When Barnett Newman painted The Wild in 1950, he challenged current standards not only of how a painting could look but of what a painting could be.
The mythology of Abstract Expressionist painting rests greatly on the issue of sheer size. After two centuries of second-class status in relation to the Europeans, American artists finally were able to do something “big.” The physical largeness of the Abstract Expressionists’ paintings served as a metaphor for the size of their ambition and the importance they claimed for art. And according to Clement Greenberg, the movement’s early champion, if the surface of a painting was no longer going to provide an illusion of depth, it had no option but to spread out.
|ABOVE Newman’s The Wild, 1950, is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.BELOW Like The Wild, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, belongs to MoMA.|
|Courtesy the Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York|
In this respect, Barnett Newman was among the most extreme of the Abstract Expressionists. Although his largest paintings are no larger than those of close colleagues, such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, the absence of conspicuous painterly gesture serves to exaggerate their effect of enormity. Indeed, the magic of Newman’s paintings often depends on their ability to drench viewers in color, to engulf them in their powerful, mute presence. But as Newman always insisted, the issue was one of scale, not size. Given the right proportions and the right composition, a painting that was not physically big could have a monumental impact.
The point is proven with The Wild, 8 feet tall by 1 1/2 inches wide and deep. It was painted in 1950 and had its public debut in April 1951, in Newman’s second solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Like all the works in the exhibition, it was untitled (Newman wouldn’t name it until more than a decade later). The Wild hung on the gallery’s central, freestanding wall—directly across from Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51), Newman’s first painting that stretched to 8 feet tall and 18 feet wide. Like Vir Heroicus, The Wild challenged current standards not only of how a painting could look but also of what a painting could be. It features a band of cadmium red down its center, occupying most of the canvas surface, with gray-blue at either side. When the painting is unframed, one sees that the blue also covers the canvas wrapped around the sides of the stretcher. Stored in a studio, The Wild would be easy to miss, or even to lose. But hung on the wall, it inevitably has the power to stop a passerby. It is as imposing as it is audacious.
As in all of Newman’s paintings, what might at first seem obvious and nondescript is actually the result of a series of decisions and a delicate balance of accident and plan. Newman first painted the blue sides, reserving the central band of canvas by masking it with tape. After removing the tape, he applied the red paint, which strays onto the blue in many places, only rarely staying within the channel set by the tape. Applied with a palette knife, the zip provides the occasion for a rich variety of painterly incident as it runs up the canvas’s 96-inch height. The Wild was not Newman’s first venture into working within such restricted parameters: five untitled paintings from 1950 share the same narrow format. The variation of composition among them is astonishing: painterly or crisp edges, contrasting or modulated colors, broad or thin bands. Finally, with The Wild, the narrowest and most reductive of them all, the zip virtually is the painting.
According to then ARTnews editor Thomas Hess, who wrote the first monograph on Newman and was a close friend of the artist, Newman made these paintings partly as a response to Vir Heroicus Sublimis. In the artist’s own words, he had become beguiled by size and wanted to get away from it. He had found out how big a large-scale painting could get, but how small could a large-scale painting be? It was only two years since Newman had discovered what he would later call his zip, but which at this point he referred to as a band or stripe. He realized that this vertical band would be his signature, and he wanted to investigate just what it held for him. Paintings in which the band went down the center of the canvas had evolved into paintings in which the band was off-center, and others in which there were four or five bands. For a brief time in 1949, Newman oriented the bands horizontally. By 1951 he was using them to structure compositions that were as wide as 18 feet or as tall as 11 feet.
His investigation also meant turning the band into a sculpture, as seen in the work that stood next to The Wild at the 1951 Betty Parsons show. Two eight-foot-tall vertical elements were set into two plaster mounds that rose from an overturned wooden milk crate. The narrower of the two verticals was made of thick coats of white plaster fixed on chicken wire, while the other was a 1-by-2-foot board covered only by a thin coat of primer that allowed the wood grain to show through. The sculpture, like The Wild, made the zip a physical presence in its own right.
The unique character of The Wild is emphasized in the set of installation photographs that Hans Namuth took of the exhibition. In several shots Namuth used both Newman and Parsons to flank The Wild. In some the two are conversing, and in one they are standing ramrod straight as if measuring themselves against it. The photographs make the point that Newman’s paintings are not something merely to look at but something to experience physically with one’s whole body, something by which to sense one’s own presence in the world.
Ann Temkin is curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the curator of the Barnett Newman retrospective that runs at the museum from the 24th of this month through July 7. The exhibition will travel to the Tate Modern in the fall.
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