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 cant 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, butif speculating about your aunts first
orgasm isnt too unseemlyI have wondered if she knew
what was happening and, if she didnt, 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 Im even asking this
question should reveal my ambivalence about the whole enterprise
of radical pleasure. I sometimes find myself nostalgic for an event
that Im 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 cant 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, Im not so sure.
The idea that it will never be as good again still is still operative
to my experience of painting.
Thats why I came here, to the East
Wing of the National Gallery, with some trepidation. Barnett Newmans
"Stations of the Cross" were the first paintings Id
ever seen that literally took my breath away. My reaction to my
first sighting of them was at a level I didnt 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 aunts version
of religious ecstasy should explain why, after seeing these paintings
for the first time, I havent been back to them until now.
To have an experience so rich, so extra-ordinary, that you fear
repeating itnot because youd be subject to the same
power but because you want that primary experience to remain as
you remember it in all of its dimensionshas 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. Lets face it: it is very difficult to have that
tuning-fork-in-the-soul feeling about much of anything these days.
Or at least its difficult for me. Many, after their first
orgasm, cant wait to have another. Many, after a palette-blowing
meal, wait a few days and then start dreaming of the next. I dont
work that way. Its been about ten years since my first and,
until now, only viewing of Newmans "Stations."
So Im back, and I am nervous. The
paintings arent 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 obliquelycame
around a wall, saw a corner of one, stepped back so it was out of
view, and tried to steel myself. I dont 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 Ive 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 wouldnt 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.
As a collective, they are overwhelming.
Of uniform dimensions, the fourteen identically-sized paintings
are resolutely vertical, tall and strong in their denotations of
Christs 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 Christs 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 wasnt even sure what he was painting
until after he had done a few, so they werent even begun with
the actual fourteen stations in mind. Knowing this, I still want
to read Christs 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 crossspeaking hallucinatorilyis
conveyed not by the familiar horizontal-vertical axis but by the
different widths and placements of the vertical "zips,"
Newmans 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 yourthe viewersshoulder.
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 cant 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.
Theres 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 Newmans 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 paintingas Newman was
accused of doingto stripe-making. But this iciness is offset
by what can look like mistakes. A flock of paint specks in the fourth
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, Newmans signature looks completely forlorn,
these tired blocky letters shakily spelling out his names, both
first and last, "Barnett Newman," as if "Newman"
alone couldnt possibly be enough. Jackson Pollocks signature,
in comparison, is dashed off and in keeping with his loose lines.
But in Newmans 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
You can contemplate the divinity of what
hes 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 Newmans 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 themto the right
sides of stations one and three and to the left of tenare
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 theres 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 Christs 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 essayand plenty haveabout
the actual formal play at work here in these paintings. Theres
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 wouldnt function as any sort
of explanation for what liquidates me in front of these paintings.
Theres 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, its 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 Newmans 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 Newmans "Stations."
Eighty-eight keys on a piano, six strings
on a guitar, and we havent 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. Newmans 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 Manets "Christ Mocked"
or Zurburans crucifixion, both of which I am lucky to have
in my backyard at the Art Institute of Chicago. Newmans "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 responselike Kandinsky and his color
theoriesis to miss the point. Newman proves that a whisper
is as effective as a wail, and Manet and Zurburan, in this context,
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
Newmans 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 Christs last
words before his death. You can hear and see what is possible, and
in front of Newmans "Stations," you are convinced
that what is possible is everything.
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.
"Im sitting in the middle
of the Stations." I am whispering.
"Texas?" Hes confused,
doesnt 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.
Im still uncomfortable the with heavy quiet.
I wish I had brought my Walkman.
When I was younger, I was deeply moved by
Jackson Pollocks largest drip paintings. In retrospect, my
attraction to them was juvenile in many ways, the greatest of which
was the mapping of Pollocks 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 dont 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,
Newmans "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 Newmans, 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 dont 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,
youve 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 ariawhich she had always imagined to be incredibly
romantic in contentwas 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 youre 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 ecstasyreligious, artistic,
sexualis still possible, and that it endures.
works for a publisher in Chicago.
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