April 11, 2005
As promised, an example of the October crew's output for your delectation...
This weekend I unpacked a few boxes of books, one of which contained a stack of art rag back issues. Along with more copies of Artforum from the past three years than I'd care to admit to having, I found a single issue of October (Vol. 108, Spring 2004) purchased last spring without regard for its contents for the sake of some light travel reading. I never read anything within it beyond Mark Godfrey's essay, Barnett Newman's Stations and the Memory of the Holocaust, and that only casually (so casually that I can't now recall one bit of it).
I mention all of this so as to disabuse anyone of any notions of selection bias. That is to say: my choice of this particular issue was, for all present intents and purposes, absolutely random.
The only writing in October 108 representing any of the four October editors in question in the last post is a pair of essays by Yve-Alain Bois on a pair of Barnett Newman paintings, the first a 22-pager on Abraham which can be read free online in PDF form and which I quote substantial portions of below.
In it Bois entertains a number of approaches to the painting, ranging from what might be considered a psychological approach to the artist's intent and a textual reading of the work's title in terms of existentialist thought current among the Ab-Ex painters, to more purely formalist concerns and consideration of the work's phenomenal appearance to viewers (with various technical notes pertinent to this), all of which points appear tightly connected. Bois' main purpose is the consideration of the painting as a pivotal work in Newman's oeuvre.
(The second essay, devoted to Newman's Galaxy, is far shorter and more strictly focused on matters formal and technical. An earlier Bois lecture covering both works can be found here.)
Whatever you ultimately think of Bois' take on Newman, please at least consider this essay in terms of our previous discussion: (1) the quality of writing and critical use of unnecessary or tedious jargon; (2) the critic's deference to artist and object; (3) his concern for historical context and significance; (4) critical understanding of technical methods and material history; and (5) our ability to incorporate or recuperate (if deemed necessary) Bois' thoughts into a more object-centered discourse and whether Bois brings anything at all of value to the table. Forget, for the moment at least, the question of the role of judgment in criticism, which is, I think, a far bigger question than just that of the value of theory (and possibly marginal as concerns the relation of theory to art history).
Last, but not least, tell me if you can: is there joy in Bois' soul?
Newman considered Abraham one of his most significant works. Included in his first solo show at Betty Parsons in 1950, the painting was absent from his 1958 (Bennington College) and 1959 (French & Co.) exhibitions only because it was then touring Europe for the landmark 1958–59 traveling exhibition, The New American Painting, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In fact, in the note where Newman jotted down his choice of four works for that exhibition, Abraham figures at the top of the list, followed by Horizon Light, Adam, and Concord, which will all be included. Further proof of the importance of this canvas for the artist is given by his selecting it, together with Onement III and Vir Heroicus Sublimis, for the exhibition American Paintings 1945–1957. Organized by Stanton L. Catlin at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (June 18–September 1, 1957), this show marks both the first serious recognition of Newmanís art by an American museum and the artistís reentry into the public arena. In short, Newman deemed Abraham a chief ambassador of his art.
While the artist must have felt vindicated, he remained extremely protective regarding the pedigree of this canvas; he was particularly concerned that its place in history, notably its impact on artists of his own generation, be properly acknowledged. His pervasive anxiety over the issue of Abraham's "priority" is documented in numerous declarations that give us some hint as to what the painting meant for him.
Newmanís quasi-obsession about the inaugural character of Abraham was undoubtedly exacerbated by the conflict with his once-good friend Ad Reinhardt, with whom he had not been on speaking terms since October 1954. The quixotic lawsuit that Newman attempted to file against Reinhardt at that time, to the great surprise of the latter, need not be addressed in detail, but it should be noted that this sad affair occurred soon after Reinhardt painted his first "black" canvases—for plagiarism subsequently became a frequent charge raised by Newman against his fellow artists. His sensitivity in this matter is obvious when one compares his contrasting reactions to two obituaries published at Reinhardtís death...
But Reinhardt was only the tip of the iceberg, and the whole of Western production had to be called to the witness stand with regard to blackness. Ten years before Hessís memorial tribute to Reinhardt, in a letter written on November 22, 1957, Newman gently chided Ethel Schwabacher for having muddled the matter in her monograph on Arshile Gorky (it is to be noted that Abraham had just come back from Minneapolis, where it had been vandalized, and was thus very much on the painterís mind)...
One should not overestimate Newmanís interest in Kierkegaard, whom he never mentioned in his writings or interviews, but given that the titling of Abraham cannot be dated with any certainty and, as mentioned above, could have happened long after the painting was finished, it is more than plausible that it occurred after Newman had gained cognizance of Fear and Tremblingís content. In any event, it is undoubtedly to the context of a widespread enthusiasm for Kierkegaard that Barr referred when he began his preface for the catalog of the 1958–59 MoMA traveling show with these words: "Of the seventeen painters in this exhibition, none speaks for the others any more than he paints for the others. In principle their individualism is as uncompromising as that of the religion of Kierkegaard whom they honor."
