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In Search of Uriel: Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman had four one-person exhibitions in his lifetime (five if you count Newman and de Kooning at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1962), plus two print exhibitions, and an exhibition of his “Stations of the Cross” at the Guggenheim Musuem. An exhibition at Bennington College became a “retrospective” when Newman arranged to show paintings that had not been seen in New York since his second Betty Parsons Gallery show seven years earlier. One could see his work from time to time in group exhibitions. In the 1960s I knew the work primarily from art magazine reproductions. A year after Newman’s death, Thomas Hess arranged a memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. That exhibition, in 1971, was the first real survey of his work, although some of the most important paintings were unavailable for it. 

Newman died on July 4, 1970. He was born on January 29, 1905. Like many young students, I was more interested in the work of de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock: their work seemed more varied, more about what painting seemed to be “about,” more real. I was thinking about all of this one recent morning when a long-time friend called from Florida to chat about orange juice. She was a painter for many years, is now a writer, sculptor, and mathematician. She also taught for many years at Bennington College. I put a question to her: would it be reasonable in an article about Newman, Tony Smith, Pollock, and de Kooning to say that the way most people think about reality is actually a form of topology, and that those artists were engaged in one way or another in another topological aspect?  There was some silence, and then the reply that this was a very good question; also that there had been a recent study showing that two glasses of orange juice a day keeps one’s blood pressure down. If I were older, and lucky enough to have met Newman, I would have asked him about his relation to topology, for he is quoted as having said that he had created “a new topology in which each space is not related to the next space.”

I came across Hess’s MoMA catalogue by accident, around 1973. It was a revelation about the man and his work, although over time, Hess’s attempt to relate all of Newman’s ideas to a study of Kaballah seems to derive from an excess of enthusiasm. In the catalogue there is a small black-and-white reproduction of one of the works not in the exhibition: an 8 by 18-foot painting in the London apartment of Alan Power, son of the collector of painting, sculpture, and land snails, E.J. Power. I was able to see the work much later when it was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The painting is titled “Uriel,” made in 1955, and it is something of a puzzle compared with the earlier work. It is strange, awesome, and weird. 

The broad outlines of Newman’s life and work may be familiar to readers of the Rail: he was initially one of the inner circle of artists who would become known as the “Abstract Expressionists.”  These artists rejected the prevailing working methods of American artists, surrealism, geometric abstraction, regionalism, and representation, and created a new kind of experience of art based on personal gesture, immediacy, painting according to sensation, and direct (“existential”) engagement with subject matter. Newman was for some time warmly embraced by the group as it struggled for recognition, writing statements, catalogue essays, talking at the “Club,” teaching in the school “Subject of the Artist,” and drinking at the Cedar Tavern—and then he was abruptly rejected. The painters he trusted to support his work and ideas failed to appear at the opening of his second one-person show, in 1951, at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Only Jackson Pollock and Tony Smith defended him. Three years earlier, in a moment of discovery, he had found an entirely new and powerful form for painting. He had smeared a line of cadmium red light on a strip of masking tape that divided a vertical canvas painted cadmium red deep into two halves, creating a bilaterally symmetrical image of solid color. In 1949, after studying the work for nearly a year, he produced 17 paintings on the theme, and, in the following year, 12 more and a work of sculpture. His first one-person show of the paintings was in 1950 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, and although it was neither critically nor financially successful, he at least felt that he was surrounded by comrades in a struggle for a new form of art. By the following year, however, the “look” of “action painting” was established and a scene had grown up around it. Newman was pushed out. He painted fewer and fewer paintings, until, in 1955, he made just one painting, and none at all in the next two years. His friend Pollock had died in 1956. In 1957, he had a near-fatal heart attack. He would later describe the period as his “blackest years,” and during that time the single painting he made was “Uriel.”

