Books: Analysis of the Uninterpreted; Barnett Newman. Edited by Ann Temkin (Tate Publishing, Pounds 39.95 Hardback. Pounds 29.95 Paperback)
Byline: Reviewed by John Cornall
Post-war American painter Barnett Newman was famously garrulous.
It was said that if you happened to bump into his portly figure in threepiece suit with monocle and moustache on the streets of Manhattan, you had better have a free six hours.
But in spite of this and in spite of his early reputation for effusive writing on art, he was throughout his career resolutely opposed to interpretation.
As a young tyro, in the 30s, he dabbled in anarchism and he always remained prickly about personal freedoms, later declaring himself a conscientious objector even after he had already been pronounced medically unfit for military service.
His well-known rebuff to probing questions on art was that you didn't need to talk ornithology to the birds, his new 'abstract' paintings with titles like Here, Be, Adam, were 'free of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth . . . all the devices of western European painting'.
Early on, Newman organised exhibitions of pre-Columbian and native American art and regardless of what the chroniclers of Modernism have tried to tell us, he had a greater affinity to the architects of the mysterious Ohio mounds that so fascinated him than he ever did to the heirs of Manet.
In this sense Newman was a product of his time and place. The son of Jewish immigrants from Lomza in what was then Russian Poland, his breakthrough into a 'pure art of presence' came at the height of the Holocaust and it seems he regarded America as the country where history was beginning afresh.
His opposition to interpretation of his paintings may go some way to explaining why there has been so little written about him especially compared with, say, with fellow abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock, who has been the subject of numerous studies and recently a movie. …