sobota, 18 lutego 2012


With Abstract Expressionism
Art historians are much less concerned
With gods of giggles than with
Giants of the Sublime
 Bernadette Newone[1]


Only as a trickster Newman violates the complexity of the discipline.
Not only work of one of most prominent representative of abstract expressionism, Barnett Newman, but also his grandiloquent style of speech and exaggerated physical appearance presented to public can be explored in terms of an ambivalent figure of trickster. Newman's abstract painting, full of visual paradoxes, perceived either as a sophisticated perceptual phenomenon or too simple to be considered an art, is strongly characterized by trickstering[2]; its reception, both by wider audience and narrow group of specialists, was and still is an issue. At first rejected by public, understood better by generations that followed Abstract Expressionism[3], nowadays Newman’s work does not tempt to divide art historians into its ardent proponents and fierce adversaries anymore, but rather provokes undiminished interest in criteria for its evaluation. On the occasion of his exhibition in 2002, Newman was recalled as ‘an artist whose work continues to defy categories and elude labels more than fifty years after his painting were first exhibited in New York’[4], which even more convincingly, as I will argue, may apply to discipline’s concern with his work in 2012.

Indeed, tracking ambiguities in Newman’s oeuvre could be an endless task on art historical level alone. Whether interpretations exclude each other or do not necessarily contradict one another, they often point at the confusion over the increasing knowledge of the feelings of embarrassment or helplessness Eve’s author evokes. In this respect one may find interesting Bernadette Newone’s exploration of trickster category consisting in teasing certain academic sensibilities discernible in Newmanian field studies and, at the same time, exaggerating intellectual characteristic of certain currents in contemporary art history that overstrain art at stake[5]. My quest for subject matter, a phrase often used by Abstract Expressionists, is a continuation of her line of thinking, beginning with the subjectivity of an art historian herself who, having a sense of trickstering nature of Newman’s art in mind and alike artist, who during his career showed strong moralistic inclinations, attempts to avoid being labeled ‘a dogmatist’.[6]

Such are the circumstances of presenting a criminal case directly related to the study of Newman’s work. The Crime at stake is close to Lyotard’s understanding of the sublime, a key concept for Newman, as it involves disrupting the forms of presentation of knowledge, compromising its realistic character, accumulated perspectives and ‘split personality’ syndrome, as I capture poststructuralist concept of authorship. Eventually, the victim of this Crime is a humble object of our art historical sublime – the obsession with improving academic standards and the pressure to complicate knowledge that pushes Markowska’s term ‘comedy of sublimation’[7] to its radical, or rather ridiculed, extreme.  

Who’s afraid of trickstering ‘Newman’?

As arbitrary as it may sound, I take a risky decision of letting a trickster into Newman's text, in which consequence occurs ‘Newman’. A synonymous of trickster figure is construed in the tangle of authorial, historical and theoretical discourses, presenting in a false mirror assumptions of modernist art inextricably linked with understanding the work, thought and silhouette of an artist, whose name was Barnett Newman. ‘Is happening’ of ‘Newman’ re-identifies the notions such as the sublime, authority, originality, authenticity and singularity[8] in their role of displacing and disorganizing the field studies on Newman. This excessive presence takes a form of unstable figure of a discourse interrupting spectrum of works such diversely titled as Abraham (1949), Galaxy (1949), The Wild (1950), Vir Heroicis Sublimis (1950/51) or The Queen of The Night II (1967) with inadequacy that comes out in the afterglow of the imperceptible ruthlessness of the revolution that Newman’s mature work caused and swept modern perceptual field of the viewer.[9] This very act of dismantling modernistic idea of the self Newman’s work and attitude towards art have been much involved in, readers may grasp swinging between two alternating extremes – Newman as a trickster and trickstering ‘Newman’[10], thus having an occasion to co-caricature the subjectivity in question and parody identity construction inscribed in my text.