When I was finally able to see “Uriel” at the Metropolitan Museum, I spent a lot of time with it. Museum guards get curious when someone spends a couple of hours in front of a painting with “nothing-in-it,” sometimes for good reason. Newman’s work has been slashed on two occasions. The guard came over to ask if there was something in the painting that I was looking at that he wasn’t seeing. I said that I was sure we both saw the same painting (at which point he looked a little more relaxed), but that I was having trouble understanding the painting, the title didn’t seem helpful, and I was trying to feel what the painter put into it, trying to “get” the thing. In the Philadelphia exhibit, the painting is higher on the wall than at the Met, giving it a more “pictorial” feel. Hung slightly lower, one feels the weight of the work. In Newman’s studio it would have been suspended by chains in a room where the walls and floor were completely covered in brown paper. The studio, when he was working, must have felt like the inside of a cave, like the Ohio Mounds whose “presence” he admired, like painting at the beginning of civilization. 

Of all Newman’s work, “Uriel” feels the most ponderous: slow, difficult, almost unresolved. Most of the painting is a pale, milky, greenish blue. One the right-hand side is an area of dark red-brown. The two colors meet in a complicated cluster of up-and-down “zips,” one of which is deep blue. Some of the zips are firm, others feathered. They feel like a disturbance, like thunder and its echoes, and the work as a whole is discordant. Rather than radiating light and color as most of Newman’s works do, including the black-on-black “Abraham,” “Uriel” seems to absorb light, atmosphere, sensibility, in much the way a tornado gathers the air around it before it strikes the earth. If, as Hess suggests, the painting is named for the angel Uriel (Hebrew for “bringer of light”), the name is distant from the much different thing I felt I was looking for.

Although Annalee Newman was able to support herself and her husband on her salary as a teacher, the painter was often at the local pawn shop. Even so, he managed to have a working library including many philosophical and religious books, including a couple of works on the Kaballah, the written and oral tradition of Jewish mysticism. What his own library lacked, the New York Public Library could easily provide. However, although the angel Uriel is regarded as being responsible for bringing Kaballah to humans, I doubt that an artist like Newman would have consoled himself in his “blackest years” calculating divisions on his canvas surfaces (an activity he would have regarded as ornamentation, in which he had no interest), or by paying painterly homage to archangels. He had removed his paintings from the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951; his friends, except for Pollock and Tony Smith, had distanced themselves from him and his work. He had discovered a new form for painting and for his effort he was booted out of the art world. To make things worse, Pop Art was overtaking “action painting.”  In 1955, Jasper Johns painted his 6 1/2 by 10 foot “White Flag,” as well as “Target with Four Faces”; Robert Rauschenberg made his hinged-panel “Short Circuit,” also containing a striped flag.

I think that “Uriel” was a statement about Newman’s own desperate condition during those years; that the thing I was “getting” from the painting was a sense of biography. Newman had always had faith in his work, and now that faith was being severely tested. “Onement, I,” his first breakthrough, was born of bilateral symmetry, the signature of the presence of life, of man. Later paintings would explore the sensations and radiance of life. With the black-on-black “Abraham,” Newman discovered the threat of death—not of black as a death image, but as the threat that the painting might be thought of as simply another example of Russian Suprematism, or a play on Matisse’s “Red Studio.”

The painting “Uriel” comes from a different kind of place. Newman’s colleagues were rapidly achieving fame, and he was just rapidly becoming invisible. The pale aqua-blue of the painting is a color he had used the previous year in the painting titled “The Break” (1954). What is usually not noticed is that the same color was also used in a painting with a similar title—“Genesis—The Break” in 1946—and again in “Pagan Void,” also 1946. The “break,” according to the literature of the Kaballah, is a brief moment in the process of creation when God contracts inwardly, creating an area in the substance of the universe which is empty and void. Newman, in his isolation, seems to have been rethinking his work from the beginning, perhaps hoping for a new breakthrough on the order of “Onement, I,” and maybe also wondering if he might have said all he had to say as an artist. Hess is of the opinion that “Uriel” is a “resumé of the previous four years’ experience.”  I agree that it is some kind of resumé, but also more of a personal questioning of his work and life. He was 50 years old that year. His exclusion from the exhibition Fifteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art was an official expulsion form the art world. He had been excommunicated. One of Newman’s early heroes had also been excommunicated: Baruch Benedict Spinoza (from the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam which his grandfather had helped found) in 1656. Benedict (“blessed”) was the name Spinoza adopted after he was excommunicated, thus Latinizing his name Baruch. The gesture would not have been lost on Newman, who had also Latinized his name (from Baruch) to Benedict when he was in school.

