Judaism can come in the most unexpected of packages. At first glance, a nearly seven-foot-tall painting of a single thick black stripe running vertically across a black canvas signifies nothing but itself: a profound meditation on color and form. Yet Barnett Newman titled his 1949 painting "Abraham," after his father, who had died two years earlier, and the Jewish patriarch.
Like the 64 other paintings gathered in Newman’s first major retrospective in 30 years at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Abraham" invites the viewer into moody spiritual consciousness akin to, but more probing than, the warm baths of the more familiar paintings of Mark Rothko.
Witnessing from afar the horrors of World War II, Newman believed that "the world had to start afresh," said exhibition curator Ann Temkin. As an artist, writer, curator and polemicist, Newman struggled with the question of "how to reaffirm the collective spirit of the human race."
He found his answer in Genesis. Realizing that God created the world by dividing night from day and earth from sea, Newman used what he later called "zips" to impose division and make each painting a manifestation of the creative act.
Born to Russian Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1905, Barnett Newman drew primarily from Judaism, but also from Greek mythology and, controversially, from Christianity. Beginning with his artistic breakthrough in 1948, Newman uncompromisingly labored for each painting to be a masterpiece, but began to be recognized as a great artist only in the late 1950s.
The exhibition in Philadelphia – the only American showing before it travels to the Tate Modern in London – is intended to both reintroduce the public to an artist considered to be one of the most important American painters of the 20th century, and to reframe the art historical conversation, which tended to bury Newman’s expansive Jewish humanism under formalist and mystical interpretations.
Newman’s reputation weathered the storms of multiculturalism and postmodernism, to be rediscovered in the 1990s by historians and curators willing to dust off the concept of the sublime.
Part of this effort is to distance Newman from the liberties taken by Thomas Hess, author of the catalogue of Newman’s last retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1971. Extensively quoting Gershon Sholem, Hess devoted much of his effort to a kabbalistic analysis of Newman’s paintings, searching their titles and geometries for hidden clues to Newman’s spirituality.
Harvard professor Yve-Alain Bois argues in the March issue of Artforum that Hess’ posthumous approach to Newman (he died in 1970) was "the ultimate kiss of death" after decades of "sloppy art writing on Newman." Bois is currently working on Newman’s catalogue raisonne (catalogue of complete works) and expects "the exhibition will overcome the failure of his critics."
Temkin is more evenhanded in explaining the complicated connections between Judaism and modernism in postwar America.
"For many secular Jews, modern painting and sculpture replaced Old World ritual and prayer," she writes in the new, 350-page catalogue.
Like many Jewish American artists of his generation one generation removed from Europe, Newman lost his way in the early 1940s. Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb continued painting, masking their fears of annihilation in surrealism, but Newman quit working altogether from 1940 to 1944. Instead, he studied and exhibited American Indian and Pre-Columbian art as idealized sources of uncorrupted artistic endeavor.
When Newman began working again, he destroyed all his older work and started afresh by experimenting with the expressive, simplified geometries of tapered cones, lines and circles. All of these are included in the exhibition, including "Genesis – The Break" (1946).
In his typically grandiloquent fashion, Newman claimed to have painted his breakthrough on his birthday, Jan. 29, 1948. With its ponderous title, "Onement I" heralded the first appearance of his signature zip, a single slim vertical red stripe bisecting a monochromatic brown plane. It was his first painting that thrust across two dimensions and eliminated any sense of representation.
"What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of a man to be a painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden?" Newman concludes in an essay titled "The First Man Was an Artist," which appeared in the first issue of the influential arts magazine Tiger’s Eye (recently the subject of an exhibition at Yale University).
Decrying the rise of technocratic society, he considered Adam to be the original seeker of creativity. But Newman realized at the core of creativity is destruction, like Abraham’s smashing of the idols, Joshua’s bringing down the walls of Jericho, and Adam and Eve’s tasting of the forbidden fruit.
Few people understood Newman’s early works, like the four orange-zipped "The Name I" (1949). His first two solo shows in 1950 and ’51 were failures.
Supported financially by his wife Annalee, Newman painted steadily throughout the ë50s while continuing to write and organize exhibitions, but didn’t get his due until the next generation of artists found inspiration in his minimalist aesthetic.
But they missed the point too, perceiving his seemingly simple work as a precursor to mechanical Pop Art, not as existentialist toilings to rediscover a spiritual anchor.
Though Newman thought seriously about Judaism and Jewish mysticism and the Conservative and Reform movements adopted modernism as the language of synagogue architecture and adornment, his difficult work was ignored by the organized Jewish community until 1963, when the architect Richard Meier included him in an exhibition of contemporary synagogue design at The Jewish Museum.
The only painter among architectural luminaries like Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson, Newman submitted a model with a bima as pitcher’s mound.
"Here in this synagogue, each man sits, private and secluded in the dugouts, waiting to be called, not to ascend a stage but to go up on the mound, where, under the tension of that ëTzim-Tzum’ that created light and the world, he can experience a total sense of his own personality before the Torah and His Name," Newman wrote in an explanatory text.
Newman made only 120 paintings, a tiny number in comparison to Rothko’s 400 and Pollock’s 800, said Temkin. Not only are the paintings rare and valuable, they are easily damaged but not easily restored. (Two of Newman’s paintings have been famously slashed by a deranged man in Amsterdam.) Assembling a large retrospective of his paintings is an ambitious undertaking, and the museum did well with 65 paintings, six sculptures and 65 works on paper.
Fifteen of the paintings are from the series "Stations of the Cross," on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Reviewing their debut at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966, New York Times critic John Canaday was outraged, likening the slender black vertical bands to "unraveled phylacteries." An inveterate letter writer, Newman sent an epistle to the Times accusing Canaday of anti-Semitism.
Even today, with Newman’s importance assured, critics are still unsure what to make of this monumental work of Christian significance by a Jewish artist. Not all buy Newman’s argument that the series illustrates the plight of humanity expressed in Christ’s lament "My God, why have you forsaken me?"
Nevertheless, the importance of seeing the works of Barnett Newman in person cannot be overstated. Not only are many of them massive, up to 11 feet tall and 18 feet wide, but the colors of his pieces from the 1950s, before he turned to primary colored acrylics in the mid-1960s, are not easily reproduced.
"Barnett Newman" is on view through July 7 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street., Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100. Hours: Tue., Thu., Sat. and Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wed. and Fri.,
10 a.m.-8:45 p.m. $10, $7.