However, the task of challenging Newman’s famed authority and status quo of the ethical order and universalistic human values his artistic enterprise contributed to by a critical effect of a text is not the easy one. No doubt, heroic condition of his contemporary ‘imagined viewer’[11] has to be defined differently than simply in the opposition to the domain negotiated by a modern subject, whose popular emanation in art history is known as a white, heterosexual, male artist or art historian respectively. Absolutely, more sophisticated strategies have to be invented to succeed in totally new approach to Newman’s work. The base for such approach would be exclusive modern formula of painting’s primordial experience this subject had founded and strived for maintaining intact. To be precise, the bedding for subverting this experience, especially in the case of Abstract Expressionism so viciously saturated with ideological claims of narrow group of identities[12], has to be provided by the very selection of its discursive records. I really think that what demands here authentication through theoretical underpinning is actually the act of deadly vandalism carried out by a subject comparably determined by a sense of own underestimation and raising its claims unceremoniously just like Barnett Newman did.

Celebrated ‘Newman’ may appear to you shapeless, if not disfigured while touching upon ‘the Creative Act’ performed by ‘the Creative Man’; its heroic ‘original’ seemingly disturbed by activities disclosing literal conditions that gave life to the series of modern variations of the self. But what fascinates is Death herself paying the price for ceasing the performance of discursively reproduced male’s sublimed intellect, not any longer forbidden to be bothered.  Thus, the answer on the question posed in the subtitle of this part of my text is delivered by art historians still firmly ‘fastened’ to the idea of writing about Newman’s abstract art like there are no perspectives for its interpreting unless established in vicious circles of the followers of his authority or the power of other ‘Giants’ of the sublime. Just outside a modern paradigm there is only terror, horror and pain, one may deduce from their writings. If only this common, negative belief of all hardly breathing inhabitants of the branches of Alfred Barr’s diagram could be exploited creatively at the minimum! No longer these art historians can be treated seriously in their killing reserve.

Unzipping Knewman
As readers might have noticed mingling with this poststructuralist juggling, much of the inspiration for trickstering ‘Newman’ comes from the impact of serious intellectual superstructures specialists imposed on Newman’s work. It was artist himself who started covering their misleading appearances with words of prophetic gravity, but others, who followed him, were not lukewarm and responded respectively for his calling for the meaningful abstract art.[13] Maybe it is high time we looked at paintings that have led us to insanity with the irremovable presence of True Admires.

Compositions at stake operate with rudimentary plastic means of color and shape, organized in vast fields interrupted by one or more vertical stripes. These so called ‘zips’ occupy special position in Newman’s artistic strategy as they manifest particular solution of the informal treatment of painting’s device, achieved by their nonadjacent co-existence with fields their adhere to. The undecided location of ‘zips’ corresponds to what Newman once said about the social meaning of his work: ‘I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did to me, the feeling of its own totality, of his own separateness, and at the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate’.[14] With these paintings, in other context upgraded by artist to the role of expressive carries of direct meaning, new hopes concerning abstract art were awakened, but with his words viewers expectations of high experience were increasingly twisted. Lyotard, in turn, having noticed the principle of the communication structure in these works in their elimination of recognizable realm of reference, identified them with the massages, however these ‘massage ‘speaks’ of nothing; it emanates from no one’[15]. Careful examination of French philosopher’s thought in this context provokes even more controversial understanding of artist’s work that his own, which is: closer to grotesque and banal. How about expressing the boundaries between the sublime and the ridicule in the terms of ‘zippy’-slippery quality of Newman’s work?

