Buying Barnett Newman’s Art on Faith

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Today’s elite art buyers deluded into investing tens of millions on the Emperor’s new canvas.Newman-and-karabekian Blue painting with one white stripe fetches over 43 million at Sotheby’s auction. I’ve been to a Barnett Newman exhibition, stood in person before the canvases and patiently took in the subtle permutations of color and form, along with other museum goers, and probably appreciated them better than most. I’ve even done work in a similar vein, such as my “Composition with Bars of Soap“. However, I had a litmus test of art that somehow eludes the top buyer connoisseurs and aficionados. As an art student, I felt that a lot of my classmates weren’t really being honest with themselves when they said their favorite artist was someone like Kasimir Malevich, who painted the infamous “Suprematist Composition” – a white square on a white canvas.

File:Kazimir Malevich - 'Suprematist Composition- White on White', oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of Modern Art.jpg
Kazimir Malevich: ‘Suprematist Composition- White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of Modern Art

When I’d pressed for why someone like Malevich, the answer would be a concept of value, such as that he’s responsible for eradicating illusionistic depth, or he’s the “father of minimalist abstraction”. And I’d think, but not say, “Oh, like you really give a shit about the ushering in of minimalist abstraction.” I also felt that many of my classmates weren’t trying to make art so much as they were trying to make art history. I didn’t fall into this trap because I’d already fallen in love with music. I’d gotten obsessed with music early by buying used records (as many as I could stuff in my backpack at a time) cheap (for 50 cents, and up), and knew what it was to find nourishment of the psyche in the incontestably rich art that is music. My litmus test was to honestly ask myself if I liked the visual art in question as much as any of my favorite rock songs. The answer was usually a resounding “No!”

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Litmus test

Malevish-vs-Zeppelin

If one were to stop and ponder for a second the musical equivalent of a Barnett Newman “zip” (“stripe” is more accurate for me) painting, it would be a one-note symphony. Let’s say the orchestra plays one chord, and a single instrument, such as a violin, plays the lone note, indefinitely sustained. Size of canvas is switched out for duration of sound. The zip for a single note. And what we’d have folks, is boring-ass music. Might be pleasant, for a few minutes. Might make a big impression at first. One could nod one’s head sagely and imagine one might go on listening to it for the full 8 hours, but one would be highly unlikely to not find some excuse to make one’s getaway, as gleefully guilty as slipping out of work for a half-hour smoke break. A lot of art that is seen as “important” because it ostensibly “changed the way people looked at the world,” bored the living crap out of me. Not because I didn’t get it, or wasn’t sophisticated enough to ascertain the rhetoric around it that placed it in the pantheon of art within a simulacrum superimposed upon reality. Naaah. It was just inherently boring. You had to buy into the rhetoric. You had to take it on faith. You had to convince yourself that it was important, focus your attention, and finally realize its grandiosity as it suddenly seemed monumental and scintillating before your very eyes. However, if you quickly shifted your gaze elsewhere you might realize that it was your rapt attention itself that made the work glow, and not the work itself (kinda’ like listening to music stoned). One could infuse the same sort of sensation into looking at an “Oriental rug” mounted on a wall, or a large map. I know, because once, after imbibing a home brew from the extract of Peruvian Torch cactus, the Persian rug on my floor became positively divine, as did my fish tank.

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An “Oriental rug” and a map hung on walls.

In the case of Newman, today’s reviews use words like “huge,” “vibrant” and “distinct” to lend substance to what amounts to not much more than a painted wall with a stripe. If I were getting paid to blindside the public, I’d probably have used phrases like “profoundly simple,” “transcendent,” “luminous” and “sublime” (I’d use “austere” except for the probable negative association with “austerity measures”). Load of bollocks. Oh wait, a little research shows me Southeby’s marketed the painting in question as “a portal to the sublime.” Hope they had the thing roped off so people didn’t fall into Wonderland, Lidsville or the Twilight Zone. Hmmm. I’d like to use that overblown portrayal for one of my own pieces (which actually does have something a lot like a portal in it).

