sylvester, D., Interviews with American Artists, 40.
- Ibid., 39.
- Shiff, R., ‘Whiteout: The Not-Influence Newman Effect’ included in Barnett Newman, edited by Ann Temkin. 97.
- Newman, B., ‘Interview with Emile de Antonio’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by John P. O’Neil, p. 306.