An Asynchronous Studio Book Club Reading of Totality: Abstraction and Meaning in the Art of Barnett Newman by Michael Schreyach.
I was hesitant to spend the $40 for Totality since I am not that interested in Newman’s work, but decided to take the plunge based on your past recommendations.
I found it a challenge to get through the first chapter. With all due respect to Michael Schreyack, I don’t “see” the level of significance given, in particular, to “Euclidian Abyss I” and “Genetic Moment”. That being said, the significance seen by Newman himself is another matter. What I found most interesting in this chapter was the concept of painting “ideas”.
Schreyach states Newman was “…searching for a way to theorize (and create) an image or abstract shape that would be the proper sign for the direct communication of metaphysical ideas…”
He goes on to say that Newman “In a concluding letter thanked Rubin for his new observations because they raised the ‘serious concern’ of content and ideas over style or technique…”
The issue of ideas is mentioned again when Schreyach quotes Newman responding to Greenberg: “The American artists under discussion create a truly abstract world of pure ideas, in the meanings of abstract concepts, just as the European painter is at home in the world of cognitive objects…and materials. And just as the European painter can transcends objects to build a spiritual world, so the American transcends his abstract world to make the world real…”
Lastly, Schreyach states “Still, it is self evident that the painting is the medium by which Newman communicates his thought, so the formal description of its appliance, and the analysis of its mode of pectoral address, are fundamental to interpreting it.”
I think the concept of “painting ideas” has lead many an artist, critic, and curator astray as can be seen in galleries and museums today. Lengthy descriptions informing the viewer as to what they are seeing, or should see, and why a painting is important, is far afield from the experience of confronting a painting. I think art is successful by its immediacy and experience and doesn’t require such explanation.
“Ideas” have overtaken, what Newman described as the “European painter is at home in the world of cognitive objects…and materials…the European painter can transcend objects to build a spiritual world…”
I think transcending the abstract world to make the world real reached its apex and has lost its way. Much painting today has distanced itself from work that is real and authentic and become obtuse and burdened in politics.
In 2023 we have the “curse of knowledge” with the canon of art history at our fingertips. But in 1947 Newman and his cohorts were creating new images and forms and were seeking a new language and words to describe their visual discoveries.
It occurred to me that Newman’s act of rotating one of his works (from footnote 18) would suggest he was questioning the established figure/ground composition, perhaps seeking a new idea by simply changing how the work was displayed, but I imagine this strategy aligned too closely with Motherwell’s assertion of “inventing new configurations” which Newman rejected.
The visible brushwork and mark making are modes of expression, but Newman claimed that content – “the idea complex…which manifested in the abstract shape,” to be of utmost importance. (Pg 10)
We see him pare down and focus on the specific shape or form (in this case the yellow bands that reappear in various iterations) to make them the priority in the composition. Newman is therefore not “expressing” his idea, instead he is “showing” it.
Initially, I wondered if Newman was inventing his own terms (plasmic, ideograph) to create a new abstract language in order to describe his abstract forms.
But after reading the chapter it seems to me that he is looking for a different way to approach the existing language. Schreyach’s proposal that catachresis is Newman’s M.O. seems right on the mark. (I would love to read some more examples of catachresis) Also it seems the titles are of utmost importance to understanding his ideas. Can one view a Newman painting and understand his idea without the title as a guide?
I appreciate your comment about Darby’s “presentational simplicity – the best way to present color.” This general idea applied to Newman’s work would suggest that presentational simplicity is a way to present his idea-complex, as a direct approach to his goal of “metaphysical understanding.”
I certainly did not expect to learn about the true nature of plants… anarchy. So, good to know, does that make killing weeds an authoritarian act? Asking for a friend.
As for a return to great art discussions – minus the political nonsense – yes please, count me in! Luckily I was in school prior to this ridiculous trend – BFA 2001, MFA 2006. Graduated just as it started festering.
Thank you for suggesting this book. My paintings are pure abstractions, so Newman's history is most interesting.