Retrospective

From the Archives: Barnett Newman Criticizes a MoMA Surrealism Show—and John Ashbery—in 1968

Max Ernst, The Wheel of Light (La Roue de la lumière), from Natural History (Histoire naturelle), ca. 1925, published 1926, one from a portfolio of 34 collotypes after frottage.

©2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK, AND ADAGP, PARIS/PETER BUTLER/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, GIFT OF JAMES THRALL SOBY, 1959

In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art opened “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” an expansive survey exhibition about two European modernist avant-gardes and their influence on contemporary art. Curated by William Rubin, the show came under fire for many reasons, among them that it was too male and that it featured a somewhat dull selection of works. Writing in the May 1968 issue of ARTnews, John Ashbery noted that the show tried too hard to force comparisons between then-contemporary artists and modernists—between Max Ernst’s frottages and Barnett Newman’s late paintings, for example. Newman took issue with that comparison, blaming Ashbery for following along with Rubin’s ideas. In the Summer 1968 issue, Newman wrote a letter to the editor of ARTnews, saying that Ashbery and Rubin had both misunderstood his work. With an Ernst show opening tomorrow at MoMA, we’ve reprinted Newman’s letter in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Editor’s Letters”
By Barnett Newman
Summer 1968

Sir:

John Ashbery makes a very valid point in his review of William Rubin’s beautiful exhibition, “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” when he says, “Wouldn’t it have been more to the point to show, in addition, examples of Newman’s later work . . .?” The later work, by the way, began just one year after the painting, Genetic Moment, which is under discussion.

Max Ernst, Loplop Introduces Members of the Surrealist Group (Loplop présente les membres du groupe surréaliste), 1931, cut‑and‑pasted gelatin silver prints, cut‑and‑pasted printed paper, pencil, and pencil frottage on paper.

©2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK, AND ADAGP, PARIS/JOHN WRONN/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, PURCHASE, 1935

As for Ashbery finding that “it is instructive to see the influence of Ernst’s frottages on a Barnett Newman,” I am afraid that all he is doing is repeating a subjective idea that exists only in Mr. Rubin’s mind.

I have examined the paintings involved and I have found not one single inch of frottage in the Newman. Neither is there any connection with Max Ernst regarding line, color, form, shapes, subject, schema, topology or even “milieu.” Mr. Rubin himself says this, if we read his whole statement carefully. On p. 180 of his catalogue Mr. Rubin writes, “The biomorphism of Barnett Newman’s Pagan Void was exceptional in his imagery, which in such visionary pictures as Genetic Moment suggested distant affinities with Ernst’s wood-frottage ‘Forests’ ” [my italics]. Obviously no distance is distant enough for Mr. Rubin so that he provokes the question—how distant, how far or, to put it baldly, how far-fetched must the “affinities” between two painters be for Mr. Rubin to show their “affinities”?

The fact is that I was in opposition to the Surrealists. No question that the Surrealists made a great contribution by showing that it was possible to paint a subjective thought, a feeling, a subjective idea. No question that the Surrealists freed painting from its old subject matter of nature, or still-life, the figure and formal abstraction. It is a debt that I willingly admit. But I found their dogmas, their subject matter based on Freud and Marx, their techniques, and their failure to get away from the anecdote, to be without interest for me. My paintings are, in fact, a confrontation with Surrealism. Just as they are a confrontation with abstraction. It seems to me that thoughtful examination of my paintings then and now makes this unmistakably clear.

Barnett Newman
New York, N.Y.

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