Later in the same interview, Newman would return to Abraham, which he compares to the audacity of early Cubist collages. (He also remarks, not so accurately, that in some of Picasso and Braque's first Cubist drawings, "the line is like the hand was almost trembling.") He then adds: "Like this black painting, I worked with [a] certain kind of tension which was bold and also afraid, so that this is what I suppose involves a sense of terror. . . . Itís more than anxiety. I was nervous because itís so bold. Itís like something Iíve never seen or done. At the same time, I mean where do I get the nerve, you know, whatís going to happen?"
In short, Newman's agony is to be taken seriously, and it indeed explains in great part his fixation on anteriority. He was alone when he painted Abraham, and courageous, too, in surmounting his fear. Having a whole string of predecessors would take this "emotional content" away from the painting; it would empty it. He was alone, like Abraham during the interminable three and a half days of his journey with Isaac to the sacrificial site on the mountain, without anyone to whom he could confide his unprecedented ordeal—an immense solitude that Kierkegaard underscores throughout his book. Newman was trembling in front of the unknown.
The optical effect of a halo is extremely volatile—it is an apparition whose evanescence is crucial if the goal is to give the beholder an actual sensation of time. One has to be patient to perceive it; in a sense one has to have faith, one must be expectant—it requires one's sustained presence, and this presence is based on faith, like that of Abraham answering God's call by declaring "Here I am." But the fragile halo needs to be protected, as the slightest alteration in its conditions of visibility (alteration of the picture's surface, harsh light, etc.) would annul its possibility. It is for this reason that Newman was extremely wary of any interference, of anything that might disturb the delicate interaction between the two blacks of Abraham.
Let us now examine the issue of brilliance. In front of the current state of the painting, whose surface has been buried under a thick coat of glistening wax applied by a conservator, one can hardly imagine what the original experience—described by Hess among others—of a stark opposition between a shiny central zip and a matte field would have been like. But several photographs taken in Newman's studio might give us some idea. The fact that most show the painting obliquely—in raking light, revealing how thick the original stretcher was—might be attributed to Newmanís urging. Whatever the case, the photographs enact the kind of value reversal that Newman had already explored in End of Silence, in that the darker area appears brighter as soon as specular light (due to lateral lighting or an oblique point of view) comes into play. The extent of this effect is measured by a review of the 1959 show at MoMA in Time magazine, where the painting was described as a "vertical white line on a towering black canvas"—a clear indication that the writer had not bothered standing directly in front of the painting and had only glanced at it obliquely and from afar.
Newman would often insist, later on, that his zips are not lines but color planes (see, for example, the discarded text for the 1958–59 traveling show: "My work, they say, is involved in line, when it is obvious that there are no lines" [SWI, p. 180]), and that the zip and its surrounding field are not different in nature but in extension (an ontological identity that Newman often inscribed in the very process of painting: rather than painting his zips on the color field, more often than not he painted them last and directly on the white priming of the canvas which was reserved for this purpose). In Abraham, this breakdown of the traditional opposition between line and color, or between line and plane, is accentuated by the modular division mentioned above, which in turn helps undo the perceptual dichotomy of figure and ground: the shiny black zip just fills one module, the plane at its left fills two, the one at its right fills three. (Strictly speaking, the painting is not black on black at all, but "black next to black.") But the certainty of our perception—which depends upon a clear recognition of the figure/ground hierarchy—is also assaulted by other means. As plane, a vertical zip has two vertical edges, a fact that is emphasized in Abraham by the very width of the zip, but Newman makes it difficult for us to read these two edges as equivalent (and thus to obtain an immediate, synthetic mental image of the zip as a geometric figure, as a timeless gestalt). Positioning one edge on the axis of symmetry and the other not, Newman deliberately gives them a different weight without tilting anything in space. (He would pursue this type of disequilibrium by other means in both Covenant and The Promise, as well as in Galaxy, in which symmetry is completely abandoned. It is hardly by chance that, as noted above, the title of these canvases are semantically linked.) The fleeting apparition of a halo on each side of the zip further teases our perceptual capacity: we never manage to take in everything simultaneously and the only certitude we are ever able to grasp in front of such a vacillating image is, when we step back, the lateral expanse of the whole canvas and its more-than-human height. Such a feat, which requires the suppression of insterstitial space (and thus of any atmospheric illusion of depth), had already been achieved, of course, in the symmetrical canvases of the Onement series, but now Newman is experimenting with a laterality that is not deductive, that is not a property of the field as such, and this is a much more complex affair. Abraham, more than any other previous work by Newman—and he will draw a lot from it—catches us in the process of perceiving and of realizing that the yardstick of scale, by which we measure our own spatial relation to the objects we behold, is what gives us above all a sense of being here, not there, to paraphrase one of his titles.
"The Face of the Enemy?"
Posted by Dan at 09:42 PM
European Graduate School: 'Here I am': On Newmanís use of laterality—A lecture by Yve-Alain Bois—August 2002
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 10
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 11
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 15
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 5
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 9
John & Belle Have A Blog: It is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse, my lord
October 108, Spring 2004
October 108, Spring 2004: On Two Paintings by Barnett Newman—Yve-Alain Bois