Art history’s trouble with Newman is instructive. It shows that being present before his works, both burden with intellectual baggage and relieved by comments that may sound trivial or naive, means being between categories in the state of one’s mind frames and bodily experience tenaciously stretched.[16] However, remembering that author of Catherdal wanted his paintings to give his audience a ‘sense of place’ or ‘a sense of (…) own reality’[17], art history fails to see its own blind spot in this respect; it refuses, in other words, to appreciate the event in defiance of Knewmanian rhetoric; it rejects, for instance, the possibility of confronting with what he did through diversifying the exalted knowledge of an Erudite. I think it is because of side effects of taking up this risk, it is acting despite the requirements of education and moving on the verge of non-sense. The sense of freedom and anarchy in differentiating foundations of knowledge produced by violent masculine’s subject I refer to may be compared to Newman’s turn back at the European artistic tradition prior to his art, however it is not quite the same. Its purpose is very different, which is the transformation of a state of speechlessness with terror, muteness or ‘ah’s’ and ‘oh’s’[18] documented by artist’s work and translated into the language of the sublime-oriented academic conventions into the articulateness defined more by the indiscernibility between ‘meaningful’ and ‘meaningless’: the sublime as grotesque.

One-men-tricksters art of hysteria

With a shape-shifter Onement I (1948) for nine months mysteriously stripped hero stood at attention within his Creator’s grasp. Long after they had spent some time together, the painting was introduced to the American postwar art world. Its publicity at first rejected uncompromising protagonist brought to life by Newman’s ingenious brush, covered with paint and pain of delivery. Eager for sublimity, the painter did not hesitate to meditate aloud upon his work in terms of revelation, but the narcissistic relation between him and his creative outcome soon was overshadowed by the global issues this work could stand for. Contributing to the primordial characteristic of painting’s experience, Onement I, Newman’s forever only child, to whom he plotted his birthday card massage, marked the inconspicuous front line of modern artistic expression and particular awareness of a painting. From now on there was nothing underneath its surface that the viewer could have complete power and control over. The stingy pictorial ‘costume’ of Onement I, consisting of the unresolved relation of the figure and the ground, evoked the presence of someone unable to be possessed and incapable to possess. But soaking up with the blasts of baby’s breath, art historian’s babbling and eloquent nudity, patiently accepting rumbling of crowds visiting the museums exhibitions,[19] one day Onement I unexpectedly bared it claws at the accidental victim. The unprecedented, open model of meaningful Newman proposed earned even more respect in professional circles, when on her gravestone, too unclear to read, such inscription was placed: ‘In every sense of the word, Bernadette Newone entered the realm of The Creative Man. Her voice dispersed the aura of seriousness of the void, boldly penetrating the volume of extinguishing modes of writing.’

Crimes of the Sublime

This piece was written by art historian, Bernadette Newone, during her visit at the exhibition ‘Abstract Expressionism New York: The Big Picture’[20], where in the heart of busy blockbuster atmosphere she was found dead on the floor, nearby Onement I. According to visitors who reported her death, the cause must have been her overdosed reaction on the work of Patriarch of Abstract Expressionism.[21]Her decedent’s death certificate precise it: sublimation failure. The policeman noted that people around were not really resonating this remarkable, monologing response of her, but somebody from the exhibition crowd quoted Barnett Newman ‘Size doesn’t count, it is scale that counts’[22].

I promised myself to commit this trivial offence![23] I begin with approaching the painting to make sure if what I see is really THIS maroon field (Indian red) split by THIS orange vertical stripe (cadmium red light). The field has an uneven, relatively thin paint film; the orange stripe has a thick impasto and is painted onto and overlaps a piece of masking tape now I have an occasion to tear off and check what is underneath. A searing orange of painful interjection into the field of doleful color, somewhat intoxicating and self-igniting. It stands proud against the ground. I start scraping off the ‘zip’ with a dilapidated nail. I could walk on because I have scratched what I saw, but when I noticed I have not yet finished, I linger in the hope for the sublimation of my importunity! Underneath the tape I find the secret space all covered with letters ‘Never in my life have I resembled ‘zip’ and how I enjoy your fitness I think you should quit! Barney’. Suddenly I feel like this command of ‘Onement I’ refers me back to myself and I become aware of its dark side. My neurotic tendency is now underpinned to the painting. Step back! Step forward! Nothing! A false start! A stage fright! Intoxication from narcotic inhalation and substances used to conserve paint. The sweet sublime breaking my arm and leg. I look at the object in front of me and it provokes a feeling of discomfort. Am I still looking in the mirror?