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Eric Wayne, “Death, Dissolution, and the Void” [digital art 2004-12] “A portal into the sublime.”
In fact, if I really, really liked Newman’s blue painting, I could just make my own copy. If you can paint an apartment (I have, including the ceiling and molding) – which means using a paint roller and masking tape – you’re 90% there. Shit, one of the colors is just white! I’ve thought for a while that the American Abstract Expressionist school of art – including such luminaries as Pollack, Rothko, Newman, Still, Motherwell, and Ryman (each having his claim to a particular method of applying paint) – is overrated. They are American “B” artists elevated to international “A” artists of the century, because they are figureheads in an American mythos. These artists were working in the 50’s and 60’s when America, and New York in particular, was considered the new center of the art world, displacing Paris. America was top dog economically and militarily, and it just seemed fitting that in addition to being the leader of the free world, it should rightly be the leader of the art world. As other countries fell behind in terms of power and influence, it was automatically assumed that they fell behind in terms of artistic vision as well. To question the primacy of American art, which was a testament to American freedom, was to question the primacy of America itself. The mind dare not go there.

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Jasper Johns “Three Flags” 1958 .  Senator Joseph McCarthy probably didn’t mind this one much!

Many have no idea that Abstract Expressionism became popular during the McCarthy Era of extreme censorship, and hence its lack of any discernible content made it a safe kind of art to practice, unlike the Social Realism that was popular before WWII. This same lack of subject or apparent content makes works like “Onement VI” perfect for hanging in a corporate boardroom or bank lobby as a sign of power and a tacit reaffirmation of American hegemony. You couldn’t do the same with the works of British “A” painters such as Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud, whose figurative paintings were completely outside of the paradigm which placed American art at the forefront of a contrived linear progress of art history. The painting by Francis Bacon which was also on auction at Sotheby’s Tuesday night failed to sell. This kind of painting (though not one of his best) makes one aware of the existence and even suffering of others.

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Francis Bacon’s painting, “Study for Portrait of PL 1962,” an oil on canvas, did not sell.

 Ugh! Get that guy off the couch and back to work, out of my site, dammit! I don’t want a person staring back at me, I want an innocuous line. The reasons I consider Bacon and Freud to be “A” painters and the American bunch to be “B” painters has to do with the skill involved, the content, the vision, and the daring. Looking at Bacon’s painting above it should be pretty obvious that he gets juxtaposing fields of color, but doesn’t see doing so as much more than setting up a background on which to focus on the human condition: in this case a compassionate, if visceral and raw depiction of his subject. I’m fairly sure that Bacon, if he had had to, could have made Newman-style color field paintings (he only needed stop at his own backgrounds), but I seriously doubt Newman could have made paintings in the style of Bacon. Also, I can’t just make a near copy of a Bacon like I could Newman’s blue painting. Really, wouldn’t one feel terribly constrained with doing line paintings if one had the ability to use more colors and make more elaborate compositions? Wouldn’t it be a bit like Beethoven just sticking to a few instruments and a half dozen notes? If an artist is going to be stuck in a signature style, I’d hope he or she got one that allowed a full range of color and content. De Kooning got a pretty good deal because he could use as many colors as he wanted and slather paint around with brushes. But once he staked his claim on that style, other artists like Newman got shafted, having to relegate themselves to some other mode of making abstraction. Robert Ryman got stuck with all white paintings!

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Francis Bacon: Lying Figure (1966) 4 x 6.5 feet. Oil on canvas.

The above painting by Bacon has much of the color field virtues of a Barnett Newman, such as large swatches of powerful pigment – the eye CAN just drift into the purple paint in the background if it chooses – but it’s more colorful and sumptuous. Bacon has used foreign material, such as sand, to give the surface of his painting texture, and that combined with the color and his large, outlined forms demonstrates his complete awareness and integration of American Abstract Expressionist sensibilities and techniques. But Bacon combines this with a figurative tradition to create something more complex and satisfying, even if it has no place in the foyer of a Wall Street brokerage firm. Personally, I despise painting or other visual art being evaluated in terms of how it will look in a given setting, and instead take it purely as an image unto itself. Deliberately making art for the living room or the gallery setting is a bit like setting out to compose elevator music. And while I’m sure Newman didn’t set out to make living room art, I’m pretty confident his work was conceived with gallery walls in mind, in which case it’s difficult to imagine his art outside of the white-walled gallery, and the insular world of it’s particular context. Beyond that, where has everyone been? Has no one read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions? Do they not know about the fictional character, Rabo Karabekian, who sold a painting called The Temptation of Saint Anthony for $50,000? This was a large “Hawaiian Avocado Green” canvas with ONE day-glo orange stripe. OK, the novel was written in 1973, and Newman’s “Onement VI” was painted in 1953, so the satire is 20 years older than Newman’s canvas, and not the other way around. But now it’s forty years since Vonnegut first presented Karabekian to the public, and the art public remains blissfully unaware or unresponsive to Vonnegut’s criticism of the overwrought spiritual rhetoric of the minimal, color field painters.

vonnegut-books
Covers of “Breakfast of Champions”, in which Vonnegut first introduced Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian; and “Bluebeard”, which is a fictional novel in first person narrative about Rabo’s final years.

