Abstract Critical

Barnett Newman on his painting

In this clip, link here, Barnett Newman talks about his paintings, particularly his ‘breakthrough work’, Onement, I, 1948. MOMA’s catalogue entry on the painting is here.

On his zips: “It does not cut the format in half or in whatever parts, it unites the thing, it creates a totality. You look at it and you see, or you don’t… it’s not a window leading you into a situation where you walk through either an interior or exterior world, from which you then come to a conclusion. The beginning and the end are there at once, otherwise a painter is a kind of choreographer of space, he creates kind of a dance of elements, of forms, and it becomes either a tactile art, or it becomes a narrative art, instead of a visual art.”

  1. Ashley West said…

    So I wonder where exactly real profundity may be found if it’s not here, and it’s not in Motherwell or anywhere else it seems (God help Agnes Martin!).Is the search for meaning AT ALL valid or relevant? Your beginning to sound a bit like Richard Dawkins Robin. There’s so much cynicism and negation going on it’s beginning to sound as if minimalism is what your advocating, ie. exclusion of almost everything – any vestige of meaning or humanity, leaving us with a vacuus materialism of some kind. Even if Dawkins is right that so much in Religion (and Art I guess) is make believe, guys like Newman have damn good imaginations!, and why not construct meaning if its not actually there. I do think though that if there is anything of profundity behind the material world it’s so important that we recognise where it is rather than where it isn’t, so it’s good to be discerning. The God Delusion? Diebenkorn commented that there is so much delusion in painting. He was referring I think to his own experience of the delusion he had to battle with in every painting. I think there IS a lot of delusion in abstract painting and maybe edifying something when it isn’t much more than a dog peeing up a tree, but there is also at best, real searching, sincerity and humanity. If you rubbish that, I wonder exactly what abstract critical is about. I’m genuinely perplexed. I’m also interested to know Sam, what it was actually that ‘you got’ about abstract painting at the Newman show.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Difficult to say. Its something to do with seeing Adam and Eve before in the Tate permanent collection and not getting it at all; and then during the retro really beginning to see the kind of certainty with which everything was placed; I particularly remember thinking how diverse and powerful the Stations of the Cross were. It’s not a revelation that abstraction could be meaningful, as I had been interested since school, and had seen quite a lot of art traveling for a few weeks around Europe a couple of years before, but simply how absorbing it could be as an experience, and particularly, how much getting into a single language could really open it up (whilst traveling I’d seen a Rothko retro at Bilbao, which I’d been excited about, but which struck me as very repetitive – I’m not sure what I’d think of it now). Probably worth saying that later something similar happened (gradually, not in one moment) at the National Gallery, after I’d finished studying art history and was doing shitty temp jobs up town; here (and this puts it too grandly) was a great storehouse of things to look at, to form an active and on-going relationship with. It was distinct from art history but also had very little to do with any search for higher or deeper meaning, at least as far as can tell.. But that’s enough bio

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      God help Agnes Martin – but there is no God…

    • John Holland said…

      Ashley- I think you’re misreading Dawkins; he has never said that art is make-believe, in the sense of being non-existent or meaningless. Atheism is not necessarily the same thing as materialism.
      And I don’t understand what it would mean for a painting to lack ‘humanity’- or, indeed, to exclude ‘meaning’. Meaning is surely not something that one can exorcise, whether you want to or not. I can’t decide to paint today a picture with a greater amount of meaning in than the one I managed yesterday.I could paint one with more references, but that’s another thing.

      • Ashley West said…

        Of course John. Sorry! My comments were very off the cuff, but I hope you get the sense of where I’m coming from. My point is that Robin seems to be for a kind of abstraction that doesn’t seem to allow for much more than something very literal (in a visual sense)- formal, material based you might say, and devoid of humanity in the sense of any metaphor, wider connections etc. and in many artist’s work – ‘spiritual content’. This reminds me of Dawkins – who I’m no expert on, but who, if I’m right, disregards a whole domain of human intelligence that is beyond the purely scientific. Do we really want to get into this here? Well maybe it’s important and does get to the heart of things (Robin’s comment about Agnes Martin is telling) but, I agree, you have to choose your words very carefully (more carefully than I did). I think sometimes there isn’t necessarily a great difference between the atheist and those who acknowledge a spiritual domain (linked with the possibility of a higher being or absolute as ‘the source of things’). Both can share an empirical enquiry, as opposed to blind belief. I don’t understand what it would mean for a painting to exclude humanity either – but it seems to be where Robin is heading. I can try to be more present in each painting I make, to deepen my contact with myself and with what is in front of me. My capacity for questioning is relative to my state. There is a science here – the science of being. It isn’t the same as Dawkin’s science though. In a certain sense his Science (speaking very generally) is as much about blind belief as institutionalised Christianity. There is a whole fascinating area for discussion here. Mondrian, Suprematism, Theosophy etc. – maybe a lot of those claims were about wishful thinking or belief but for me it wasn’t completely unfounded. Of course one feels one has to be careful talking about such things today, but maybe it’s time again. (Do continue to clarify my terms where I have taken short cuts).

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    I think he’s something of a blusterer. His last words on this film are about content, but I think he confuses that with subject-matter. I think his paintings have almost no content, despite the fact that a lot of people seem to be able to read into them all sorts of significances. He is one of the artists who set abstract painting off down the minimal road to a fake profundity.

  3. Ashley West said…

    In my comment in the note on Motherwell I referred to what goes on ‘off’ the painting. To me this clip is a really good example of that. I love the bit where he says “what have I done?” and he explains that it wasn’t the result of an intention (not on the ordinary level anyway).It posed a question; it was a proposition. It remained a good proposition. It engaged him when he looked at it and thought about it, so he left it. You could say there’s nothing remarkable about the painting itself – it’s what it engendered – that’s where the life of the piece is.

  4. Filip Gudovic said…

    I really enjoy the last thing he mentions in the video:

    “The size doesn’t count , it’s the scale that counts”.

    This aspect was really pushed by the generation of AbEx painters. Perhaps we can elaborate on this thought of the relationship between the physical size of the painting and the scale of its elements within?

    Large paintings (such as Newman’s) have this ability to engage with the viewer through physical movements , walking around the area of the painting, while smaller works tend to be more about observing and thinking within the logic of painting (perhaps the idea of interior/exterior that he mentions).