Barnett Newman, Museum of Modern Art (1971)

New York City



 Nothing more reveals Barnett Newman's artistic emptiness than to sit in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden and view his metal stripe "sculptures" through the screen of white-barked trees that line the exhibition area.


 His stripes stand like denuded hat racks, 2 x 4's turned to steel, their rigid, icily-stiff and straight outlines the exact opposite of the organic irregularities of the trees. The trees have life. Newman's stripes are completely dead.


 This is a simple fact of life and art that every beginning art student starts to learn (or used to) from his first day of class. There are lines that are trite, unfelt, superficial and without character: the lines of the comic strip, fashion illustration, mechanical drawing; the lines of the ruler and T-square, of geometric shapes.


 Opposed to these are lines of character, those that reflect the responsiveness of the artist to an emotion, to the fundamental nature of reality, that seek out the irregular curves, nooks and crannies of an apple, an orange or a head. The smooth circle of a ball-bearing is characterless compared to the irregularity of the cabbage. A telephone pole is a stripped, machined, artificially evened-up tree.


 Barnett Newman is a telephone pole.


 Ours is the age that mistakes artificiality, slickness, superficiality, bright packaging, glib words, pretentiousness and smugness for art. Sorry. Art goes deeper than that. Newman doesn't. He's basically a watered-down Mondrian who for the moment has been deified by witless segments of the art establishment. He and others like him, bitten by the bug of barren geometry, will eventually be forgotten, stored deep within museum bowels by embarrassed officials.


 A stripe is only a stripe, and it is asinine to attempt to cover up the fact by titles such as "Day One," "Day Before One," "Primordial Light," "Vir Heroicus Sublimus" or the additional intellectual dishonesty involved in associating Christ and man's fate on earth with 14 paintings using stripes of various widths and placement, and calling them "The Stations of the Cross."


 Piet Mondrian (Newman's ancestor) had a genuinely lyrical, mystical response to nature which can be seen in his early works at the Guggenheim Museum through December 12th, and one can persuade oneself that this passion underlies his later structural concerns with lines and rectangles. But one can also criticize Mondrian for turning his back on reality (which can be unpleasant, to be sure) to focus on an ivory-tower aesthetic problem of extremely narrow scope.


 And now that we are witnessing the death and decay of the modern tradition in art (abstract-expressionism was its hysterical death-cry; subsequent movements like cold exudations from the corpse), it is pathetic and aggravating to see a diluted, 4th-rate Mondrian being given artistic deification by the Museum of Modern Art.


 In 1944-45 Newman was involved in pseudo-Picassoesque scribbles with surrealist overtones that reveal his artistic poverty. Half a dozen of these crayon and oil works on paper are also on exhibition. Barnett Newman never had much to say as an artist, and it is only because of the circumstances of this age, the age of the gimmick and the mediocrity, that the publicity machine could crank the tottering Newman edifice into any semblance of erectness.




Copyright by Don Gray


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