The Implied Grid of Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman remains to this day one of the more surprising members of the color field movement, for a variety of reasons. For some it was his late arrival to the movement. His first ‘zips’ came about well after the novelty of color field had worn off, not to mention his work often feels ill fit when compared against the explosive symphonies of color made by Rothko or the thundering brush strokes of Clyfford Still. For others though, it may be a simple dislike of his personality, including his now infamous letters to galleries, publications, and critics which often defined the temper and pride he would become known for. But whatever the reason for disliking Newman or his relation to color field, it is undeniable that this is not at all an uncommon reaction to his work. Unsurprisingly, his work came up in a study conducted by cognitive scientist, Jim Davies. Davies explains that, “few pieces have attracted as much visceral antipathy as Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire.”[1] But laying aside his personal life, his ‘zips’ still manage to fascinate students, curators, and museum goers alike.


To begin, it is important to understand who Newman is and what his practice attempts. Newman’s work is often associated with either the abstract expressionists or the color field painters. It often consists of large, simple compositions with singular (or occasionally parallel) fields of color resembling lines. These forms he labels zips. They function in a variety of ways, as Newman is often pushing their definition with his practice. Yve-Alain Bois describes the zip in a painting by Newman as, “one linear element, congruent with the central axis… governed by a modular division of their width into sixths.”[2] Newman would later redefine the zip by switching its orientation or removing it all together.


One of the most defining ways Newman describes the zips is to clarify that they are not, in fact, lines but fields of color. There are some issues with that assertion however. One example is his work First Station from his series Stations of the Cross.[3] While the painting does feature a single, malleable zip to the far left of the canvas, it is also host to an implied zip, formulated though Newman’s airy brushstrokes over a taped canvas. While he claims that these reverse zips stay true to his body of work, it can be argued that they do the opposite. By dissecting and inverting the zip, he is revealing that the zip is not, in fact, a field of color, but the implication of a field of color. If the color field can be defined, it has form, and thus it is less a field and more of a shape, reminiscent of the work of Malevich. To restate, if the zip has a boarder and if it can be traced by paint applied in the dry brush technique, as Newman often did in his later work, it is not a field but a form.


In an unsent letter to Clement Greenberg, Newman criticizes the critic’s statement: “like Newman… [Rothko] soaks his pigment into the canvas, getting a dyer’s effect…”[4] Newman argues in the letter that these terms “soaked,” and “dyed” imply a staining effect. However, Newman argues, “You know that my paint quality is heavy, solid, direct, the opposite of stain.” It is true to believe that Newman’s zips were also defined by a richness of pigment. Often eclipsing the rest of the canvas with their tone, for example, Canto VII from the series 18 Cantos.[5] In this work, Newman’s zip takes center stage; its harsh rigidity contrasts with the gently stained field of color it is imposed upon. It is clear to us within this work that the zip is not the field of color, but a form of color imposed upon a field of color, not unlike portraiture. There is a depth of field of sorts that Newman forms though the hierarchy of pigment. By identifying the zip as foreground, we can further eliminate the possibility of its existence as a field and strengthen its read as a form of color.


The third argument that can be made about Newman’s zips as existing as forms of color and not fields of color is their orientation. Where the work of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko have set orientations (vertical and horizontal respectively), Newman’s zips exist in both planes. They can be oriented in vertical and horizontal positions. In this context, the zips functions similarly to longitudinal/latitudinal lines, forming an implied grid. The implication of the grid further strengthens the argument that the zips are color forms and not fields, because if the zip has an axis, it has direction. If the zip has direction, could it not be argued that it is a line? If Newman had arranged all of his zips vertically, this argument could not be made. But given the orientation (or lack thereof) he chose, it is natural to read the zips as lines despite what Newman might argue for them.

