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Barnett Newman and the Sublime1

PAUL CROWTHER

The story of modern painting is always told as a


struggle for and against space . . . .What is all the2
clamour over space? It is all too esoteric for me . . . .
B. Newman

Part One
Although the sublime is an aesthetic concept of
ancient lineage, the modern sensibility associates it
most closely with the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth century. Robert Rosenblum suggests,
for example, that in Burke, Reynolds, Kant,
Diderot, Delacroix and their contemporaries,
the sublime provided a flexible semantic container
for the murky new Romantic experiences of awe,
terror, boundlessness and divinity that began to
rupture 6the decorous confines of earlier aesthetic
systems.
In very general terms, Rosenblum's remarks are
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a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged


with terror; which, as it belongs to self-preservation,
is one of the strongest of all the passions.7
On these terms, the experience of the sublime is
defined by its indirect allusion to the fact of human
mortality. One might say, therefore, that for Burke
the sublime is to be understood in an 'existential'
sense; Kant, however, chooses a rather different
approach:
the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of
form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its
presence provokes a representation of limitlessness,
yet with a super-added thought of its totality.8
The last clause of this statement is crucial. As
with Burke, an emphasis is placed on objects of an
overwhelming or terrifying nature giving rise to
experiences of the sublime, but for Kant the
underlying structure of this experience is determined not just by implicit reference to the fact of
human mortality, but also by the finite human
subject's capacity to affirm itself rationally in the
face of such overwhelming and terrifying phenomena. Hence the significance of the 'super-added
thought of. . . totality'. Our rational faculties are
able basically to comprehend and thereby challenge that which from the viewpoint of 'sensibility'
(i. e. that realm of sensation, perception, and affect
where the human self connects with nature's
causal chain) would seem beyond all comprehension. Indeed, it is the employment of just this
rational capacity rather than the overwhelming
phenomena themselves which Kant finds sublime.
Through it we experience our freedom to transcend behaviour and phenomena that are merely
causally determined. As Kant puts it:
the feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our
own vocation . . . this feeling renders as it were
intuitable the supremacy of our cognitive faculties on
the rational side over the greatest faculty of sensibility.9
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Barnett Newman's work with its superficial


affirmation of the two-dimensionality of pictorial
space is so often taken as an exemplar of the
'modernist' tendency in art, that one wonders
what other aspects to his work there could possibly
be. That there are, indeed, other aspects is shown
by his frequent comments concerning the sublime
and by his observation that 'the self, terrible and
constant is for me the subject-matter of painting'.3
Unfortunately, no one has yet shown how the
sublime and the self are linked in Newman's work,
and this is true even (and perhaps especially) of
his two most assiduous commentators, namely
Thomas Hess4 and Harold Rosenberg5. In their
'critical' texts, Newman's esoteric theory and
practice becomes enshrouded in an aura of
eulogistic mysticism that altogether hides those
aspects of his praxis which make him so susceptible to modernist interpretations.
In this paper, therefore, I propose to analyse in
depth the relation between sublimity and the self
in Newman's theory, and the nature of the
demands which this makes on his artistic production. In Part One, accordingly, I shall outline
the tradition of the sublime to which Newman
relates, and in Part Two will show the ways in
which Newman adapts this for his own theoretical
ends. In Part Three I shall trace the practical
problems into which this leads Newman, and, in
conclusion, will relate his work to the question of
sublime art in general.

apt. However, Burke and Kant require rather


more detailed consideration, not only because their
theories are highly systematic but also because
they hinge upon two phenomenologically distinct
extremes of human experiences. Burke articulates
the first of these in his claim that terrible or
overwhelming phenomena, when experienced from
a position of safety, can give rise to

On these terms, then, Kant is construing the


sublime in what I shall call its 'transcendent'
sense.

