Unreal Nature

January 2, 2018

Man Is the Center

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… Art is … centrifugal to man and not, as in Mondrian, our glimpse of absolute truth existing separately from us.

This is from the essay ‘Barnett Newman: The Stations of the Cross and the Subjects of the Artist’ (1966) found in Topics in American Art Since 1945 by Lawrence Alloway (1975):

… Pilgrims tracing the presumed Via Sacra at the original site, the devout who visited chapels spaced as at Jerusalem (for example the early fifteenth-century series of chapels at the Dominican friary, Cordova) or who followed the sequential displays in Franciscan churches were all engaged in a participative experience. … The spectator’s time and Christ’s time coincided.

… it would be a serious misreading of the work to consider it in formal terms as a theme and variations. Theme-and-variation readings are applicable neither to the subject matter nor to the restriction of means to black or white paint on raw canvas, because such a form assumes a first statement (giving the theme) accompanied by modifications. In fact, there is no such key to the Stations of the Cross, which have to be experienced as a unit of fourteen continuous parts.

First Station, 1958 (partial/detail)

… The recurrent image in the Stations is of two bands, variously defined, that modulate the field of raw canvas. The canvas is blond in color and slightly flecked and Newman has successfully precipitated the untouched ground into color. It is given color relationally by the black or the white that it carries. In the three white paintings (nine through eleven) the canvas is very different in appearance from the black paintings. The fact that he used oil paint and three different synthetic media reveals his awareness of the function of color in the series, not only in its relational aspects but as a physical property.

[line break added] Different blacks occur from one painting to another and, sometimes, within one painting. Thus the series as a whole, for all its impression of austerity, constitutes a highly nuanced system. Another difference can be seen by comparing a bare black painting, such as the Fifth Station, with more extensively covered paintings such as the Seventh or Thirteenth Station. The standard size of the series dilates and contracts, rises and falls, according to the proportion and emphasis of the bands.

[line break added] Thus the organization is not restricted to internal divisions of planes and contrasts of forms. All the formal changes, involving as they do areas that cross the total surface, are holistic in character. It is this largeness and unity in his work, perhaps, that has encouraged notions about the “hypothetical extendability of his areas and bands of color.” [Walter Hopps] The Sublime in art may be majestic and vast but this is not the same as continuous and amorphous.

[line break added] Such an idea would link Newman and Mondrian with whose geometry Newman’s art demonstrates, if fact, no kinship. Mondrian regarded his lines as bits of a universal grid that ran beyond the work of art, an image, which , though not literally true, expresses his belief in painting as symbolic of universal order. Though Newman’s art raises major issues, of the Passion and Death as in the Stations, for example, he does not do so as the basis of absolutes. Man is the center of Newman’s world-picture and it is from man that art originates. Art is, therefore, centrifugal to man and not, as in Mondrian, our glimpse of absolute truth existing separately from us.

My most recent previous post from Alloway’s book is here.




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