In H.A. Wolfson’s Philsophy of Spinoza, there is a chapter titled “Evidence that Spinoza’s Theory of Immortality was Intended as a Criticism of the View of Uriel Acosta.”  Uriel Acosta was a contemporary of Spinoza, born Gabriel d’Acosta in Portugal in 1585, into a Marrano family (Jewish in origin, but practicing Christianity). He is often referred to by the names daCosta, Dacosta, or Acosta. As a young man he took a job in the Church as a low-level official, and studied the Bible as well as Mosaic law. These studies led him to conclude that his beliefs were more consistent with Judaism than Christianity, so he converted secretly and left Portugal for Amsterdam, which had a thriving Jewish community and abstained from the forcible conversion of Jews prevalent during the Counter-Reformation. Once there, however, he discovered that the version of Judaism he had derived for himself from his studies was different than the traditional practice of the Amsterdam Portuguese community. He was vocal in the two forms of “excommunication” against him for his refusal to comply with community traditions. Gabriel repented publicly and was allowed to rejoin the temple. Continuing to study, he began to argue a philosophy that refuted the immortality of the soul on the grounds that it was not specifically stated in the Bible. He adopted the name Uriel, “flame of God,” “bringer of light,” and publicly stated his conclusion that the faculty of reason was the only quality that separated humans from animals. He opposed, in addition, any community or Rabbinical practices not derived directly from Mosaic law. The Rabbis answered with a Cherem, the most severe form of excommunication, a ceremony of expulsion as devastating and destructive of the person as a religious community can devise. This provoked a cousin of d’Acosta’s to interfere with his upcoming marriage, as he had been forbidden contact in any form with the community or his own family. D’Acosta borrowed two pistols, tried to murder the cousin with one, and killed himself with the other. The year was 1640. Spinoza, who is said to have witnessed one of d’Acosta’s excommunications, was eight years old. 

When I see photographs of Newman with his monocle hanging like a talisman, I’m reminded that Spinoza supported himself as a lens grinder. Spinoza was often offered teaching posts, but declined them, believing that they would limit his ability to think and speak freely. His philosophy combined Duns Scotus’s idea that all space is unified and continuous, with the religious idea (perhaps influenced by the Kaballah) that there is only one substance, God, having two aspects, thought and extension. He believed that the soul can attach itself to this continuous universal substance and exist immortally. Following his own excommunication (the milder form, which he didn’t bother to attend anyway), he associated with a small group called the Collegiates, who studied together and professed their beliefs without the need for an official clergy.

I would group “Uriel” with “Abraham” in Newman’s work in that it invites a personal reading, and refers simultaneously to a religious figure (Uriel was the archangel of the order of Seraphim, and Abraham the father of the Jewish people), and a real person to whom Newman had an emotional tie (Uriel d’Acosta; Abraham was Newman’s father’s name). Both paintings were won through great personal struggle, unlike the creation of “Onement, I” in 1948. Yve-Alain Bois writes in a recent issue of Artforum of Newman’s near inability to overcome his “fear of painting the central band black” of the painting “Abraham” when he realized there was no other color that would work. Similarly, in “Uriel,” we have the sickly whites of tallow candles, the red-brown of dried blood, and the blue/black surrounded with a plume of smoky white—the ingredients of an excommunication and suicide. Anarchists celebrated d’Acosta for his independent thought and opposition to religious and collective authority. 

