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WRITERS ON ART:

Stations of the Cross:
The Paintings of Barnett Newman

by Erin Hogan

I.

My aunt claims she had her first orgasm in church when she was twelve or thirteen years old, a suburban religious ecstasy probably brought on by flashlight readings of Saint Teresa of Avila late at night in the middle of Connecticut. I can’t remember how I know this, but I suspect it emerged somewhere in the midst of her fiftieth birthday party, held with friends and family on a four-day binge through New Orleans. She described it as an abrupt feeling of being totally overwhelmed, like she was a circuit board during an electrical storm. I am skeptical of her claim, but—if speculating about your aunt’s first orgasm isn’t too unseemly—I have wondered if she knew what was happening and, if she didn’t, whether she was afraid it might happen again. How long did it take her to realize what had happened and then connect it to the orgasms she had later? Was it even the same thing? She only mentioned the event to me once, but it has always remained with me, making me curious about how we know what pleasure is and how our experiences of the same pleasures change. Thinking of this, I am forced to consider a radical idea: has every subsequent orgasm paled in comparison to that first and possibly frightening event, tinged as it might have been with fear, exhilaration, novelty, abundance? That I’m even asking this question should reveal my ambivalence about the whole enterprise of radical pleasure. I sometimes find myself nostalgic for an event that I’m at that moment participating in. Nearing the end of a book that I have adored (maybe twenty in my lifetime), I grow more and more despondent as the pages under my fingers dwindle and I become overwhelmed with a deep sadness that I can’t ever read the book for the first time, in that that first way, again. When it comes to sex, I am confident that one can have orgasms better than the initial one. When it comes to art, I’m not so sure. The idea that it will never be as good again still is still operative to my experience of painting.

That’s why I came here, to the East Wing of the National Gallery, with some trepidation. Barnett Newman’s "Stations of the Cross" were the first paintings I’d ever seen that literally took my breath away. My reaction to my first sighting of them was at a level I didn’t think I was capable of reaching, a level more appropriate to hysterical nineteenth-century travelers or sixteeth-century mystics. They dizzied me; they exalted me; they made me simultaneously euphoric and profoundly melancholic. The fact that I have the questions I do about my aunt’s version of religious ecstasy should explain why, after seeing these paintings for the first time, I haven’t been back to them until now. To have an experience so rich, so extra-ordinary, that you fear repeating it—not because you’d be subject to the same power but because you want that primary experience to remain as you remember it in all of its dimensions—has happened to me a handful of times. I come away from these sensations with the belief that the experience is over and tragically unrepeatable. To try to have it again would only mean diluting it with a greater number of lesser experiences. You want, I want, for it to remain rich and profound. Let’s face it: it is very difficult to have that tuning-fork-in-the-soul feeling about much of anything these days. Or at least it’s difficult for me. Many, after their first orgasm, can’t wait to have another. Many, after a palette-blowing meal, wait a few days and then start dreaming of the next. I don’t work that way. It’s been about ten years since my first and, until now, only viewing of Newman’s "Stations."

So I’m back, and I am nervous. The paintings aren’t in the same place I remembered, so I came upon them somewhat accidentally. I wanted to walk into their gallery head on and full frontal. Instead I hit them obliquely—came around a wall, saw a corner of one, stepped back so it was out of view, and tried to steel myself. I don’t know whether I was preparing myself to be disappointed, because there was no way this experience here and now could possibly compare to my response to these paintings ten years ago, or because I secretly was hoping that this viewing could be even better, because I’ve found that our appreciation of many experiences deepens with age, while remaining just as exalted and ecstatic. And then of course I realized I was working myself into a frenzy unnecessarily, and that this pre-"Stations" frame of mind wouldn’t serve well as an emotional control group. So I just turned the corner. And felt it again. The same paintings had the same effect on a different (degreed, domesticated) me. My chest was tight. I had to raise my hand from my side to steady myself. I felt punched. The paintings completely held up. So did I.

 

II.

As a collective, they are overwhelming. Of uniform dimensions, the fourteen identically-sized paintings are resolutely vertical, tall and strong in their denotations of Christ’s orientation from man to cross. This staunch verticality tells us immediately that there is no way the pictures can be read as literal figurings of Christ’s journey. The paintings that would "match" the Stations in which Christ falls and which are seminal to Catholics’ understanding of the complete Stations (three, seven, and nine), do not express those events, so you have to give up right away on the idea that you are looking at abstractions of an unfolding quasi-historical narrative.

After my first viewing of the paintings, I had read that Newman wasn’t even sure what he was painting until after he had done a few, so they weren’t even begun with the actual fourteen stations in mind. Knowing this, I still want to read Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa in the paintings. This tension winds up being very productive, leading to the kinds of hallucinations you have when you stare at a word too long. The shape of the cross, for example, is everywhere, even though it is really nowhere because the verticals are never tempered, only bounded, by horizontals. The presence of the cross—speaking hallucinatorily—is conveyed not by the familiar horizontal-vertical axis but by the different widths and placements of the vertical "zips," Newman’s trademark. For the first six stations, a black band is on the left. Then, it emphatically switches to the right in the seventh station, only to appear and disappear for the rest of the cycle, sometimes in black, sometimes in the absence of black, on the right and the left. I begin to believe that the cross is represented not as it would be seen by someone watching Christ carry it but as it would feel if it were on your—the viewer’s—shoulder. It is on the periphery of your vision if you plant yourself in front of the paintings. You look and you think: Was Christ left-handed? Is that why the cross starts on the left? Newman would shudder at these questions, but there is a phenomenological urgency to them as you lose yourself in the cycle and beg your mind to make sense of it. If you can’t read them as the Stations, what are they? Are they experiential representations? Is such a thing even possible?

