I’ve been reading about Barnett Newman, one of the most distinctive painters from the 1950s and 60s, an era full of distinctive painters. Although at times lumped in with the Abstract Expressionists, some of whom he knew personally, or the Color Field painters, or the so-called Hard Edge painters, he was none of these. His art, even today, stands on its own, and even after more than half a century, it can be baffling. I want to address one small aspect of his work.
From Wikipedia’s somewhat adequate entry on Newman: “[Newman’s mature style] is characterized by areas of color separated by thin vertical lines, or “zips” as Newman called them. In the first works featuring zips, the color fields are variegated, but later the colors are pure and flat. Newman himself thought that he reached his fully mature style with the Onement series (from 1948). The zips define the spatial structure of the painting, while simultaneously dividing and uniting the composition.”
For many people, the zip is what makes a Newman unique, and I think Newman himself would have agreed. Certainly he was not the first to use vertical lines in a painting, but the way he used them resembles no one else’s work.
Newman resisted being compared to other artists; he felt that his work emerged from his mind rather than grew from the influence of others, and he tried to reflect this in his teaching, practicing what he called “not-teaching.” He did not set out lessons for students to copy or a particular “right way” of doing things. But not-teaching was not the absence of teaching, merely a previously unknown approach. As Richard Shiff wrote in the exhibition catalog Barnett Newman*:”…Newman’s art wasn’t of negation any more than his not-teaching was; it accomplished something positive, without relying on direction, order, structure, relation, or reference, not to mention formal composition.” I am reminded of a snippet from a story by Stanislaw Lem:
“For Nothing…is not your run-of-the-mill nothing, the result of idleness and inactivity, but dynamic, aggressive Nothingness, that is to say, perfect, unique, ubiquitous…”*
How is this significant? As you might have guessed from the title of this post, I think it sheds a light on the zip itself, and the absence of a straight line’s traditional purpose – that of a border. A zip traveling through the picture plane – I have the impression that it is not limited by the size of the canvas, but just keeps going – cannot help but seem to divide the plane into sections. In a way, that is what it does, but it does not influence or alter those sections.
Consider Piet Mondrian, who was at times cited as a possible influence on Newman, an influence Newman disavowed. Mondrian’s lines and grids have many of the traits Newman avoids: they seem like solids attached to the canvas, even limited by it. Because Mondrian filled some areas of the canvas with a second color – the first being the white we can call background – the grid becomes a border, fixed in place and rigid. The solidity of a good Mondrian is unmistakable; it seems built, even though Mondrian did not use formulae to determine the placement of his lines, but built them up by eye and trial and error.
A zip is something else. It seems superimposed on the background, which stays the same color. Because there is no variation, zips can seem to float above or through the ground, as though it were a liquid or gas. Newman laid out his zips with masking take, which inevitably led to paint leakage and caused the edges to be slightly irregular. In some cases, as with this example from his Stations of the Cross series, the zip is defined negatively, the brushwork making it clear without fully isolating the zip as a separate object. It is possible to image that zips were laid out by eye, just as Mondrian’s lines were, but a zip retains a sense of mobility. It could move, whereas Mondrian’s lines are immobile. There are a few exceptions in Newman’s work, but they seem incongruous, or the work of someone else.
Because the zip seems overlaid, and does not impose itself in the rest of the work, the painting loses and distinction between foreground and background. Everything is there, on one plane. Anything less would be illusionism, and hint at the sort of content Newman eschewed. Newman wanted his paintings to be felt, emotionally, rather than deciphered or learnt, as paintings had been in the past. People are often nonplussed at first by a Newman because they don’t know what it means, when it means nothing. There is no story being told, no lesson taught.
Ironically, Newman’s titles suggest content beyond his assertions of…let’s call it “non-content.” Titles such as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (“Man, Heroic and Sublime” in Latin) or the aforementioned Stations of the Cross, are certainly evocative. Newman compared seeing his art to meeting someone for the first time, that emotional first impression, and I think that’s a good way to link the titles and the works. The emotion, sensed rather than perceived, is linked to the title, which was added later. Many of Newman’s paintings were first exhibited without titles, and given titles years later. The zip is not a thing, affecting space around it, but a process happening within, a feeling arising. The viewer and the art combine to form an experience, or a multi-part experience. A famous quote by Newman sums it up: “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, a feeling of his own totality, his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate…”*
*Philadelphia Museum of Art & Yale University Press, 2002, p. 100
*Stanislaw Lem, “How the World was Saved,” The Cyberiad, Seabury Press, 1974. Translation by Michael Kandel. P. 5
*”Newman, in conversation with David Sylvester”, The Listener, August 10, 1972, pp. 169-70