Captions to illustrations:
1) Michael Auder, Barnett Newman, and Viva at Knoedler’s, 1969. (Digitally restored, 2000). Photographer unknown. Courtesy: The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York
2) The history of art imagined as a landscape. Redrawn by James Elkins. Courtesy: James Elkins.

Bal (1999) = Bal, Mieke, Quoting Caravaggio. Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1999.

Benjamin 1989 = Benjamin, Andrew (ed.), The Lyotard Reader, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell 1989.
Bierhorst (1987) = Bierhorst, Johnatan, doctor coyote.  A Native American  Aesop’s Fables, New York: London – Macmillan, 1987.
Elkins (2002) = Elkins, James, Stories of Art, New York: Routlege 2002.
Gliszczyński 2012 = Gliszczyński, Krzysztof, Truth in Painting, Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk 2012.
Harrison 2003 = Harrison, Charles, Abstract Art: Reading Barnett Newman’s Eve: 2003
Hynes and Doty 1997 = Hynes, William J. and Doty, William G. (ed.), Mythical Trickster Figures. Contours, Contexts, and Criticism, Tuscaloosa and London 1997

O’Neil (1990) = John P. O’Neil, Barnett Newman. Selected Writings and Interviews, New York 1990.
Gibson (1994) = Gibson, Ann Eden, ‘Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Representation in Betty Parson’s Gallery’, Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History, Whitney Davies (ed.), was simultaneously issued by The Haworth Press, Inc., under the same title as a special issue of Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 27, Number 1/2, 1994, John, P. de Cecco (ed.).
Gibson (1997) = Gibson, Ann Eden, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics, New Haven -Yale University Press 1997.
Ho 2002 =  Ho, Melisa (ed.): Reconsidering Barnett Newman, Philadelphia, Pa.: New Haven -Philadelphia Museum of Art , Yale University Press 2002.
Joselit (2003) = Joselit, James, American Art since1945, London - Thames & Hudson 2003.
Leja (1995) = Leja, Michael, ‘Barnett Newman Solo Tango’, Critical Inquiry; Spring 1995, Vol. 21 Issue 3.
Lewison (2002) = Lewison, Jeremy, Looking at Barnett Newman, August Media, London 2002.
Markowska (2010) = Markowska, Anna, Comedy of Sublimation. Paradigm shift and Ethos of the Real on American Art, Wydawnictwo DIG, Warszawa 2010.
Newone (2011) = Newone, Bernadette, The Edifice of Abstract Expressionism and Clyfford Still, Colorado State, Denver Carrington Press 2011.
Newman 1948 = Newman, Barnett, The Sublime is Now.
Newman 2002 = Barnett Newman, Ann Tempkin (ed.), exhibition cat., Philadelphia Pa.- Philiadelphia Museum of Art March 24 to July 7, 2002; Tate Modern London, September 19, 2002 to January 5, 2003.
Shiff 2004 = Richard Shiff, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York - Barnett Newman Foundation New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press 2004.

