Magazine article Artforum International

Barnett Newman

Magazine article Artforum International

Barnett Newman

Article excerpt

Untitled, 1961

Usually the works that are going to matter most to one, like the people who are going to matter most, start doing so as one first sets eyes on them. The work I've chosen to write about is a piece I managed to live with for many years without seeing anything very special in it, and this despite the fact that it's by a painter whose art I normally respond to so immediately that when I'm in museums I use it like a drug. I would not, though, have bothered to go on living with this particular example had it not been for the circumstances in which I acquired it.

It is a lithograph from an edition of 30 printed in 1961, one of three untitled lithographs of that year which were Barnett Newman's first attempts at printmaking. Two years after he died, in 1970, his widow, Annalee Newman, whom I had not seen since his death, came to London at the time of his retrospective at the Tate and brought the print with her as a present for me. (It is a print she has given to several friends, as the artist had done.) I was very touched by her gesture and was glad to have a copy of one of Newman's three first prints to go with the copy I already had of one of his two last prints, Untitled Etching #1 of 1969, also in monochrome, which I had bought from Newman's dealer shortly after it was pulled. But I wasn't so moved by the lithograph itself, and though I kept it on the wall, twenty years passed before I began to see it.

This happened when I finally started responding to the richness of the black, its simultaneous flatness and depth, hardness and softness. Black was a sacred color for the Abstract Expressionists, it was their lapis lazuli; they made a mystique of it, partly perhaps because of its austerity, partly perhaps because there was something splendidly macho in being able to produce a good strong black. If it took me so long to respond to the obvious beauty of the black in the Newman print, it must have been because I was somehow thrown by the adjacent gray, with its rubbed texture--thrown, I think, by a scratchiness that made it seem awkward. But then that awkwardness suddenly became interesting, the rubbed gray suddenly took on a strange, elusive color, and the whole thing was singing.

And now it was stopping me in my tracks every day, several times a day. It was not only gripping but incredibly sufficient. The more I looked at it, the more it made me wonder why painters since time immemorial had bothered to put in all those arms and legs and heads. (And I'm no Modernist by persuasion: Michelangelo and Poussin are my cup of tea. …

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