Total Surface—Barnett Newman’s Late Work: Interviews with Michelle White and Bradford A. Epley by David Ebony
A latecomer to the art scene, Barnett Newman (1905-1970) held his first solo show in 1948, at New York’s Betty Parsons Gallery. He made a formidable impact on the art world when he introduced in that show the controversial works for which he is best known today. Decried by some, and hailed by others as audacious and daring, these expansive, austere abstract compositions feature monochrome fields that are typically interrupted only by a single vertical line, or “zip,” as the artist called it, traversing the height of the canvas. Painting would never be the same, although for a long time Newman’s contribution was under-recognized. He was regarded as an Abstract Expressionist pioneer, but his prescient works span Ab Ex, Minimalism, Color Field painting, and, to a certain degree, Conceptual art.
Newman’s achievement was monumental, and he had an outsize personality to match. Born in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Newman once ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the city. His political beliefs were as radical as his art. Newman sought a new kind of purity in painting, and aimed for a direct and unequivocal experience of art that made greater demands on the viewer’s attention and imagination than anything that had come before. He tried to create works that would be free of bourgeois sentimentality and the dictates of the marketplace. In fact, collectors of Newman’s work were few until the mid 1960s, when curators, critics and dealers alike finally acknowledged the artist’s lofty place in twentieth century art history.
In the five years before his death, Barney, as his friends affectionately called him, basked in the art-world limelight. Ubiquitous 1960s party-goer Andy Warhol famously commented that in the mid ’60s Newman appeared at more parties than even he did. Remarking to Jeanne Siegel in an interview that appeared the October 1971 issue of ArtNews, Warhol said, with tongue-in-cheek humor, that “maybe [Barney] didn’t have to work a lot if he just painted one line.”
When Newman died unexpectedly of a heart attack, in 1970, his star was in dramatic ascendance after a decade of eclipse. He had held a well-received solo show at New York’s prestigious Knoedler and Company in 1969; and editor and curator Thomas B. Hess was in the midst of organizing a major Newman museum retrospective that would open at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971.
At the time of his death, Newman left several unfinished canvases in his studio, three of which his widow, Annalee, eventually donated to The Menil Collection in Houston. Never before shown in public, these works are at the core of a recent landmark exhibition, and an accompanying book, Barnett Newman: The Late Work, 1965-1970. Since the show, which appeared at The Menil Collection (March 27-August 2, 2015), did not travel, the book serves as an important document of this unusual subject and event.
By means of both the exhibition and the book, Menil curator Michelle White, and the museum’s chief conservator Bradford A. Epley, co-curators of the exhibition, define the late work of this often misunderstood American master. White places the late paintings in the context of Newman’s career, as well as within twentieth century American art, while Epley focuses on the technical aspects, materials, and significance of Newman’s late, great works.
In recent—and separate—telephone conversations, both curators and book essayists shared with me insights into their mission, Newman’s legacy, and the results of this extraordinary project.
David Ebony: Congratulations on the exhibition and book. I have to start out our conversation, though, by bemoaning the fact that this important Barnett Newman show won’t be traveling. What are the reasons for that?
Michelle White: Yes. It’s very sad. But it was a matter of the loans. At least two key loans could not travel. These are paintings from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel. We needed to return them in time for the opening of the museum’s new building, set to debut in Basel in early 2016. Incidentally, our director, Josef Helfenstein, was recently named the new director of the Kunstmuseum Basel. He’ll be taking up his new post there early next year.
Ebony: Can you talk a bit about the three unfinished Newmans, and how you came to build a show around them?
White: The Menil has had amazing works by Newman in its collection since the 1990s, acquired through Annalee Newman, who worked closely with then director Walter Hopps. The unfinished works entered the collection primarily for study purposes. Our conservation team, led by Brad Epley, had been doing a lot of study and restoration work on the Newmans, especially on the 1949 painting, Be I.
We have one of the most extraordinary Newman collections in the country, and a number of these pieces, including the unfinished late works, have never been explored in an exhibition. We worked on the show for about three years, as everything kind of converged for us to do this project. Thinking about the works we had, we started to refine the exhibition and focus only on the last five years of his life.
Ebony: Have there been other shows of the late work?
White: No. This really is the first. We defined Newman’s late period as the years 1965-70.
Ebony: In your essay, you talk about how Newman’s late paintings result from a gradual transition from atmospheric effects in earlier works to more graphic qualities of the last compositions. You also say that he allowed fewer mistakes or accidents to show in the late paintings.
White: Annalee called the accidents “tears,” which is a beautiful way of describing them. In the late works, compared with the better known earlier paintings—of the 1940s and ‘50s—changes in the way he treated the painted surface are readily apparent. A lot of earlier works are more painterly. He applied many layers, and established a sense of atmosphere. There’s a rich complexity in the layering you can see in paintings like Ulysses (1952), with its layers of blue pigments.
