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An Asynchronous Studio Book Club Reading of Totality: Abstraction and Meaning in the Art of Barnett Newman by Michael Schreyach.
My instinct to cover this book chapter by chapter was sound. Not only did September bring with it its typical flurry of applications to pursue, but I’m familiar with the erudition and density of Michael Schreyach’s thought and in Totality he provides it in full. One chapter in, and I feel like I’ve gotten a whole book’s worth of value out of it.
Barnett Newman has never interested me greatly as a painter, and I’ve known a corpus of his writings to exist but they’re not readily available. Walter Darby Bannard has long colored my thinking about him:
Before I was making Pop Art stuff and doing drawings of figures floating in the sky. I had an obsession with that for some reason. Then I saw a Clyfford Still in Art News in 1958, and I was fascinated. It was a full-page red painting, a really good one. So I went right to my studio and did Clyfford Stills for a while. I was also interested in centrality and simplicity and this idea of presentation. I had this painting with a red circle and some Clyfford Still-y stuff on top and some Clifford Still-y stuff on the bottom. Frank said, you don’t need the thing on the top, and Mike Fried said, you don’t need the thing on the bottom, so I had a circle. I said, holy shit, that’s really all I need to make a total, in-your-face presentation. I thought that was just wonderful.
Then I went to see the Barnett Newman show at French & Co. I saw that there was another person doing the same thing, only with a line instead of a circle. That told me that I had permission to do what I was doing. Back then if you did a painting like that people wouldn’t even take it as a painting. The closest they could come was to call it Bauhaus, which was not only out of fashion but didn’t interest us at all. That was an absolutely different motivation altogether.
When I pressed Darby to explain further about presentation, he described it as:
Simplicity that’s not Cubist-derived. Mondrian is Cubist-derived, and Bauhaus is Cubist-derived, and Malevich and all the Russian constructivists all came out of Cubism. It was taking cubism to an extreme. Me and Frank and Frank’s buddies, Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton, didn’t have any interest in Cubist-derived simplicity. Ellsworth Kelly was doing it and Rauschenberg was doing it in a way with his early, simple stuff. Gottlieb was doing it. There was this impulse to put a simple thing right in the middle of the picture and it wasn’t Cubist simplicity, it was presentational simplicity. Something was staring right back at you like it was another person. That idea just fascinated me. I thought, this is the best way to present color – make it into a painting, but just barely.
That is to say, Newman’s work enabled Darby to pursue a particular kind of abstraction but Darby felt no need to get into the philosophical workings of Newman’s art. Darby was full of intellectual interests but none of them were obliged. He would not have become an expert on Newman’s thought merely out of a sense that he should, and for whatever reason he never felt inclined. I think the affirmation implicit in Newman’s painting was all Darby needed. Consequently I didn’t need it either, because I was mainly interested in painterly abstraction and what it implied about the possibilities of figurative painting.
But over the prior year my paintings flattened out. Coincidentally, I was forced to consider whether Alex Katz’s incorporation of color field painting into figurative painting had been successful. (Privately, I concluded that if Katz’s project was legitimate, then so was mine.) Also coincidentally I revisited Darby’s book to finalize the draft for publication at Allworth Press. (I just approved a version to be sent to the printer.)That last effort got me thinking further about presentational abstraction, which I discussed in an updated afterword:
This was a form distinct from both the perceptual abstraction of cubism and the formal abstraction of the Bauhaus. Instead, it arose from the materials, establishing itself as an autonomous creation with no function except its own existence. It is an abstraction of physical realities: paint, surfaces, and the implements for conveying one to the other.
And it arose out of flat painting, though by the time Darby introduced me to the notion, it was couched in the language of acrylic gel. We never talked about Newman.
So I viewed the publication of Schreyach’s book as an opportunity to fill out some implicit knowledge. Too, I thought it might afford a conversation of a kind that used to take place about artistic principles, before the discourse was totally polluted by politics, and worse, a particularly credulous form of politics that even Phong Bui has difficulty escaping. “Politics were not discussed at The Club,” Irving Sandler once related to me. “There was a kind of indifference to it. We talked about art, not politics.” Also, there was The Club, for which the Dissident Muse Journal comment section is no substitute, but let’s give it a try anyway.
