Barnett Newman: The Late Work, 1965–1970
A little over twenty-five years ago, the work of Barnett Newman (1905–1970) raised a public furor. Following the National Gallery of Canada’s acquisition of his monumental Voice of Fire (1967) for nearly $1.76 million, everyone from major media outlets to private citizens weighed in, expressing outrage and ridicule.
In addition to the standard “My kid could do better,” Voice of Fire was publicly mocked in editorial cartoons, as well as in apparel that included “T-Shirts of Fire” and “Neckties of Fire.” There was even a “Barn of Fire,” after a local horticulturalist jokingly painted the side of his greenhouse in the work’s graphic colour scheme. When the issue was raised among politicos, Manitoba MP Felix Holtmann famously said that the painting looked like it would involve "two cans of paint, two rollers, and about ten minutes."
Fast-forward more than two decades, and the purchase of Newman’s Voice of Fire has proven a highly prescient purchase. In 2014, Newman’s Black Fire I (1961) fetched $84.2 million at auction — smashing the previous record of $43.8 million set only a year before. Makes the amount paid for the 5.4 x 2.4-metre Voice of Fire seem like a pretty good deal.
In 2015, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, mounted an exhibition on Newman’s final five years, a period that includes Voice of Fire. The exhibition catalogue, Barnett Newman: The Late Work, 1965–1970 — featuring paintings and sculpture from several institutions, including three works from the National Gallery of Canada — is a spare and elegant tribute to one of the most important American artists of the mid-twentieth century.
In addition to its lavish illustrations, Barnett Newman: The Late Work features three essays, each markedly different in focus and approach. In “Barnett Newman’s Immortal Air, 1965–70,” Menil Associate Curator Michelle White offers a thoughtful assessment of Newman and the legacy inherent in his later work. Noting that his later work was “larger, brighter, and more graphic,” White remarks upon a changing palette that included “primary colors that seem to have come directly out of the tube.” This was a marked departure for an artist who had previously tended towards murky earthtones applied in multiple layers.
White also discusses the ethos behind Newman’s work, noting that the artist himself wanted his work to have a physical and metaphysical impact on the viewer. “Physically,” writes White, “he wanted the viewer to have an experience, in time, in front of his work. Metaphysically, he wanted that material encounter to transcend one’s expectation for representation.”
In “‘So Much Mud’: Response and Interplay between Artist and Material in the Late Paintings of Barnett Newman,” the Menil’s Chief Conservator Bradford A. Epley provides a fascinating glimpse into Newman’s techniques and materials. Rather than simply listing types of pigments and supports and how Newman prepared his canvases, however, Epley presents an insightful treatise on how materials and their limitations might have informed Newman’s artistic choices.
Far from "two cans of paint, two rollers, and ten minutes," Newman's paintings were in fact carefully built up in numerous glazed layers. Cross-section photographs and reconstructions of several of Newman's paintings demonstrate just how those layers were produced.
Pointing out that Newman’s earlier paintings were created in oil, Epley goes on to discuss how the switch to acrylic medium changed the artist’s work. One of the hallmarks of an earlier Newman, for example, is bleeding along the edges of his masking-tape lines. Epley convincingly suggests that, in addition to the way the masking tape was applied (firmly or not), oil paint degraded the tape’s adhesive, allowing the paint to bleed under the masked-off line.
Even more interesting is Epley’s assessment of the change in Newman’s colour palette. Noting that the larger polymer molecules in acrylic medium tend to crowd out pigment, and that you need a lot of pigment to get a decent earth tone, Epley suggests that Newman was essentially denied his previous palette by his switch in materials.
In the book’s final essay, “Finish Lines for Barnett Newman,” Sarah K. Rich, an associate professor of art history at Penn State’s College of Art and Architecture, discusses the works that remained unfinished at the time of Newman’s sudden death. Noting that the artist left a mere four unfinished works — an incredibly low tally for any artist — Rich discusses these works, along with an intriguing meditation on how unfinished works should be considered.
One of the most interesting sections in Rich’s essay involves a “blue-and-white painting” destroyed by Annalee Newman at her husband’s request. Although the painting was cut into sections, Annalee had second thoughts and had them stitched back together. According to Rich, the canvas still bears the scars of its deconstruction, “its visibly repaired cuts all the more disturbing because they seem reminiscent of the vandalism by which some of Newman’s larger canvases . . . were notoriously damaged.” Rich also offers a touching picture of Annalee herself, a woman who had devoted her life to Newman’s work and protecting his legacy.
Any art book worth its salt should, of course, be as striking as the works it contains. In this, Barnett Newman: The Late Work does not disappoint. The designers have left ample white space on every page, allowing the works to breathe. Impressively, they have included foldouts to accommodate long horizontal works that would have been diminished if crammed onto a vertical page. There are also numerous photographs of Newman’s studio at the time of his death and several of Newman himself — including a wonderful mid-career shot of him seated dead-centre in front of one of his zip paintings.
Although it would have been nice to have a biographical note covering more than the five years detailed in Melissa Ho’s chronology, this is an outstanding contemporary art catalogue by any measure. While avoiding the type of cloying artspeak that would have driven Newman himself crazy, Barnett Newman: The Late Work is an elegant paean to an artist whose work has not only influenced generations of artists but has also stood the test of time.
And what of the Newman work that caused all that controversy a generation ago? Commissioned for the American Pavilion at Expo 67 — and depicted in the book as it originally appeared in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome — Voice of Fire now hangs, quite fittingly, in almost cathedral-like splendour at the Gallery. Its scale, to say nothing of the raw power of its colours and surfaces, do exactly what Newman wanted his best work to do: “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”
Barnett Newman: The Late Work, 1965–1970 by Bradford A. Epley and Michelle White, with a contribution by Sarah K. Rich, is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore. Visitors to the National Gallery of Canada can view Newman’s paintings The Way I (1951), Voice of Fire and Yellow Edge (c. 1968), and the sculpture Here II (1965) in the American Abstract Expressionism Gallery (C214).