Print Collector's Newsletter, Vol. 3, #3, (July - August, 1972) p. 63. Book review, with replies from Hess and Bannard
The "coffee-table" art book, so much in profusion these days, is a wonderful thing for art lovers, because great quantities of an approximation of fine art can be brought into the house in convenient form. We know it is not the real thing, but it is far better than nothing at all. And a good set of reproductions can help seeing, despite the obvious limitations, by eliminating museum fatigue, for example, or by making comparisons easy. It would be nice to see big color reproductions of everything; that is impossible, but art-book publishers do pretty well within their means. Barnett Newman has the usual complement of color and black and white reproductions, including many of late paintings not published before, many photographs of Newman, and a fat bibliography. It is a handsome and useful reference book. For this we must be grateful to Mr. Hess and to the Museum of Modern Art.
But the continuing technical improvements in art-publishing overwhelm the texts. Inevitably, the writing is not equal, with few exceptions, to the subject or the production. What is it about art that makes writers go awry?
Here is a quote from page 56:
"Onement I is a complex symbol, in the purest sense, of Genesis itself. It is an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void. The artist, Newman pointed out, must start, like God, with chaos, the void: with blank color, no forms, textures or details. Newman's first move is an act of division, straight down, creating an image. The image not only re-enacts God's primal gesture, it also presents the gesture itself, the zip, as an independent shape - man - the only animal who walks upright, Adam, virile, erect."
This quote is not the whole book, obviously, but I think it is fair to say it can stand as a sample, represent the book, and give real flavor. Its position is supported by liberal quotes from various religious texts and by the ponderous bluster of Newman himself. Unfortunately, Mr. Hess listened to Newman first and looked at the paintings second. Time and time again, the paintings are brought down into words, serving the words and concepts the words are built into until they become icons, draped with the many-colored coat of familiarity.
It is familiarity that breeds acceptance. Rembrandt is no better "understood" today than he was when the burghers raged at Night Watch, but now we know him and love him; he's no threat. By bringing new art - that is, really new art, subversive art, which Newman's still is -into an accepted system, we may hope to absorb it painlessly. Of course, this will not work. We can encapsulate the art, but unless the sugar-coating wears off we will not be nourished by it. We will handle it, carry it off, lodge it safely, and lose what it is all about. That is the shame of Mr. Hess' book. It is about Newman the man, Newman the artist, Newman the writer, Newman the Jewish hero, but it is not about Newman's art. Mr. Hess is sincere and honest and writes with great feeling on a subject he clearly loves. But I contend that his method - relating Newman's art to varieties of religious mythology and symbolism - is specious and illegitimate, and these are my reasons:
1. The relationships cannot be demonstrated and therefore are not subject to rational judgment. The painting is real; we can point to its features. But no one has a clear idea of God, chaos, void, and the like. If these things do exist, they are certainly beyond verbal comprehension. Maybe a big, blue Newman holds half of heaven, but this cannot be shown to be true so it is of no account. The supernatural cannot be brought in as real. It cannot be specifically related to a painting or have any demonstrable effect upon it.
2. The relationships exclude artistic quality. The remarks about Onement I can be made about a crack in the wall. Mr. Hess jacks everything up to the same level of absolute veneration and doesn't even bother to tell us that Newman also painted plenty of bad paintings. By equating Newman's activity with God's, Mr. Hess knocks off the pesky problem of quality with one shot from the highest authority. It's not fair.
3. The relationships are arbitrary. All similar things can be compared. Other systems could be brought in just as convincingly - certain scientific systems come to mind. Mr. Hess went all out for Genesis, the Talmud, the Zohar, and the Kabbala because he listened to Newman and read the books Newman kept. Newman was Jewish, designed a synagogue, used titles like The Beginning, Abraham, and Covenant, and he was addicted to self-important, sacramental prose. But that is not a reason to bring his art to the public in these terms. In fact, this is all good reason to be very careful in this regard. What an artist says and does, does not affect the quality of his art. Though all actions proceed from the same personality, the results of each action must be separately considered.
4. The relationships obscure what the paintings have. Seeing Onement I as a symbol of Genesis makes it opaque, dead to the eyes, and it will hang there like a sullen totem. A fine painting may be said to be moving, profound, and meaningful, but its qualities must be there, within itself, like nutrients in food. Good art has its own nerve and life. The only way to get anything from it is to submit to it, to see it for what it has. Making a painting kosher is no help; turning it into a sacred relic is inexcusable.