A big part of what happened from 1965 on is that he began to use acrylics instead of oil paint. The color in the late paintings is flatter, more solid and saturated. And the overall design is more boldy graphic.
Ebony: You mention that Newman attempted to make a painting that would “exist in the present moment, and that would be something political.” Can you say more about that?
White: Newman was very articulate about his work, and discussed how his painting demanded to be in the present. You can put his thesis to the test, but you have to see the work in person. It asks you to be in this moment, ever more so in the last works. Without the atmospheric effects you cannot as easily sink into the pictorial surface. It kind of pushes you out and into your own physical space in front of the work. This is how a Newman painting should operate.
In a political sense, the work has a lot to do with temporality, and the relationship of the viewer to the work. He created a dynamic space. Newman was prophetic in his recognition of that space, in his understanding the painting in terms of the body’s physical presence in front of the work.
Ebony: I was surprised to read that in his later years he recreated several earlier works. It seems antithetical to his way of thinking, and of working.
White: What is fascinating about Newman revisiting the early works, making second versions in the last years of his life [of Be I (1949), Queen of the Night and The Way (both 1951)], is that they are not exact remakes. They are almost a remembrance of what it was like to create those paintings; and there is great variation between the first and second versions.
One reason Newman could have done this is about his experiments with new materials. He was after all, a materials geek. He was interested in seeing what the oil compositions would look like in acrylic, experimenting with acrylic vs. oil paint. It could have been something as simple as that.
Ebony: Newman’s work seems so idealistic and pure. Is this a way of painting, or an attitude toward painting that is lost today? What do you think is the appeal or importance Barnett Newman has for young artists and art historians today? Why should everyone pay attention?
White: I think Newman’s significance has to do with the temporal dimension of his art. Newman stresses the importance of actually standing in front of a painting. After working on the book, and the exhibition, as the exhibition came together, I was humbled before the paintings. It is amazing how effective and powerful they are. You can read about the artist’s intent, and what the paintings may be like. But nothing matches the almost visceral experience of actually standing in front of one of these works. Newman was so successful in accomplishing his goals.
Another thing I loved about the project is how his work challenges neat art-historical labels. The work grew out of Modernism, evolved through Abstract Expressionism, and went toward Minimalist art. But it doesn’t neatly fit into any of these categories. Barnett Newman still challenges how we see. He challenges our own skepticism about painting.
Ebony: Brad, your curatorial part of the project was quite technical. Can you describe your role in, and goals for the project?
Bradford A. Epley: For me, at least, the exhibition grew out of a long-term treatment we were giving Be I, a 1949 Newman painting in The Menil Collection that he remade in 1970.
Ebony: What do you mean by treatment?
Epley: The work had been damaged in Newman’s time. The restorer over-painted broadly, and used varnish to mask damages. Newman was never satisfied with the restoration. Over time, with fading the poorly matched colors of the restoration became more apparent. In 2002, the painting came to the conservation department, and with X-rays and cleaning tests we determined we could move forward with a restoration effort. We started by removing the varnish and much of the original restoration, to leave as much of Newman’s original surface as possible.
Ebony: What are your thoughts about Newman’s switch to acrylic paint late in his career?
Epley: He was reliant on his friend Leonard Bocour (1910-1993), who manufactured high quality artists’ oil paints. Newman always wanted to use the best quality materials available. For that reason, in restoring Newman’s work, we don’t encounter issues as with many other artists who used low-grade materials. His paintings, in terms of their material properties, have fared very well.
In the late 1940s, Bocour came out with a new line of paints called Magna—Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland experimented with it. Later, in the early 1960s, Bocour developed a line of acrylic emulsion paints.
Newman first used them for some of his “zips,” then in his “Stations of the Cross” series (1958-1966). Acrylic paint’s very level and uninflected surfaces appealed to Newman. The colors are not as saturated as oils, so they required more pigment to reach the intensity Newman was after. Early on Newman used a lot of earth tones, but when he adopted acrylics, Newman started to employ primaries—high-key blues, reds and yellow.
Ebony: In your essay, you mention that after the “Stations of the Cross” series, Newman settled into a reliance on acrylics that corresponded to a “flat, impersonal paint surface.” Can you explain? I guess it was the word “impersonal” that stopped me.
Epley: In his heart, Newman was always an Abstract Expressionist. But there was a tendency for his audience to get hung up on the hand, the gesture. Newman realized that such details distracted from the total experience of the painting. He tried to eliminate the brushstroke, anything that would distract. Perhaps “impersonal” is not exactly the right word, but in the late work Newman’s aim and concerns were toward the total surface.
All artworks by Barnett Newman. All artworks © 2015 The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
David Ebony is currently a Contributing Editor of Art in America magazine. Among his books are Anselm Reyle: Mystic Silver (2012); Carlo Maria Mariani in the 21st Century (2011); Emily Mason (2006); Botero: Abu Ghraib (2006); Craigie Horsfield: Relation (2005); and Graham Sutherland: A Retrospective (1998). He lives and works in New York City.