Here’s what jumps out at me about Totality so far, the extent of the first chapter, “Symbol”:
Oh, that’s what an ideograph is
I had mostly forgotten about the conflict in the 1940s between what Schreyach is calling formal abstraction (he might as well, even though it hails from the lexicon of abuse) and surrealism, and I never knew about the disagreement between the schools of surrealism that he characterizes as “psychic” and “plastic” automatism. Too, I can remember discussions of ideographs here and there in the recesses of my memory of art history classes, but I haven’t thought about the term in years, and Newman, who coined it, defines it quite simply (p. 7): “a character, symbol, of figure which suggests the idea of an object without expressing its name.” As for psychic and plastic automatism, Schreyach explains (p. 20):
The former was identified in Newman’s milieu with any number of surrealist techniques for suspending an artist’s or writer’s conscious control over a representational medium in order to reveal the operations or the contents of the Unconscious, understood according to a general psychoanalytic framework…. [The latter sought] to redefine automatism as a means not to reveal unconscious content but to invent new visual configurations.
In the elision is mentioned Robert Motherwell, who differentiated the latter from the former in a journal called Dym in 1944, citing Masson, Picasso, and Miró. As a slight aside, it would be really interesting to see Schreyach tackle Motherwell.
It strikes me that a lot of great material is sitting around, just waiting to picked up and read without the veneer of cliches that cling especially to art history for some reason.
Plantarchism, if you will
As far as I’m concerned, this book is already worth the price of admission for a section starting on page 16 that segues seamlessly from lichens to Kropotkin. Having related (on page 12) that Newman was a frequent attendee at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and he “completed numerous courses on botany” there, and his amateur pursuit of birdwatching culminated in membership of the American Ornithologists Union, Schreyach establishes the fundamental importance of lichens to Newman’s art. In a previously uncited essay, Newman describes the lichen as “the pioneer plant” with a unique combination of algal and fungal parts that enable it to grow even on rock. Not only did such plant imagery, along with those of mosses and ferns, inform the biomorphic abstraction that appears in his early work such as Gea (see overhead), it had a civilizational dimension as well:
Newman, who owned a 1939 edition of [Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution] and had long been invested in Kropotkin’s thought, would in 1968 write the foreword to a republication of the philosopher’s Memoirs of a Revolution. In terms not far removed from his praise of lichen, the artist lauded the philosopher’s commitment to the ideal of “spontaneous, self-organized communes… based on mutual aid and respect for each person’s individuality and person.” Nature, characterized by Newman as possessing a form of agency, cooperatively expresses itself. Entertain a tentative conclusion offered in the spirit of Newman’s speculative mind: for the first humans to rise from the soil and pursue creative lives—for the “first man to be an artist,” as he would famously put it in 1947—the first plants hand to be anarchists.
That entertainment sent me to re-read Jesús Huerta de Soto’s 2017 essay “God Is a Libertarian.”
It’s interesting that Newman took exception to Motherwell’s characterization. Page 20:
[Newman] likely understood the adverse consequences of reducing automatism to a technique or design process: such an account makes it a means of stylist innovation rather than the expression of thought.
This leads to the disagreement between Newman and William Rubin over the latter’s comparison of the former to Max Ernst, described in the next section, “Seeing Resemblances.” At issue is intention (p. 26):
[The small forms in Newman’s Genetic Moment, 1947] exist in contradistinction to the accidental shapes resulting from techniques of automatism. Their wholly intentional character—both as marks Newman meant to make and as shapes meant to signify—yields to the viewer an impression of pervasive motivation unfolding among the parts of the image, as if the creative force alluded to in the painting’s title were not simply an unconscious drive toward “genetic” replication and chance variation but as volitional consummation of signification at this “moment.”
I see here the beginnings of what I described as the emphatically orienting quality of the work of Ann Walsh.
Walsh’s use of vinyls and sprays comes from a similar effort to downplay material so that color can exist, as much as possible, as an independent phenomenon. But to the extent that a Turrell is disorienting, a Walsh is orienting, emphatically so. In particular it orients the viewer to a surface, with implicit, spinal-cord-level instructions to regard it aesthetically. Their artistic effect waxes. A Plexiglas pane with three colors applied to it grabs the eye immediately. Prolonged attention upon it reveals no more complexity, but an increasing sense of rightness about the proportions of the shapes with one another, the straightness or curvature of the borders between them, and the visual interplay of the hues themselves.
When creators have insisted that art conveys something not too vague for language, but too specific for language, it’s coming out of this distinct will to material form, which is specific by nature.
Further discussion of this chapter will continue in a separate essay. Please add your thoughts below.
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We are in the midst of an Asynchronous Studio Book Club reading of Totality: Abstraction and Meaning in the Art of Barnett Newman by Michael Schreyach. Obtain your copy soon.
An exhibition of my work is up at the Fuller Public Library in southern New Hampshire through September 30, with a reception in the morning on September 23.
Publication is a scant three months away and I’m obliged as its editor to encourage everyone to preorder it. Preorders can make a big difference to the success of the book. Here’s the Amazon link. Helpful too is if you show the information at this page to your favorite local book retailers and ask them to add the title to their order lists. Thank you.