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negative facts that, on the one hand, representational work simply depicts natural form or social
realities; and that on the other hand, geometric
abstraction simply transforms nature into a senPart Two
suously pleasing surface. But what is it about nongeometrical abstraction that makes it so suitable a
bearer for 'pure ideas'? Newman does not answer
It is interesting that in his well-known paper 'The
this question explicitly but it is reasonable to
Sublime is Now'10 Barnett Newman dismisses
assume that he sees non-geometrical abstraction as
Kant summarily and suggests that it was Burke
simply having greater connotative power. It
alone who articulated some essentials of the
hovers, as it were, in the potently ambiguous
sublime. However, a complete picture of Newman's
semantic space between conventional represenown theory and its true affinities can only be
tational art and pure geometrical abstraction.
gained by a consideration of several of his earlier
Characteristically the exploitation of this space
writings, notably 'The First Man was an Artist'11
takes the form of a combination of loosely
and 'The Ideographic Picture'12. In both these
pieces we find the single premiss that man's first
biomorphic and geometric elements that transcend
attempts to rise above nature through speech are
mere aesthetic value without relapsing into the
basically poetic outcries rather than acts of
mundane narratives of conventional representation.
communication. In polemic mood Newman asks
Newman himself uses the term 'ideograph' to pick
and answers the following question:
out symbols of this sort, and defines it specifically
as 'A character, symbol, or figure which suggests
the idea without expressing its name'.15
Are we to say that the first man called the sun and
It is unfortunate that Newman's use of the term
the stars God as an act of communication and only
after he had finished his day's labour? The myth
ideograph has not received wider currency since it
came before the hunt. The purpose of man's first
quite accurately summarises the semantic foundaspeech was an address to die unknowable.13His
tion of the early phase of abstract expressionism in
behaviour had its origins in his artistic nature.
general as well as his own work of 1945-7, where
elements of biomorphic abstraction are dominant.
The key passage here is the final sentence Now if matters had been left here, Newman's
'man's artistic nature', or, as Newman goes on to
work would probably have remained very much
say 'The artistic act is man's personal birthright'.
within the mainstream of abstract expressionism.
Here Newman is making, in effect, the claim that
However, there is quite emphatic tension between
the artistic act in its confrontation with the
Newman's theory and his practice. On the one
unknowable, is what marks us out as authentically
hand he is concerned only with a specific range of
human, and that reciprocally, it is as the bearer of
pure ideas - namely those rooted in the self'pure ideas' about death and tragedy and other
comprehension of the artist before the unknown;
aspects of the unknown, that the artistic act finds
on the other hand, his ideographic means of
its raison d'etre. Hence Newman is led to say of the evoking this through organic or biomorphic
Kwakiutl Indian artist that
abstraction leads to broader naturalistic associations that tend rather to mask or distract us from
The abstract shape he used, his entire plastic
the underlying 'pure idea'. Newman, however,
language was directed by a ritual will towards
comes to terms with this problem in 'The Sublime
metaphysical understanding . . . . To him a shape
is Now' of 1948. It is to this paper I now turn.
was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought
The basis of Newman's discussion is broadly
complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings he felt
historical, and (as might be expected) his view of
before the unknowable.14
art history is very much that of a fall from the
metaphysical grace attained by primitive art. As
It is significant that in this passage Newman
he puts it:
does not simply see the artwork as arousing (as
Burke puts it) 'a sort of delightful horror', but
Man's natural desire in the arts to express his
rather stresses its embodiment of the artist's
relation to the Absolute became identified and
transcending of mundane reality and the pleasures
confused with the absolutisms 6of perfect creations of sense towards self-understanding acquired in
with the fetish of quality . . . .'
the face of the unknown. This is why Newman
uses the terms 'abstract thought complex' and
For Newman, this 'fetish of quality' is synony'pure idea' rather than the notions of 'feeling' and
mous with the classical tradition of ideal beauty.
'emotion' alone. They serve to bring out the
With Gothic art, in contrast, an authentic state of
element of rational self-comprehension inherent in
sublime exaltation is attained through the artist's
the artist's awesome feelings. Interestingly,
desire to destroy form; where indeed, 'form can be
Newman also suggests that non-geometric abstracformless'. The liberating momentum of Gothic art
tion alone can act as the bearer of such 'pure
is, however, checked by the Renaissance's reideas'. His overt justification for this lies in the

statement of classical ideas. In Newman's words, it


'set the artists the task of rephrasing an accepted
Christ legend in terms of absolute beauty as
against the original Gothic ecstacy over the
legend's evocation of the absolute.'17
Michelangelo's sculpture (for reasons not explained) alone transcends the classical ideal which,
for Newman, remains dominant until '. . . in
modern times, the Impressionists . . . began the
movement to destroy the established rhetoric of
beauty by the . . . insistence on a surface of ugly
strokes.'1^
This tendency is crucial, because whilst it is a
determining factor in the rise of modern art, it
stamps that rise with a merely negative significance
a mere embodiment of the rhetorical exaltation
that arises from the destruction of the accepted
conventions of artistic style and practice. As
Newman puts it:

On these terms, we find that, whereas for


example the exaltation of Picasso's work may be
rhetorically sublime in its overthrow of convention,
it leads ultimately to a canvas that simply reinterprets the world in terms of highly structured
ideal pictorial form. Similarly in Mondrian, nature
is transformed into 'an absolute of perfect sensations' through canvases that exist as pure
aesthetic surfaces within the real world. Indeed,
even Cubist and Dadaist collage (despite their
wild inspiration) succeed only in 'elevating the
sheet of paper'. Hence:
The failure of European art to achieve the sublime
is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of
sensation (the objective world, whether distorted or
pure) and to build an art within a framework of pure
plasticity (the Greek ideal of beauty, whether that
plasticity be20 a romantic active surface, or a classic
stable one).
Newman's grumble then, is that modern art is
sublime only in the external or rhetorical senses of
perfect aesthetic form, and revolutionary exaltation. The task that remains is to find a more
authentic and positive sublimity grounded in
man's spiritual transcendence towards the
unknown. This means, essentially, the creation of
artworks with a sublime content. Hence Newman's
final crucial statement of his own (and perhaps
Rothko's) position:
We are reasserting man's natural desire for the
exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the
absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete
props of an outmoded and antiquated legend [i. e. of
Christ]. We are creating images whose reality is self54

