JOLLY GOOD FELLOW
To the Editor:
In reviewing Brushes with History: Writing on Art from The Nation 1865-2001 ["Weekly Standard," March], Jonathan Weinberg says that I was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and kindly remarks that it was "richly merited." No writer was ever the victim of a more delightful mistake. The Pulitzer in question was not "the prize" but a fellowship in critical writing (1962-63), discontinued, I think, shortly after they had me. Ah, well.
ZIP AND ZIM
To the Editor:
While it is hard to disagree with Yve-Alain Bois's contention that Barnett Newman has been ill-served by both his critics and his admirers ["Here to There and Back," March], I do want to take issue with his categorical dismissal of the importance of the Kabbalah in Newman's work. To be sure, Thomas Hess's attempt to find in the Kabbalah the master key to Newman's paintings was overdone. But to call the Kabbalah "ultrasectarian" is to miss the attraction that Gershom Scholem's books must have held for Newman--and we must assume that Newman's use of cabalistic titles derives from his reading of Scholem. (As for the transliteration of the Hebrew, zimzum and tzimtzum are both permissible, and Newman of course used the latter in the exhibition "Recent American Synagogue Architecture.")
Scholem's revolutionary argument--repeated from his first book in English (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism) through to his last--is that the Kabbalah is neither authoritarian nor sectarian. In Scholem's own words, it is "anarchistic," and this anarchism allows the individual Kabbalist remarkable room for self-assertion. Given Newman's own political anarchism, his strongly non-normative reading of Judaism (as witnessed again by his contribution to "Recent American Synagogue Architecture"), and his commitment to heroic and creative individualism, the appeal of Scholem's interpretation of the Kabbalah should be obvious.
I am sure that Bois would accept that Judaism--which Kant and Hegel typified as the religion of the sublime--became an important (though not the sole) intellectual and emotional source of Newman's great work of the '50s and '60s. Indeed, given the prominence of biblical titles as his examples, Bois's article appears to admit as much. We might then want to ask about the relation between this source and Newman's particular work. How did Newman's peculiar understanding of Judaism inflect his formal choices? Following this line of questioning, we can begin to locate some of the resistance to Newman's work in precisely that conjunction between source and work, title and painting that, as Bois shows, is so important. Among other things, such an approach would go a long way toward explaining the crypto-anti-Semitism of Hubert Crehan's supersessionist rhetoric in his review of the 1959 French & Company show.
Although Bois has shown himself once again to be our most astute interpreter of Newman's paintings, his article indicates, however unwittingly, that we might do Newman an injustice if we ignore the sectarian--in either his work or the reactions of his critics.
Chair, Philosophy and Religious Studies George Mason University
Yve-Alain Bois replies:
I'm glad to retract "ultrasectarian" as characterizing the Kabbalah, but I would substitute the words esoteric and hermetic, qualities that Newman would have found just as antithetical to his mode of thinking. …