It is apparent to me that Newman back-dated certain paintings to fill the empty period between 1954 and 1960, when he did not paint. Though Mr. Hess casts Newman as "superartist," he had flaws just as we all do, and considering his big ego and the dreadful treatment he got for so long, it is no surprise that he pulled a few stunts like this. In fact, it only makes him more human - maybe that's why Mr. Hess avoided the problem. Dates in the 1954-60 period look wrong because of the sharp stylistic difference between the pre-1954 and post-1960 paintings. These are illustrated in the book. The Word I I (1954), The Gate (1954), Primordial Light (1954), Uriel (1955), Outcry (1958), First Station (1958), and Second Station (1958). Of these, the dating on Uriel is the most flagrant, and the one I can be most sure of on points of style. Mr. Hess describes it as a "culminating" painting. But Uriel and the others do not extend from the paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s; they are part of the new start Newman made in 1960. Even the distinct lowering of quality comes in as evidence. L'Errance (1953) is the only painting from 1953 illustrated. It is a wonderful painting, and certainly belongs with the 1948-53 paintings. But the others listed above are clearly inferior and qualitatively consistent with the paintings done after 1960.
A second factual error is less important to art history, but it points to casual scholarship and the possibility that other similar errors exist in the text. On page 92, Mr. Hess mentions a letter Newman sent to Clement Greenberg, replying to assertions Greenberg made about Newman's painting in "American-Type Painting." Newman did send such a letter; however, Mr. Hess chose not to quote the letter but quoted Newman quoting the letter. Hess makes several errors in fact. It would have been easy to get the right information, and Mr. Hess should have.
On the subject of Greenberg, Mr. Hess indicates, albeit indirectly, that he shares with most of the art world the paranoid idea that there is a semi-Fascist conspiracy called "formalism," with Greenberg as fuhrer, to which all art must conform if it is to succeed. This is profoundly silly, of course, but a month cannot pass before another writer commits himself to this notion in print. Greenberg brought it all on his own head by twenty years of absolutely accurate observation; inferior critics, enraged, confuse observation with coercion, and we presently enjoy a paroxysm of blubbering on the subject. The extreme concern with the nature of the medium is the concern of artists, not critics; Barnett Newman was a great artist not because of holy inspiration and self-important, ego-saving monkey business, but because he faced up to the highest artistic standards of his time. Like it or not, these standards are framed and resolved in terms of the medium. This does not make art less "human"; a Beethoven quartet is not less "human" for being built in purely musical terms. The heightened consciousness that our best painting clearly and nakedly works in terms of and against the requirements of its fundamental materials forces responsible critical thought to take this art for what it is, on its own terms, "formalist" terms, the presented terms, and to decry any attempt to make it something else.
Book reviewed was Barnett Newman, by Thomas B. Hess, published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972, 160 pp, 175 illustrations including 12 in color.
Bannard's bio read: "Walter D. Bannard, a painter, writes frequentIy on contemporary American art."
In the Print Collector's Newsletter, Vol. III, #5, (November - December, 1972) p. 112, Hess replied:
Walter D. Bannard's review of my book on Barnett Newman (PCN Vol.111, No.3) is written with the arrogance and panache one expects from a brilliant young (younger?) painter who is sure of who his leaders are, where he is going, and how to get there. Arrogance and panache, however, are not the best qualities to bring to a study of art and of art history - as his text amply demonstrates.
He accuses me, justly, of not delving Into the issue of comparative quality in Newman's oeuvre - of not indicating which are the good Newmans and which are the bad ones. I plead guilty. I believe that it takes years of looking at paintings - hard looking - before one can make a competent decision about quality and put the reasons for such a decision into relevant words. I expect a brilliant young (younger?) painter to have his enthusiasms, to love this, hate that, just as I expect collectors to buy one painting in preference to another. But I don't find such judgments enlightening or even of much interest. This year Mr. Bannard prefers the Newmans of 1948-53. Ten years hence he may go for the works done in the 1960s. Who cares? The fact that I wrote at such length about Newman is sufficient indication of my enormous respect for his oeuvre. Furthermore, even had I wanted to go into the question of quality in depth, I could not have done it properly, for I had not studied many of the paintings recently, and a few I had never seen at all.
Of course such a deficiency would not deter Mr. Bannard. In the most extraordinary part of his review, he accuses Newman of "backdating certain paintings to fill the empty period between 1954 and 1960" and says that he is sure of this "on points of style." There is not a scintilla of evidence for this very serious and totally false charge. Newman made no attempt to disguise a fallow period in his work, from 1955, when he finished Uriel, until 1958, the year he made Outcry - in between these two dates he had a heart attack (on November 30, 1957). He made no pictures in 1959. He started painting again, slowly, in 1960, and did not return to working with colors until the early 1960s.
The notion that in the 1960s he post dated Uriel and other works as an attempt to cover up an empty period makes no sense at all - the artist had left his empty period for all to see in his meticulously dated and recorded canvases. Indeed, I very much doubt that Mr. Bannard had ever seen Uriel when he wrote his review for The Print Collector's Newsletter. It has been in a private collection in London for more than ten years, never exhibited, and so installed that it has been impossible to photograph it properly - thus, Mr. Bannard has never even seen a decent reproduction of this culminating work of 1955. And I know for a fact that Mr. Bannard has never seen White Fire, signed and dated 1954 - and the clue to The Word 15, The Gate, and Uriel. Never shown in New York, it was first exhibited, on loan from a private collection in Europe, at the Tate Gallery's Newman show last June.