When discussing the implied grid of Newman, it seems important to define, first off, what a grid is within the context of a painting. As Rosalind Krauss puts it, “In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.”[6] It is, of course, important to note that this same lack of mimesis is what drew Newman to the zip in the first place. Like the grids Krauss describes, the zip is not memetic or real, it functions to divide the canvas, as Bois explained. Given the lateral and longitudinal orientations of the zips, those dividing lines create implied quadrants. This argument assumes that we read the entirety of Newman’s work as a single narrative… but considering his penchant for storytelling, such as in the Stations of the Cross or Canto series, it is not an unreasonable assumption. Newman should understand that by creating work with this Constructivist mentality, and by perverting the original verticality of the zip, he is obstructing the read of that zip as a field of color. Given that we now have orientation, fore-ground background hierarchy, and a clear divisiveness from the ideals of color field… it can now be assumed that the zip is a form of color, and that its form creates an implied grid. What remains is to understand how this affects the read of his work, and how it functions in his paintings.


One thing that needs to be clarified before continuing with this examination of Newman’s implied grid is the purpose of this classification. Describing Newman’s zips as lines of a grid in no way lessens their contribution to the art historical lexicon. Instead it is a rebrand of the zip, rethinking what they represent and what category of this lexicon they belong to. By considering the zip as an axis of a grid, we can consider the contributions the grid can make to Newman’s work. These correlations are undeniable once made apparent. The grid divides, organizes, and in a way, manhandles the canvas. This is similar to the way Newman’s zips divide the canvas. The grid further strengthens pieces like Abraham, where we can relate the strength and dignity of the Biblical character to the grid formulated by Newman’s solitary zip. The implication of the grid further flattens the surface of Newman’s painting practice,feeding into Greenberg’s plan for Modernist painting. Namely that, “One is made aware of the flatness of their pictures before, instead of after, being made aware of what the flatness contains.”[7] By reading the zips as gridlines, we are not beholden to the erroneous conclusion that they are pillars, but blueprints of creation. The final particle of evidence for this argument comes from Newman’s sculptural practice, in which the x and y coordinates of the zip are given their z.[8] By giving the zip dimension, he finalizes the zips transformation from latitudinal form to implied grid.


When considering Barnett Newman’s divisiveness from the rest of the color field movement, added with his zip’s tenancies towards foreground/background dichotomy, and implication as a form, it becomes apparent that the zip functions not as a field of color, but a form of color. Furthermore, when we recall the concepts of the implied grid, polarity of the zip, and Newman’s sculptural practice, it becomes clear that his zips function as lines, or rather, axes within an implied grid.


Bibliography


"What Makes Us Love (or Hate) Art? An Ottawa Professor Has a Theory | CBC News." CBCnews. December 23, 2017. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/art-professor-study-abstract-1.4459993.


Bois, Yve-Alain. "On Two Paintings by Barnett Newman." October (2004): 3-27.


"Barnett Newman's Creative Heart.” Phaidon. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2018/july/04/barnett-newman-s-creative-heart/.


Newman, Barnett. "Letter to Clement Greenberg." (1955).


Newman, Barnett. "Barnett Newman Canto VII from 18 Cantos 1963." Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1959 | MoMA. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/14609.


Krauss, Rosalind. "Grids." October 9 (1979): 50-52.


Greenberg, Clement. "of Article/Chapter Modernist Painting." (1988): 2-3.


"Barnett Newman Most Important Art." The Art Story. Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.theartstory.org/artist-newman-barnett-artworks.htm.

[1] "What Makes Us Love (or Hate) Art? An Ottawa Professor Has a Theory | CBC News." CBCnews. December 23, 2017. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/art-professor-study-abstract-1.4459993.


[2] Bois, Yve-Alain. "On Two Paintings by Barnett Newman." October (2004): 3-27.


[3] "Barnett Newman's Creative Heart.” Phaidon. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2018/july/04/barnett-newman-s-creative-heart/.


[4] Newman, Barnett. "Letter to Clement Greenberg." (1955).


[5] Newman, Barnett. "Barnett Newman Canto VII from 18 Cantos 1963." Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1959 | MoMA. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/14609.


[6] Krauss, Rosalind. "Grids." October 9 (1979): 50-52.


[7] Greenberg, Clement. "of Article/Chapter Modernist Painting." (1988): 2-3.


[8] "Barnett Newman Most Important Art." The Art Story. Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.theartstory.org/artist-newman-barnett-artworks.htm.

MMXIX Penelope Shell