[1] Bernadette Newone said these words on the occasion of non-existent symposium devoted to the ‘hagiographers’ of the movement. Its participants were Clement Greenberg,  Harold Rosenberg,  Irving Sandler (The Triumph of American Painting, 1970), William C. Seitz (Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, 1983) and others who contributed in establishing serious image of serious movement, so aptly and mockingly depicted by James Elkin’s student under the form of mental map of art history, reproduced in his Stories of Art (2002: pl. 4).  
[2] Informative example of how art history approach to Newman’s work can be found in: Lewinson (2002: 7): ‘I have always found the painting of Barnett Newman difficult. Difficult to understand, difficult to empathize with, difficult to penetrate. I am not the first person to feel this. Newman’s first two exhibitions at Betty Parsons gallery in New York were greeted with coolness by his contemporaries, perhaps with incomprehension and incredulity. They did not quite know what to make of it, where he fitted in’; Other opinion stresses Newman was ‘an artist whose work continues to defy categories and elude labels more than fifty years after his painting were firs exhibited in New York’.
[3] Newman was one of the least understood of the Abstract Expressionists. Yves-Alain Bois records some divergences in the reception of his work, presenting artist as an intergenerational intermediary: ‘In the last decade of his life – when Newman was, at least, enjoying a certain degree of fame brought about by sudden adulation of a younger generation of artists – he was prone to give interviews. (…) Newman had always been saddened, and was,  in fact deeply hurt, by the lack of recognition (if not sheer scorn) he received from his peers. In his late interviews he was seizing the chance to set the record straight for younger, admiring ears.’ See in: Ho (2002: 29). 
[4] See: Barnett Newman 2002: 11.
[5] See: Newone (2011: 13).
[6] Newman contributed significantly to the rebirth of culture after the Second World War also as a moralist, who did not help people to understand what he had in his mind. He was particularly interested in the condition of moral judgment in reference to art and sought to create the philosophical platform, on which the question of artist’s social commission and engagement in the historical moment could be lifted to a higher ground. Indeed, Newman is classified as trickster as ‘Tricksters map for some societies just how one ‘ought’ to act just as formal moralists inform members of a Western society about proper roles, but tricksters are not stuffed shirts in the bargain: indeed tricksters are comical if not marginal figures, and they represent sacred beings in some cultures, but not in others’ Bierhorst (1987: 13); Newman’s public appearances, like the one during famous conference at Woodstock, New York, in 1952, which discussion begins Richard Shiff essay (Shiff 2004:3) can be perceived  according to Brian Street’s remarks on the Zande trickster Ture tales that ‘can be seen as moral examples re-affirming the rules of society; or rather they serve as a model for these rules, demonstrating what happens if the prescriptions laid down by society are not observed’ After: Hyne Doty 1997: 6-7.