As Christ draws closer to his fatal misery, the cross narrows, lightens. It becomes less than what it is. In the thirteenth station, I imagine the cross silhouetted high against a black sky as he is taken from it.

There’s no hill in the painting, of course, but I put it in, I make the horizon low against a sky in which the cross turns blindingly white. Throughout the cycle, the cross shreds and vision frays, as one would imagine exhaustion would dictate. And then it all lifts, and the painting becomes empty.

To imagine oneself actually carrying the cross, seeing it out of the corner of your eye the way you see a shoulder seam on a shirt, is part of Newman’s genius in the "Stations." Like Christ, and like Christian teaching would have us believe we are, they are divine and yet completely human. One can "read" this in the paintings, but one can see it too. Their linearity can, from afar, be seen as a kind of facility, a technology of the hand that reduces painting—as Newman was accused of doing—to stripe-making. But this iciness is offset by what can look like mistakes. A flock of paint specks in the fourth station,

for instance, makes it seem that Newman forgot himself and turned around too quickly with a loaded brush in his hand. And amidst the elegance of his lines, the cleanness of his canvases, Newman’s signature looks completely forlorn, these tired blocky letters shakily spelling out his names, both first and last, "Barnett Newman," as if "Newman" alone couldn’t possibly be enough. Jackson Pollock’s signature, in comparison, is dashed off and in keeping with his loose lines. But in Newman’s emphatic fields, his signature is utterly incongruous. Against what he is doing in these paintings, he has to assert himself the only way he can because his subject is too vast to be human. How hubristic and inconsequential of Newman, really, to even sign these things.

You can contemplate the divinity of what he’s trying to do, you can sit in the midst of all of the paintings and marvel. You can see a developing narrative, if you want. You can shoulder the cross. But the closer you come to them, the more the paintings break down. You see Newman’s signature. You see his unprimed canvases, all full of flaws and knots and knurls. They look so utterly like canvas, like what they are, a substance many of us nonpainters have forgotten about, buried as it usually is under layers and layers of gesso, ground, paint scrapings, varnish. Humility raises its head again here. The nakedness of the canvas makes the paintings seem vulnerable, as if you are looking through them, seeing the back of the stage set where the lighting technicians are ugly. In a curious reversal of the trope of painting-as-window, you see through the paintings not to a world beyond or a world pictured, but to a naked canvas that we regularly overlook. The closer you come to the paintings, the more evidence you see of their making, and the sublime turns to the sympathetic. The physical facts of the paintings hurl you back down to earth. The contradiction between what Newman is claiming to represent and how he does so is astonishing. Two words: masking tape. These paintings could not have been made without tape. The most powerful passages of them—to the right sides of stations one and three and to the left of ten—are about nothing so much as the absence of tape.

The tape is humble, but it brings about the another tension of the paintings beyond the narrative or the formal tensions. This is not a tension between a "literal" (if there could be such a thing) understanding of the stations and their actual content. It is not a tension between a Jewish man representing the pinnacle of Christian devotion. It is a tension between passion and reason, between what one believes and what one can know, and the rewards of both. In virtually every painting there’s a skirmish that breaks out: the straight edges struggle to contain the recalcitrant, exuberant paint. Eruptions of ecstasy here and there only serve to make the bounded areas seem more contained, more controlled, as if parts of the paintings are holding their breath, waiting for Christ’s passion to flower in the moment of his death.

There is a battle going on in these paintings, one that waxes and wanes as you move through the cycle. Edges assert themselves, fend off the painterly for a good number of the paintings, until the last two stations: thirteen, the blockiest of them all where you feel that rationality has triumphed; and fourteen, in which the edges dissolve into almost pure field. To represent this with such economy, to use abstraction alone to breathe such life into this theme, to enliven these stripes with gravitas and magnitude is miraculous. The paintings reward your efforts at trying to sort through the paradoxes and oppositions Newman built into them.

