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Decoding a Barnett Newman Masterpiece at The Modern in Fort Worth

BY // 07.17.15

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970) was clearly an educated painter. He frequently peppered documents and conversation with Edenic and Biblical references and wrote material for art catalogs. He also expressed an interest in issues relating to both myths and the primitive unconscious, as did many Abstract Expressionists. However, despite his penetrating intellect, he spent decades as an outcast operating under the formidable shadow of the exuberant Jackson Pollock. When Newman finally garnered attention, he was lauded mightily and came to be considered a major influence upon two generations of painters. Ultimately, though, none of this is of much consequence. Instead, what is enormously significant is the experience of viewing his work and observing how it resonates with the ways we assess and occupy the world.

“Mindfulness” is such a hot topic these days. However, I’ve never heard anyone entertain the idea of using art as a means of parsing the ways our own noggins operate. It’s invaluable to watch ourselves in the act of watching. (As an aside, the entire world is a mammoth Rorschach test, and we’re constantly adding and subtracting material that we deem pertinent — or not — to our constructs, our narratives.) The works of Newman lend themselves extraordinarily well to such exercises. They offer a pared-down subteranean swim past the white-glove layers of pretense and into the more obscure dimensions of our psyches. If we allow it, Newman invokes a kind of emotional rappel. We “zip down” in seconds and uncover just what kind of mental card tricks we play on a daily basis.

Untitled Etching #1, First Version, created in 1969, is a terrific example of what he termed a “zip,” a vertical band of color — or, in this case, black — that cordons off a work in sections. We see a broad line in the central portion of the etching that is flanked by two thin vertical strips. Simple enough. It can be viewed initially as two broad panels, each primarily in conversation with the wide central stripe. It’s a clean stretch of mental highway with no traffic jams and certainly no fleshy impediments. We’re flying. But less than a second later, we’re forced to consider the outer “zips,” now intriguingly faded 46 years after their initial application. These new additions make things more complicated; we now have a total of four panels, and they create an odd tension. Each holds the other in place, and we’re cast into liminal territory. Each panel is its own parcel, its own land of creamy space — until we’re nudged into realizing that occupying a void is impossible. The void only exists in concert with other carefully delineated territories. The negative space both connects and separates the “zips.” Put another way, the action, the activity of the work resides in its interstices.

This is a flashcard for both quantum theory and our quotidian routines of shopping, cooking, dining — or simply staring. Anyone with access to Google can learn that “thingness” isn’t real at all; rather, it’s a voluptuous vibration of nothingness that winds up being everything. (Every thing.) Thus, the white-hot center of what’s true pushes us into a daily but very glamorous vacancy. Think of Untitled Etching #1, First Version as a universal striptease. Now you see it; now you don’t. It’s a koan or Zen knock-knock joke. Who’s there? Well, who’s there now? And now? Construct the narrative. Watch the mental highway roll by. Catch a ride with Barnett Newman by being mindful.

Unplug — or unzip — the Internet hookup and dive into the sumptuous life of discovering precisely how you operate and what narratives you’re making and unmaking. Let Newman lead you into new psychological space. Untitled Etching #1, First Version was created in 1969 but it’s still a work in progress. Go take a look. You’ll see.

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