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Art and Culture

David and Art - Barnett Newman

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How do you force a viewer to see your painting as a painting and not a little story about something?  American painter Barnett Newman finally came upon an answer.

“Painting is finished; we should give up.” In the 1930s, American painter Barnett Newman said that to his fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb.  Newman as an artist had become stuck.  He didn’t know what to paint. Much more than that however he didn’t know what any artist should paint anymore. Why should a serious artist paint in styles and in topics that have been done to death?  Why copy Picasso?  Why imitate the fauvists?  Why paint a steamboat struggling against a snowstorm when Turner had transformed what it even meant to do that?

Fortunately, he didn’t listen to himself and give up.  The answers he discovered as he worked in his studio, led him to create some of the most radical but apparently most simple paintings that could be imagined.  He began to produce works that were entire fields of color varying only by thepresence of brushstrokes  and differences in hue.  But there, right in the middle or off to one side, were jarring narrow vertical bands stretching from the top of the canvas to the bottom.  What were these pictures of?

Newman wanted there to be nothing in his paintings that suggested a figure in a landscape, as curator Michael Aupling once put it.  But without figures, how do you know it’s even a painting?  Those stripes, that somehow soon became known as his “zips,” are there to pull all parts of the painting together:  the left, the right, the top, the bottom.  To unify it in an immediate total entirety.  To, in part, remind you that you’re looking at a work of art that’s the result of decisions made by an artist.

Newman understood his paintings physically. They were something that confronted the viewer in terms of scale, in terms of presence, even without figures in them. He once remarked that one of the nicest things that anybody ever said about his work was that when standing in front of one of his paintings, you had a sense of your own scale.  You had a sense of your own physicality in confronting something that he had created.

Newman’s work isn’t easy to get, I’ll be the first to admit it. Newman’s work is among the most difficult to rationalize of almost all the Modernists.  And in saying that, I give a clue as to how he didn’t want you to approach his work.  He didn’t want you to rationalize it.  He wanted to short-circuit your human tendency to explain something that you’re looking at.  His paintings are meant to be taken in all at once.  Not in a narrative sense in which we try to tell a story to grasp what’s going on.  There’s nothing going on in a Barnett Newman painting.  He doesn’t let you see it or interpret it as anything other than a painting.  He doesn’t let you narrate your way through it. What you see is what you get. Or, as Frank Stella once memorably said, what you see is what you see.