This is my experience, this is what I see. One could certainly write a much longer essay—and plenty have—about the actual formal play at work here in these paintings. There’s also, of course, a tradition of religious ecstasy that one could figure in here as well. I could throw you a few bones at this point about my quasi-Catholic upbringing, "what the Rosary means to me," whatever. It still wouldn’t function as any sort of explanation for what liquidates me in front of these paintings. There’s a history of people growing dizzy, fainting, swooning at the hands of art, narratives brought to their climax by Stendhal. The Stendhal syndrome. Reading James Elkins’ Pictures and Tears brings home what kind of emotional chord pictures, great pictures, have the capacity to strike. Obviously we are still capable of this. At the same time, though, it’s one thing to be the soft and emasculated (yet oddly promiscuous) Stendhal floating around the Uffizi marveling, as he rightly should, over the excessively sensual Italian paintings. But no one could accuse Newman of the same with his raw canvas, his masking tape, his incessant linearity. If you remove from my experience of Newman’s work my own complicated relationship to Catholicism, if you remove from it the emotional mechanisms that great art engages, what am we left with? In the case of the "Stations," we are left simply with everything there is to know about the project of painting and its infinite possibilities. This infinitude is at the core of what affects me so deeply about Newman’s "Stations."

 

III.

Eighty-eight keys on a piano, six strings on a guitar, and we haven’t tired of those eighty-eight or six yet. Twenty six letters in our alphabet, and they still surprise me. And Newman? Paint and canvas, charged with the task of getting across one of the most important concepts in Western thinking. And without a human figure, without color or form or line as they were traditionally understood, Newman manages. He does more than manage; he instructs, he edifies, he draws on something essential about what painting is capable of. Newman’s economy, and his success within that economy, is inspiring. The "Stations" make me understand that it is possible to attempt the grand themes with minimalist means, and that these means can be just as successful in achieving their aim as Manet’s "Christ Mocked" or Zurburan’s crucifixion, both of which I am lucky to have in my backyard at the Art Institute of Chicago. Newman’s "Stations" make me believe in abstraction as a viable emotional catalyst, but to believe that art is "simply" about eliciting emotion or evoking a particular response—like Kandinsky and his color theories—is to miss the point. Newman proves that a whisper is as effective as a wail, and Manet and Zurburan, in this context, both wail.

Clement Greenberg once famously wrote that you could hang a blank canvas on a wall and it would be a picture. It might not be a successful picture, but it would be a picture. Newman comes as close to demonstrating the truth of that proposition as any modern artist.

And within that truth is an even more powerful one: that even the material and metaphysical edges of painting are capable of a great deal. This truth was one I had forgotten in a decade of frenzied looking and teaching and reading and studying. There is something so painfully elemental, even skeletal, about Newman’s project in the "Stations," both in theme and means, a nakedness that is as true as being stripped in front of a new lover you care about. You can hear the tape being ripped in a broad stroke from the canvases like I hear Christ’s last words before his death. You can hear and see what is possible, and in front of Newman’s "Stations," you are convinced that what is possible is everything.

 

IV.

The silence of these paintings borders on the oppressive. I sit on the bench in the midst of this stifling loveliness and am still overwhelmed, discomfited. I call my friend in Chicago on my cell phone.

"I’m sitting in the middle of the Stations." I am whispering.

"Texas?" He’s confused, doesn’t know where I am.

"No, no. Newman, not Rothko. DC. And ‘Lavender Mist’ is just to my left."

A guard tells me to get off the phone. I’m still uncomfortable the with heavy quiet.

I wish I had brought my Walkman.

 

V.

When I was younger, I was deeply moved by Jackson Pollock’s largest drip paintings. In retrospect, my attraction to them was juvenile in many ways, the greatest of which was the mapping of Pollock’s hysteria on to my own emerging psyche and finding in both an electricity of excess that, if sustained, could have proven debilitating. I am thankful that I grew out of Pollocks. I still appreciate them, but they do not ignite in me the passion they once stirred. I don’t know if it says more about Newman or more about me that the "Stations," mercifully, continue to exhilarate me. They are subtle and wondrous, generous in their lessons and yet still completely mysterious. They are one of the few examples in my life of an initial pleasure that time and development could not diminish and could only enhance. Further, Newman’s "Stations" teach me about my abiding capacity for pleasure, despite years of believing, just as wholeheartedly, that painting exists at a nexus of social and economic forces that need to be articulated in order to understand art as the cultural artifact that it is. I clung to that belief as a graduate student must, but I kept in the back of my mind my memory of seeing those paintings of Newman’s, and I returned to that memory over and over again to remind myself why painting is worth really looking at. It is like remembering a time when you were deeply in love to convince yourself that it is worth doing again. Because these paintings had such talismanic value to me, I was afraid to see them again, afraid to lose that point of reference. I don’t think I realized until now how I kept the paintings in my head like a melody that stilled me. The danger, of course, is that the memory can turn on you, and when you lose it, you have lost more than an experience, you’ve lost a conceptual touchstone. The greatest regret I ever heard my mother express involved such a loss. After decades of enjoying a particular aria of "La Boheme," she attended one of the first operas to offer supratitles and found out that her favorite aria—which she had always imagined to be incredibly romantic in content—was actually about something like the discomfort of a particular pair of shoes the singer was wearing. To attach yourself to a painting, or an aria, or even a person, is to take a real risk that whatever you’re attached to will not grow with you, will not continue to work its magic. But if you are lucky you will find yourself in mid-life being brought to your knees for a second or third or tenth time. The most important lesson that Newman teaches so economically is that ecstasy—religious, artistic, sexual—is still possible, and that it endures.

 


Erin Hogan works for a publisher in Chicago.