Here’s what Southeby’s had to say about “Onement VI”:

“Newman wanted to regenerate art and society through the invention of new forms of expression that could capture the ineffable essence of existence”

Wow! Skip selling SOULS, you could hawk those PAINTINGS to the Devil. The sheer kernel of being is laid bare in pigment. You need goggles to look at it for fear of being blinded by the magnitude of the unalloyed radiance of Godhead! Is Southeby’s ever spreading that on thick?! And it sounds so much like the parodic hyperbole Rabo Karabekian spouted to justify the $50,000 that was spent on his 2-color canvas.

“…The picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light…”

For those of use who can triangulate our visual art, literature, and music, it might be obvious that the selling of Newman’s blue painting with one white stripe for >$43,000,000 is the hypostatization of Karabekian selling his “Temptation of St. Anthony” for $50,000 back in the day (which was probably based on actual, prior sales of “color field” paintings). In one word, it’s a joke. If you’re not really sure Vonnegut’s Karabekian was a satirical character, keep in mind that his controversial painting was “Hawaiian Avocado Green” with one strip of “day-glo orange” tape on it. That should sound funny.

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Rabo Karabekian, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”.  Fictional artwork conceived by Kurt Vonnegut.

I remember it seemed odd to me when I was an art student that some of my teachers seemed unaware of Vonnegut’s satire on American “Abstract Expressionism” and its over-glorified offshoots. I even contemplated making my own giant “Hawaiian Avocado Green” canvas with one day-glo orange stripe, exactly to the dimensions specified in the book, and regurgitating precisely the arguments Rabo made to justify his own work. My guess is I’d have pulled it off magnificently. But, it was just a little too thin for me. I like a little more meat in my art. Thinking along those lines, and generally getting lost in fields of mundane color (kind of like getting into the role as an actor), I happened to notice how well the two bars of soap in the shower complemented each other, though they were from different manufacturers. I built an 8 x 4 foot painting, the left half of which matched the color of one bar of soap, and the right the other. I mixed the colors carefully in acrylic, and rehearsed my jargon about artist’s pigments imitating the industrial colors of consumer items. So postmodern! I even used glazes to make the canvases have the same semi-gloss sheen as the soaps. But the main attractions were the recesses in each 4 x 4′ panel, in which the respective original bars of soap were placed, then sealed behind sheets of Plexiglas.

Eric Kuns: Composition with bars of soap. 8 x 4 feet. [Acrylic, soap, Plexiglass, masonite board].
Eric Wayne: Composition with bars of soap, 1991. 8 x 4 feet. [Acrylic, soap, Plexiglass, masonite board].
This piece, which can be seen as belonging to the same tradition of minimalist color field painting as Barnett Newman’s $43,000,000 masterwork, is now on sale for 1/1000th the price (because I’m not dead yet) of “Onement VI”, or, $7,000 less than Rabo Karabekian’s much maligned, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”. A mere $43,000 will get you this fine piece. Just shoot me an email, then we can make arrangements. OK, let’s make it $4,300 (plush shpping and handling).

Back to Barnett Newman, and consensual reality. I really doubt that people are stepping through a “portal into the sublime” and partaking of the “ineffable essence of existence” when they look at a Barnett Newman painting. They’re looking at a well-wrought geometric design writ large. Just as people of various religions or belief systems may invest significance in an icon or object that is meaningless to outsiders, or even how people value gold over other minerals, the momentous artistic and spiritual substance attributed to Newman’s canvases is literally in the eye of the beholder, and conjured with faith. The art itself doesn’t resonate such glory, though it’s got a pretty nice vibe. But once you convince yourself it’s an incarnation of the transcendent, captured by the artist in pigment, you’re sold (and ready to buy). I can get the same awestruck sensation looking at the faux Rabo Karobekian masterpiece.

~ Ends

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