In other words, Mr. Bannard calls for judgments on the quality of paintings and makes them himself - on works he hasn't seen!
Mr. Bannard also attacks my scholarship. He writes: "Mr. Hess mentions a letter Newman sent to Clement Greenberg, replying to assertions Greenberg made about Newman's paintings in [Greenberg's Partisan Review essay] 'American-Type Painting.' Newman did send such a letter; however, Mr. Hess chose not to quote the letter but quoted Newman quoting the letter" (his italics) [Lost - Ed.]. Mr. Bannard goes on to call this "casual scholarship" and piously warns the reader to be on the alert for other examples in my text.
As a matter of fact, I did not discuss this letter with Newman - indeed, I began writing my book after the artist's untimely death in 1970. I looked up and read the original letter (it is available in microfilm at the Archives of American Art, if Mr. Bannard wants to see it for himself). It is not too interesting a document for Newman's art-dealing as it does with Mr. Greenberg's observations, and as these were not the subject of my book. I indicated the gravamen of Newman's argument in paraphrase. Mention of the letter was necessary, however, insofar as it dealt with Mr. Greenberg's contribution to the growth of Newman's reputation.
Mr. Bannard closes his review with a ringing defense of Mr. Greenberg. "On the subject of Greenberg," he writes, "Mr. Hess indicates, albeit indirectly, that he shares with most of the art world the paranoid idea that there is a semi-Fascist conspiracy called 'formalism' with Greenberg as fuhrer, to which all art must conform if it is to succeed.... Greenberg brought it all on his own head by twenty years of absolutely accurate observation; inferior critics, enraged, confuse observations with coercion, and we presently enjoy a paroxysm of blubbering on the subject...."
As one accused of sharing, "albeit indirectly," in a paranoid idea, I can only sympathize with the "absolutely accurate Mr. Greenberg, who has readily admitted in public print that he at first misunderstood a number of important artists. With epigones like Mr. Bannard, who needs enemies?
Finally I would suggest to Mr. Bannard that I agree with him that "the highest artistic standards...are framed and resolved in terms of the medium." Indeed, I went into the structure of Newman's paintings at great length in my book - but perhaps Mr. Bannard was too angry to notice this. For, as I also indicated, there is something more to art - the result is greater than the sum of its parts - just as there is something more to a human being than a measurable amount of chemicals and electric impulses. To think otherwise, as Newman said in his interview with Frank O'Hara on Channel 13 TV, is to be a fanatic and a mystic.
Bannard replied in turn in the same issue:
In his reply to my review of his book Barnett Newman, Mr. Hess writes that "there is not a scintilla of evidence" that Newman backdated any pictures.
1. The stylistic evidence points to backdating. There is an early period and a late period. Newman's dry spell came between. It could not have interrupted the late period. I made that judgment straight from the book, based on my experience with Newman's art. That I could do so from reproductions means that the stylistic factors were strong enough to show through.
2. To show that I could not have seen some of these paintings Mr. Hess declares that they have been shown never, or hardly ever, or only recently. But that's the whole point: who did see them, and where, and when? I could not determine that any of the paintings I listed were seen by anyone, in the studio, in shows, or anywhere, before 1960. Three of the four Mr. Hess mentions were sold abroad. Was the fourth, now owned in this country, shown publicly before Newman's death? Where were these paintings in the fifties?
3. During the fifties, Clement Greenberg was acquainted with the contents of Newman's studio, particularly when the French & Co. show of 1959 was being put together. I asked him about this, and he said that he looked at every painting Newman had there, but never saw Uriel or any other painting of the "later" style at this time, that he saw Uriel for the first time in 1965 in London, and that it is impossible that he could have overlooked such a painting (it is 18 feet wide) if it had been around in the fifties.
The question of the letter from Newman to Greenberg is less important but brings up points of fact. Mr. Hess says that he never discussed the letter with Newman. Then how can he write: "He wrote Greenberg a polite letter - overcoming an urge to write a polemical one for publication..." Where did Mr. Hess find out about this urge? Then he writes that the letter points out that he (Newman) "had never applied the phrase 'buckeye' to Still's painting; that connection was Greenberg's own." But Greenberg never said that Newman made that connection. If Mr. Hess had read the letter carefully, he would have seen that.
Finally, Mr. Hess belittles my phrase about Greenberg - "twenty years of absolute accuracy" - by saying that Greenberg has readily admitted mistakes in public print. Well, the "mistake" Greenberg last admitted some seventeen years ago - was made more than twenty years ago.