[7] See: Markowska: 2010. The term Anna Markowska coined and titled with her book on American art can be understand as a parody of objective mechanisms of producing knowledge and establishing canons of interpretations. While she applies it to dismiss interpretative perspective based on subordinating modern art to the utopist project of modernity (dedicated to the future), I would like to point at its potential productivity in reference to the nowadays art history’s self-absorption with herself. This attitude of radical self-criticism required from a discipline is represented, for instance, by Georges Didi-Huberman. With reservations, of course, it can be referred to the problem of redefining the status of theory in modernist critical discourse as proposed by Ives-Alain Bois.
[8] In the chapter on Newman, ‘Intrusions and manipulations. The problem of repetition in graphic of Barnett Newman and Andy Warhol’, due to the emancipating purpose of her interpretation, Markowska once again  refers to well known existential characteristic of Abstract Expressionists as generation that paid much attention to the uniqueness of their own existence, tragedy and loneliness. Markowska (2010: 126-136)
[9] Ives-Alain Bois writes that ‘he [Newman] was, in effect, radically transforming the mode of pictoral reception that had remained basically unchanged in the West Since the Renaissance’. See in: Ho 2002: 34.
[10] It would be ignorant of me not to recall here the ambivalence of Mieke Bal’s book on Caravaggio (Bal: 1999). Noticeable that ‘Quoting Caravaggio’, a first part of its title, has a double meaning. It may refer to the act of quoting the baroque artist, but also to his works quoting other works. It is exactly Bal’s poststructural thinking on art that inspired me to make one step foreword and relate the idea of an author/artist as a reader’s/viewer’s projection, taken from his/her contemporary perspective, directly to the conception of self-caricaturing process referred to the self of academic text’s author. Thus, including Bernadette Newone as the object of the caricature and irony, I believe, I deprive my perspective of scholarly naivety and academic backwardness.
[11] This term refers to Charles Harrison’s ‘imagined other’, who coined it to describe the model viewer of Newman’s Eve. His author confronts the reconstruction of artist’s intended ‘imagined other’ as ‘someone who could look at the image without the nostalgic glasses of history’ with his own proposition of a viewer looking at Eve with the eyes of a distanced lover. Harrison’s interpretation follows, however, Newman’s ‘commandment’ (my term referring to one of Newman’s painting title and the strong Biblical inspiration present in his work) of a ‘proper reading of his work’, so that eventually the ‘imagined other’, the lover, represents modern subject transcending his own individuality and establishing his own idealized separateness in the face of Eve. See: Harrison 2003; see also: Newman: 1948.
[12] See: Joselit (2003: 18): ‘In painting of the New York School, individualism was expressed through an array of distinctive visual styles. However, the particular type of individuality valued in this milieu was the heroic emotion and suffering of heterosexual white man who, during the 1940s and `50s, were unquestionably assumed to represent ‘humanity’ as a whole. (…) the particular form of identity which this mode of painting represented and enacted was severely limited’.
[13] The latest example of a serious attempt to summarize the state of research on Newman from philosophical standpoint was presented by Łukasz Kiepuszewski in his text ‘Błyskawiczne zamki Banretta Newmana’, in: Gliszczyński 2012:87-94.
[14] Interview with David Sylvester. See: O’Neil (1990:257-258).
[15]or ‘the massage is the presentation, but it presents nothing; it is, that is, presence’. These quotations are taken from Lyotard’s text ‘Newman: The Instant’. See: Benjamin 1989:242.
[16] Not irrelevantly to my subject, this sentence imitates Georges Didi-Huberman’s style of writing. Precisely, I refer here to his text ‘Before the Image, before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism’.
[17] Interview with Sylvester. See: O’Neil (1990:257).
[18] Lyotard is close to my perspective, when he points that the massage of Newman’s work is ‘Here I am’, ‘I am yours’ or ‘Be mine’ and thus removes pompous tone of the sublime from his interpretation; however his position in delivering a commentary to artist’s work differs from mine in that he still seems to be very serious about the revolutionary meaning of his own interpretation. His argument for the simplicity in above-mentioned justification of communication’s structure in Newman’s work will be useful for us: ‘A canvas of Newman draws a contrast between stories and its plastic nudity. Everything is there – dimensions, colors, lines – but there are no allusions. So much so that it is a problem for commentator. What can I say that is not given? It is difficult to describe, but the description is as flat as paraphrase.’.
[19] For the discussion of sound effects in Newman’s paintings compare Sarah K. Rich ‘The Proper Name of Newman’s Zip’, in: Ho 2012:96-114.

[20] Bernadette Newone († January 29, 2011) saw the exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (October 3, 2010 – April 25, 2011) during her study visit in New York, possible thanks to the grant received from The Kościuszko Foundation. Increasing interest in Abstract Expressionism more and more often led Newone to the conclusion of being no one really important in the field study of this Big Art. She developed this particular psychological research perspective with colossal success and, what turned out after her death, also with undisputed credibility.
[21] On gender perspective applied to Newman and his work compare: Leja (1995: 556-581) and Gibson: (1994: 245-270).
[22] Interview with Sylvester. See: O’Neil (1990:258).
[23] Compare with his sensitive interpretation: ‘I am standing in front of Onement I. I see a maroon field (Indian red) split by an orange vertical stripe (cadmium red light). The field has an uneven, relatively thin paint film; the orange stripe has a thick impasto and is painted onto and overlaps a piece of masking tape. It is a searing orange, a somewhat painful interjection into a field of doleful color. It stands proud, a form against the ground, and in this it is almost, although not quite, unique in Newman’s oeuvre. I look at the painting and stare into its blankness. I could walk on because I have seen all there is to see but I linger in the hope that it will revel something more. As I continue to look I become aware of myself in the act of looking. The blankness and singularity of the image refer me back to myself. The vertical band reminds me of my own verticality and I begin to connect myself to the painting. I start to feel self-conscious and to sense my own presence in the room. I look at the object in front of me and it provokes a feeling of discomfort, as though I am looking in the mirror”,  Lewison (2002:21).

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