Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Henry James could not resist giving the hero of his 1877 novel The American the allegorical name "Newman," but he went out of his way to describe him as a muscular Christian, to deflect the suggestion that Newman might be Jewish, as the name would otherwise imply. He is, as an American, a New Man, who has come to the Old World on a cultural pilgrimage in 1868, having made his fortune manufacturing washtubs; and James has a bit of fun at his hero's expense by inflicting him with an aesthetic headache in the Louvre, where his story begins. "I know very little about pictures or how they are painted," Newman concedes; and as evidence, James has him ordering, as if buying shirts, half a dozen copies of assorted Old Masters from a pretty young copyist who thinks he is crazy, since, as she puts it, "I paint like a cat."

By a delicious historical coincidence, another New Man, this time unequivocally Jewish--the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman--visits the Louvre for the first time in 1968, exactly a century later. By contrast with his fellow noble savage, this Newman has had the benefit of reading Clement Greenberg and working through Surrealism. So he is able to tell his somewhat patronizing guide, the French critic Pierre Schneider, to see Uccello's The Battle of San Romano as a modern painting, a flat painting, and to explain why Mantegna's Saint Sebastian bleeds no more than a piece of wood despite being pierced with arrows. He sees Gericault's Raft of the Medusa as tipped up like one of Cezanne's tables. "It has the kind of modern space you wouldn't expect with that kind of rhetoric." And in general the new New Man is able to show European aesthetes a thing or two about how to talk about the Old Masters, and incidentally how to look at his own work, which so many of his contemporaries found intractable. In Rembrandt, for example, Newman sees "all that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle...as in my own painting."

"All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle" could be taken as a description of the first of Newman's paintings with which the artist felt he could identify himself, done exactly two decades earlier than the Louvre visit, and retroactively titled by him Onement 1. Most would have described it as a messy brown painting with an uneven red stripe down the middle, and nobody but Newman himself would have tolerated a comparison with Rembrandt. But Newman told Pierre Schneider, "I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am talking to Michelangelo. The great guys are concerned with the same problems." We must not allow it to go unnoticed that Newman counted himself as among the great guys, though it is something of a hoot to imagine trying to convince Henry James, were he resurrected, that the works that make up the wonderful Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (until July 7, when they travel to the Tate Modern) are concerned with the same issues as the Louvre masterworks that gave his protagonist Newman a headache and eyestrain. Even critics otherwise sympathetic to advanced painting in the 1950s were made apoplectic by Newman's huge, minimally inflected canvases--fields of monochromatic paint with a vertical stripe or two--and they have provoked vandalism from the time of his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. As we shall see, Newman thought he had resolved the problems that concerned the great guys who preceded him. They had been struggling to make beautiful pictures, whereas he considered himself as having transcended beauty and picturing alike. His achievement was to capture the sublime in painting.

Newman regarded Onement 1 as marking a breakthrough for his work, and a new beginning. The installation in Philadelphia dramatizes this by framing the piece by means of a doorway leading from one gallery into another. While standing in a gallery hung with pictures done by Newman before the breakthrough, one glimpses a new order of painting in the room beyond. …

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