Three decades ago, Hilton Kramer proclaimed that Abstract Expressionism--the modernist "school" of painting and sculpture that flourished in New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s--is among the outstanding achievements of American culture in this century, "by virtue of the worldwide critical esteem [its artists] have enjoyed and the crucial artistic influence they have wielded" ["30 Years of the New York School," New York Times Magazine, 12 October 1969]. Although postmodernist scholars and critics have in recent years challenged such an exalted view, the work of leading Abstract Expressionists continues to occupy a pre-eminent status in twentieth-century culture, and still influences contemporary abstract painters. Their typically oversized canvases and "sculptures" are enshrined in major public and private collections, and command exorbitant prices on the world art market; their work regularly receives renewed attention in retrospective exhibitions; and a commemorative stamp was issued in their honor in 1999 by the U.S. Postal Service as part of its "Celebrate the Century" series. Yet their reputation, like that of the pioneers of abstract art [Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, pp. 133-46], has rested on a remarkably insubstantial foundation, composed of invalid assumptions and vacuous claims, rarely questioned by the artworld until recently--though ordinary people have not been so easily gulled.
Also known as the "New York School," the Abstract Expressionists were actually too diverse a group to constitute a true school. Their work ranged in style from the impulsively "gestural" canvases of the so-called Action painters, such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, to the more controlled, minimalist "field" compositions of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Yet they were united by a shared set of assumptions and aspirations. Reacting against the soulless formalism that had dominated American abstract art in the 1930s, they insisted on the profound importance of content and subject matter in their work. In so doing, they necessarily relied heavily on verbal statements and manifestos to convey their meaning and justify their acceptance--just as the first abstract artists had done, and for the same reason: in the absence of representation, no objective content or meaning was discernible. Remarkably ignorant of the lofty metaphysical meanings the pioneers of abstract art had claimed for their work, the Abstract Expressionists presented themselves as creating a completely new art. So Barnett Newman, one of their principal spokesmen for the "new American painting," as it was often called, asserted that, in contrast with "pure abstractionists" such as Mondrian--who had insisted, according to Newman, on a "purist world of forms and color"--the new art would be "abstract yet full of feeling, capable of expressing the most abstruse philosophical thought" ["On Modern Art: Inquiry and Confirmation" (1944), reprinted in John P. O'Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, 69]. Unwittingly echoing Mondrian, he further declared:
The new painter is . . . the true revolutionary, the real leader who is placing the artist's function on its rightful plane of the philosopher and the pure scientist who is exploring the world of ideas, not the world of the senses. Just as we get a vision of the cosmos through the symbols of a mathematical equation, just as we get a vision of truth in terms of abstract metaphysical concepts, so the artist is today giving us a vision of the world of truth in terms of visual symbols. ["The Plasmic Image" (1943-45), excerpted in Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, 125]
The fallacy in Newman's argument, of course, is his failure to recognize that the "idea" conveyed by a mathematical equation depends on a system of symbols whose meanings are fixed by cultural convention and are, therefore, universally accessible. The abstract forms employed by Newman and his fellow-painters have no such meanings--as evidenced by the widely disparate interpretations they invariably engender.
Internet images: Our discussion of Newman's work in What Art Is, excerpted below, focuses on two paintings: Voice of Fire and Vir Heroicus Sublimis. For Voice of Fire, the image we cited is no longer available on the website of the National Gallery of Canada, but the one we link to here, albeit in the form of a postcard showing a museum visitor gazing up at the painting, is excellent. For Vir Heroicus Sublimis, no image was cited in our book, but a series of images showing it in the context of its gallery in the Museum of Modern Art and in a detail accompanies an admiring article entitled "Time and Barnett Newman." Another image is available on a commercial site of poster reproductions (the abbreviated title there is inaccurate as well as incomplete).
The work of Barnett Newman . . . offers particularly illuminating evidence of the gaping disparity between artworld claims and the common-sense responses of ordinary people toward abstract painting. . . . A starkly minimalist, symmetrical composition of wall-sized proportions (18 feet high by 8 feet wide), [his Voice of Fire in the National Gallery of Ottawa, Canada] consists simply of a broad vertical stripe of deep cadmium red flanked by two vivid ultramarine blue stripes of identical width. As reported in the Wall Street Journal [19 April 1990] by Sarah Jennings, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, the gallery's curators judged the painting "'a modern masterpiece, a mystical work for a secular age.'" The general public did not view it that way, however. Outraged at the hefty price paid for Newman's work . . . , most citizens were not reassured by what Jennings characterized as the "unintelligible art jargonese" the gallery offered in defense of it. "For ordinary Canadians looking at the three blank stripes of color," Jennings noted, "being told that 'the painting helps take us away from the devastating cares of everyday life' has not been enough." And the draft version of a brochure the curators were preparing to explain to visitors what the Newman painting was about was "alarmingly bogged down in the language so favored by contemporary art experts"--"peppered with references to the picture as an 'objectification of thought' that 'floods our consciousness with a sublime sense of awe and tranquility.'" . . .
The intelligent response of ordinary people to Barnett Newman's work--a response documented in sweeping scope in the Voice of Fire controversy--was, on the whole, to call a stripe a "stripe."  Much the same response was documented on a more intimate scale in a remarkably revealing article published the following year in the "Metro" section of the New York Times, about the private musings of the guards at the city's Museum of Modern Art [John Tierney, "Defender, Critic, Watcher: All in One at the Modern," 20 November 1991]. . . . Of particular interest was the reaction of Alec Sologob (then a fifteen-year veteran . . .) to Newman's purported "masterpiece" pretentiously entitled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Heroic Sublime Man)--a 17-foot-wide bright red canvas divided by five thin vertical stripes ranging in color from white to maroon and black. . . . Sologob "could not discern how the Newman work provided, in the words of the official museum guidebook, 'direct, intimate contact' with the viewer as well as an 'affirmation of Newman's somewhat mystical sense of the human condition with all its tragedy and dignity.'" In Sologob's words:
"I don't see it. . . . With Cézanne or Bonnard, there's intimate contact because you can feel yourself walking into the painting, into that wooded area with the men chopping firewood. With [Andrew] Wyeth you always find something new. In Christina's World you see the details in her hands, you find cracks in the wooden boards of the house, you get a marvelous sense that this really is her world. . . . But this Newman has never looked to me like anything. This is a blank wall with stripes, and I don't like the color red to begin with."
1. The source of Jennings' quotation was Shirley Thomson, then the National Gallery of Canada's director[. Her] pretentious claim that Newman's painting had a comforting effect not only presumed everyone's everyday life to be burdened by "'devastating cares'" but absurdly belied her prior implication that the work, like all "'great art,'" was fulfilling its role, which is "'to provoke.'"
2. Even the critic Harold Rosenberg questioned Newman's claim that his minimalist paintings pertained to such "sublime" themes as (in Rosenberg's words) "the creation of man, the division between night and day, . . . and the anguish of man's abandonment." "How could all these grandiloquent dramas be seen in the repeated image of a rectangle with stripes?" Rosenberg asked. "Newman: Meaning in Abstract Art, II" (originally published in The New Yorker, 1972), reprinted in David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro, eds., Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, 345.
3. Another guard, José Rafael Heredia, while choosing his words more "tactfully" than Sologob, had this to say about Vir Heroicus Sublimis: "Well, it's a big colorful painting with a few stripes. I can't say that I like all the paintings here, but we protect them all. You do hear people insulting this one." He then admitted that he would not want to hang the Newman work in his own home.
What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). Copyright is held by the authors.