By Christopher Zoukis
One large, flat rectangle, dark gray in color, stands like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In front of it, like small children who cannot contain their energy, two smaller oblongs of the same color and density lie on their heels. All three are made of rock. What kind of rock, I don’t know. Perhaps granite, perhaps black marble.
They are tombstones. The large monolith reads: BARNETT NEWMAN. The letters engraved in four-inch letters in the hard, polished surface of the rock, like one of the Ten Commandments.
On the left of the smaller rectangles is engraved: BARNETT NEWMAN. Underneath the name it says: January 29, 1905 – July 4, 1970.
The smaller rectangle on the right carries the name of his wife. Obviously, Barnett gets top billing because he was the star of the family. He dropped dead of a heart attack.
The three tombstones reside in Montefiore Cemetery, Saint Albans, Queens County, New York. The street address is 121-83 Springfield Boulevard.
Barnett Newman was one of Kandinsky’s disciples. Perhaps apostle would be a better word, since Barnett ranks so highly in the hierarchy of abstract expressionism.
Barnett Newman was born and raised in New York City. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. If it seems like the Russians have a monopoly on abstract expressionism, it’s because they do. Possibly this is a reflection of a certain transcendent quality of the Russian soul. On the vast plains of mother Russia the souls find room for imaginary flights, swooping and carving through time and space. With so much room to play in, Russian souls are not confined by mere linear, flat portrayals of reality. So a new language of expression finds birth. And art and abstract expressionism, specifically, is the first born child of mother Russia.
I feel sure that Barnett Newman was speaking out from his Russian soul when he said, “We are in the process of making the world, to a certain extent, in our own image.”
Barnett’s image of the world was a ‘zip,’ a thin vertical line, solitary on a field of color. The zip represents a perfect idea, a demiurge, like those of Aristotle and Plato, standing in contrast to the infinite vastness of another, imperfect idea, consisting of a single color. Many of Barnett’s perfect ideas were religious in origin: Adam and Eve before the Fall, Uriel the Archangel, and Father Abraham, who completely gave himself and his life over to God.
In the traditions of Roman Catholicism, the Anglican Church and Lutheranism exists what is called The Stations of the Cross. The tradition is also called the Way of the Cross, Via Crucis, or simply, The Way. It depicts the final hours of the Christ on the Cross, commonly called the Passion.
The historic stations are:
1. Jesus is condemned to death.
2. Jesus receives the Cross.
3. Jesus falls the first time.
4. Jesus meets his mother, Mary.
5. Simon of Cyrene carries the Cross.
6. Veronica wipes Jesus’s face with her veil.
7. Jesus falls the second time.
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
9. Jesus falls the third time.
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments.
11. Crucifixion: Jesus nailed to the Cross.
12. Jesus dies on the Cross.
13. Jesus’ body is removed from the Cross.
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.
An alternate version of the Stations of the Cross is:
1. Jesus institutes the Eucharist.
2. Jesus prays in the Garden at Gethsemane.
3. Jesus before the Sanhedrin.
4. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns.
5. Jesus carries the Cross to Calvary.
6. Jesus falls under the weight of the Cross.
7. Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene.
8. Jesus meets the pious women of Jerusalem.
9. Jesus is nailed to the Cross.
10. Jesus promises Heaven to the repentant thief.
11. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other.
12. Jesus dies on the Cross.
13. Jesus is laid in the tomb.
14. Jesus rises from the dead.
It is interesting to note that there are advocates of a fifteenth station, one that specifically portrays the Resurrection of Christ. The argument set forth is that without Christ’s rising from the dead, his death has no more meaning than any other death.
Barnett painted a series of black and white pictures, which he called The Stations of the Cross, subtitled Lama Sabachthani – “why have you forsaken me.” Those words, of course, were cried by the Christ at Golgotha as he hung on the Cross and darkness embraced the world. The white zip is the perfection of Christ, the abandoned one, while the fat black zip is the arrayed forces of evil swirling, marshaled around him. It is not a depiction of Good versus Evil. It is much more: Perfection in the Person of the Perfect Love of God against the terrible night of mankind’s arrogance – Self-Rule.
In the Ninth, Tenth and Elventh Stations the black zip is replaced by a white zip. This change signifies the efficacious work of Christ on the Cross, specifically, the pouring out of all the sins of humanity. Then in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Stations the blinding darkness of evil wins. The Christ dies, but even in his death the whiteness of grace is pushing back, expanding.
Crescendo occurs at Station Fourteen. Here all that remains is the Cross itself, represented by a brown zip down the left edge of the canvas; and grace, the pure white of the Christ. The Christ and his grace consume fully nine-tenths of the canvas.
There are, of course, fourteen Stations of the Cross. But Barnett tacked on a fifteenth painting. Number fifteen is the Result of the Cross, that which remains forever and ever: the Blood of the Lamb, which is the red zip down the left edge, the great embrace of grace, which is central, and on the right edge, the black zip of sin and/or evil.
As one looks at number fifteen, the essence of the mind and the soul declare that there is only one choice to make – grace.
Standing before the circled paintings, you sense a presence. It’s not a knowing, it’s a response to an organic, intimate commotion. The paintings arouse a queer tumult which defies understanding on an intellectual level. Rather, you feel it. You feel that God exists. That is what makes these paintings great art. They bypass the intellect, going straight for the heart.
Barnett Newman, in the Stations of the Cross, made his primary gambit. And he was more than successful. He was triumphant.
Newman decried the crude brushwork of other abstract expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, who also had a Russian soul. Barnett preferred a thin zip of paint torn on a monochromatic field. His style of painting probably reflects his psychological profile. As a person, Barnett was a snob. This snobbishness was another, more meaningful characteristic of his Russian soul. He considered himself an artistic aristocrat, struggling against the lumpenproletariat of society and the world. He accused Rothko of submitting to “the philistine world.”
This aristocratic attitude worked against him. For most of his career he was unappreciated, his paintings dismissed as ‘simple.’ In reality, his patrician posture was camouflage, a kind of protective coloring, that he wore like a mask to hide his passion for life, his inner feelings. As a result, he never allowed himself to expose his personality, being obscured by more animated and colorful artists, such as Jackson Pollock.
This self-imposed restraint and confinement of his soul’s persona found its outlet in his painting and sculpture. And in the end, his emotional constipation probably explains his two heart attacks, the second of which killed him. For no heart can survive such internal stress, the stress of unreleased zest for life.
His only release was his art.