The Portuguese Synagogue would have been on Newman’s mind in 1950, 1951, and 1952, for during those years he was at work on ideas for a synagogue design of his own, perhaps in friendly competition with Tony Smith, who was designing a church for a group of patrons brought to him by Alphonso Ossorio and James Johnson Sweeney. It was to house a group of six paintings by Pollock in a group of hexagonal structures raised off the ground by posts, and around that time we have Newman describing to Smith a system of masonry walls alternating with glass walls at right angles that would bring light into the structure without interfering with the viewing of the paintings. Perhaps Newman was to have some work of his own in the Smith project. At any rate, the synagogue would have led him to a study of the Mishnah, the ancient collection of ritual and custom, for his design was based on a baseball field, and he would want to argue that no matter how radically it might appear to depart from tradition, it was liturgically sound. This was a signature aspect of Newman’s thought and practice. For him (like Spinoza and Duns Scotus), time and history were continuous with thought and being. Stephen Barr tells us in his introduction to his Experiments in Topology that “in one sense topology is the study of continuity: beginning with the continuity of space, or shapes, it generalizes, and then by analogy leads into other kinds of continuity—and space as we usually understand it is left far behind.”  The orange juice study, by the way, was paid for by Tropicana. 

The first work Newman made after he recovered from his 1957 heart attack was “Outcry,” 82 inches high, 6 inches wide. What makes this format especially interesting is it is similar to the extremely narrow verticals he painted in 1950, all of which, except “The Wild,” he kept in his own possession. (The first, “Untitled #1, he bought back from Ossorio because he felt it didn’t represent him significantly in company with Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, et al.)  After Pollock’s death in 1956, Tony Smith and Newman continued a close friendship. The group of patrons for the Smith church project had withdrawn their support in the summer of 1952, and Smith was concentrating primarily on painting and sculpture, realizing his first major sculpture, “Throne,” in 1956 – 1957. Both artists were gathering support from a new generation of young artists, the most prominent now among them: Lawrence Poons, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Robert Murray, and Dan Flavin. Few artists are as careful as Newman to show how one painting relates to the one before and the one after. The deep ultramarine zip in “Uriel” stands uneasily alone, almost unrelated to the rest of the painting. When he returns to painting in 1958, the single color used in the tall, narrow vertical band is the same deep ultramarine blue as the one in “Uriel.” The outcry, I think, was lema sabachthani, “Why did you forsake me?” After “Outcry,” in 1958 Newman stretched two canvases that would become, with Smith’s encouragement, “The Stations of the Cross.” A few years later, in 1963, hearing a rumor that Newman had been thinking of designing a synagogue based on a baseball field, the prominent architect Richard Meier invited him to submit a model for his exhibition Recent American Synagogue Architecture at the Jewish Museum. He would be exhibiting in the company of Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Meier, and other well-known professionals. Typically, he called Robert Murray to assist him and they finished the model in two weeks, just in time to be included in the exhibition. According to Hess it was the most original piece in the show. The synagogue reminds me of a similarly crystalline structure, perhaps conceived to accompany the building: the enigmatic “Broken Obelisk” of 1963 – 1969. Newman had moved from despair to success. 

There is one more story that properly belongs to the period of Newman’s hardest struggles. In 1968, during the social and political events and dialogue, the publisher of Horizon Books asked Newman if he could publish a volume of his essays, notes, and statements. Newman replied that he would prefer it if Horizon would republish Peter Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and that he would write an introduction, in the hope of making a contribution to the dialogue going on within the Left. Horizon agreed, and in Newman’s introduction he allowed himself only one small personal digression:

In the ’40s, when artists got together of an evening, there was always someone who insisted on playing surrealist games. I recall one evening when everyone in the room had to say what destroyed him. I remember what I said. I said that I felt destroyed by established institutions. I was surprised to hear one of the artists present say that what destroyed him were people. He was perhaps wiser than I, for I had to go through that Darwinian lesson. Looking back, I think we were both right, because only those people practice destruction and betrayal who hunger to accept completely the values of the establishment in which they seek a place. It’s the establishment that makes people predatory.


Jim Long


The Brooklyn Rail


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