The curious peregrinations of the modern art market………

30th November 2014

Black Fire I, a painting by Barnett Newman completed in 1963, sold for US$84.1 million, sorry $84.2 million, in May 2014 in New York. And apparently the much larger Anna’s Light (1968) changed hands in October 2013 for a record price for the artist of US$105.7 million. Onement VI (1953) sold May 2013 for US$43.8 million.

On the face of it these were not technically difficult images to create and the visual content is simple, even very simple. Passable reproductions of the images seems within the capacity of most adults with the right brushes and paint (and masking tape?), and the time and the will. As such for a viewer peering through “empiricist” Lockean spectacles – “what you see is what you get” – the values conferred on the paintings by the current art market seem extraordinary.

Obviously this is far from a luminously original observation but given the money involved it’s hard not to return to the matter.

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was an intriguing artist. Born in Manhattan, New York City, of immigrant Polish Jewish parents (who had left then Russian Poland) he trained in art early and in 1931 started teaching art, as a substitute teacher. Apparently he also started painting in the 1930s but nothing survives. His earliest surviving work dates from 1944 (now age 38) by when he was deep into the NY art scene. Friends included (now) famous painters Rothko, Sill, and Pollock. He met important gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1945. He was busy painting, he helped organise shows, and he was also a keen writer, like art reviews and forwards for catalogues. He was lively, gregarious and opinionated. Thus in 1938 he organised a protest exhibition of art works after “failing” official art exams, a gambit from which of course the French Impressionists famously benefited. By the late 1940s he was painting prolifically and from 1947 quit teaching to paint full time, supported by his wife “for the next 17 years” (cf Barnett Newman Foundation), a brave and – with hindsight – profoundly prescient uxorial commitment.

His entire (surviving) work, his complete oeuvre – after a few early “gestural” abstract pictures – feature his trademark Color Field / “zip” style – ie areas of usually uniform colour separated by one or more thin vertical lines he called “zips”. This style started to emerge in 1946 (eg oil painting, Moment) and arrived 1948 with Onement I, a small (69 x 41cm) oil painting. Variations on this approach was pretty much that for his remaining 22 years.

He is usually described as an “Abstract Expressionist” painter but this term is very confusing because it includes two quite distinct approaches to abstract images, one being the dense expressive crowded “gestural”, “action” images typified by Pollock and de Kooning (who, in another complication, included figurative components), and the second being the quieter, cleaner, geometric flat coloured area images typified by Rothko and also Newman, the so-called Color Field style, using large areas of generally uniform color.

Though his signature images began in the late 1940s, alongside the famous names like Pollock and Rothko, critical approval came slowly for Newman and for three years (1952-55) he even withdrew from showing in galleries altogether. It was not until the early 1960s, over a decade later, that he began to get traction, by which time the contemporary art scene had moved on, but ironically had moved on in part to the simpler colourful geometric abstraction with which Newman’s work easily affiliates.

Barnett Newman had plenty to say, not least about art and his work, and was avowedly polemical, intending to carve an ambitious intellectual edifice to support his corpus of apparently simple art. Given the simple stark abstraction in his work it is perhaps unsurprising that his writings were mostly oblique or allegorical or even vague and elusive. But paradoxically his keen if mercurial and grandiloquent utterances may be an important reason his paintings now sell so dearly. We are buying the package.

Thus in “the Plasmic Image” (1943-1945, as quoted in “Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics”, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990) he wrote:

“The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extend his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy.”
The present painter can be said to work with chaos not only in the sense that he is handling the chaos of the blank picture plane, but also in that he is handling the chaos of form. In trying to go beyond the visible and the known world he is working with forms that are unknown even to him. He is therefore engaged in a true act of discovery in the creation of new forms and symbols that will have the living quality of creation.”
“ …it can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist for the Creator in creating the world began with the same material, for the artist tries to wrest truth from the void….”
The new painter is therefore 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… …so the artist is today giving us a vision of the world of truth in terms of visual symbols…”

And in ‘The Sublime is Now’, in “The Ides of Art, Six Opinions on What is Sublime in Art?”, Tiger’s Eye (New York), No.6 (15 December 1948), pp. 52-53, he argued for his own back yard: The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation….. I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it… We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings….. without the nostalgic glasses of history.

Grand visions indeed, and notwithstanding that abstraction was not unknown in European art! Even stark unambiguous between-the eyes abstraction like Malevich’s square from 1915 and Mondrian hammering away for about two decades at his own singular take, the colourful grids, from about 1920.

But what does any of it have to do with Barnett Newman’s specific paintings other than he was the author of both?

Dare one say it disciples of Mr Newman’s work would seem to be approaching their task with a quasi-religious mindset.

Postwar Europe (and also Canada) as well as post war New York was busy with abstract painters, of which large overall category the now famous New York Abstract Expressionists (diverse a group as they are) – as anointed by the commercial art market – are a subset. And just as artists after World War 1 reacted strongly, extravagantly to that numbing catastrophe (ie Dada and beyond) so was this total group after World War 2 coming to grips with the shattering improbable reality of a second catastrophe within a generation of the first.

But the images content of the famous few (other than that it is generally larger scale) is not drastically different from that pertaining to many names known only to afficionados and art market professionals.

And no logical reason there is why Mr Newman’s musings should apply only to his work and not to the output of other abstract painters.

But of course now given the disproportionate values bestowed by the commercial art market on a small coterie of abstract painters (and also to a handful of Pop Art practitioners), there are vigorous vested relevant interests defending these values.

ah-art newman 1948 onement 1 Camera 360

ah-art newman 1968 barnett newman Anna s light1953 Onement VI oil on canvas 259.1 x 304.8 cm © 2013 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; 1963 Black Fire I oil on canvas 289.5 x 213.4 cm © 2013 Barnett Newman Foundation – Artists Right Society (ARS), New York;  and 1968 Anna’s Light acrylic on canvas 275 x 610.5 cm © 2013 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York


Behold the “abstraction” / “quasi-abstraction” one can whip up one afternoon with a simple digital camera and associated image-fiddling software, all slotting somewhere between the poles of “Color Field” and “Gestural expressive”.

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