In this passage Newman comes to terms with


the inconsistency between his desire for a sublime
art embodying 'pure ideas', and the ideographic
associational means whereby he had previously
attempted to realise it. Before relating this theory
to Newman's new pictorial means, however, I
shall briefly make some general comments on the
strength and affinities of the theory itself. First,
even allowing for the level of generality at which
Newman (in a short paper) necessarily operates, it
might be thought that his theory glosses over
inconvenient facts. For example, the equating of
the Greek Ideal of Beauty and the romantic 'active
surface' seems especially incongruous given the
fact that much Romantic art is essentially concerned with the sublime rather than the beautiful.
Newman's retort would probably be that the
Romantics' articulation of the sublime is too
dependent on subject-matter with distracting
naturalistic associations that serve to mask the
'pure idea'. But is this not also true of Baroque
painting, Gothic architecture, and Michelangelo's
sculpture - all of which Newman cites as sublime?
Clearly, in this case, Newman's metaphysical taste
gets the better of his historical judgement. This,
however, only suggests that there is rather more
sublime art than Newman is prepared to admit; it
does not affect the overall thrust of his argument
since it may well be that a mode of abstraction free
of overt natural associations is sublime in a more
profound sense.
This brings me to the question of which other
theory Newman's has most affinity with. He tells
us that Kant (along with Hegel) confuses the
sublime with the beautiful, and that it is Burke
alone who achieves a 'clear' separation.22 Unfortunately, despite his philosophical training,
Newman is wrong on this point. Kant not only
emphatically distinguishes the sublime from the
beautiful, but does so in a way that has strong
affinities with Newman's own theory. Both, for
example, see the sublime as residing not simply in
the evocation of emotion by overwhelming
phenomena, but rather in the sense of rational selfcomprehension that arises from such a confrontation. Indeed, this transcendent species of the
sublime is further seen as at least partially
definitive of the human condition - for Kant it is
testimony to our ultimate 'vocation'; for Newman
the sublimity of the pure artistic act is the
authentic 'birthright' of our 'artistic nature'. Kant
and Newman do diverge, however, in at least one
highly illuminating respect. Kant suggests that the
sublime is not a proper content for art because the
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the elements of sublimity in the revolution we


know as modern art, exist in its effort and energy to
escape the pattern
rather than in the realisation of a
new experience.19

evident . . . . We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend,
myth . . . that have been the devices of European
painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ,
man, or 'life', we are making it out of ourselves, out
of our own feelings.21

artwork is necessarily restricted by 'the conditions


of an agreement with nature'. 2 Now to some
degree (allowing for the inconsistencies noted
above) this parallels Newman's own worries about
the effect of naturalistic associations upon sublime
art. However, what is more striking about
Newman's position is that he provides a way of
overcoming Kant's restriction by linking the
purest expression of the sublime to non-geometric
abstraction. The assumption is that work founded
on form of this sort would clearly not be restricted
by having to 'agree with nature'.
We find, then, that the basic practical problem
which arises from Newman's theoretical position is
to come up with a mode of abstraction that will
transcend mundane associations and geometric
beauty, to embody the sublime in its purest form.
Let us now consider how successful Newman was.

Part Three

I realised that I'd made a statement that was


affecting me and that was, I suppose, the beginning
of my present life.24
Onement 1 is a canvas of some 27" x 16"
consisting structurally of an inverted rectangle of
differentiated brownish red, bisected by a narrow
band of pinkish red. The reason why this simple
format proved so enormously significant for
Newman is that it occupies the semantic space
between representation and geometric abstraction,
but without falling into the merely hybrid mode of
biomorphic abstraction. The means of this
achievement are twofold. First, the basic colour
field is not so differentiated as to set up naturalistic
associations, rather it exists primarily just as a
coloured space. However, the fact that this space is
pictorial, i. e. defined and accentuated by the limits
of the canvas, means that we approach it with a
different set of expectations than we would, say, if
it were continuous with, or integrated within the
surrounding environment (in the way that a
painted wall or brownish red wallpaper might be).
Now if Newman had left matters here, the
expectations we would entertain in relation to the
pictorially defined colour field would probably be
of two loosely self-referential sorts. On the one
hand we might look upon it as an aesthetically
pleasing (or more likely displeasing) surface; on
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Fig. 1: Onement 1, 1948, oil on canvas, 27 X 16".


Coll. Annalee Newman, NY, New York.

the other hand, we might open ourselves out to the


canvas's brute physiognomic properties and
describe it as 'sad', 'melancholy' or whatever.
Newman's great discovery however, is that the
simple addition of the vertical band serves to
semantically activate the colour field. This is why,
looking back on his oeuvre in 1962, Newman
emphasised the sense of design or 'drawing' that
arose from his placement of the bands:
I am always referred to in relation to my colour.
Yet I know that if I have made a contribution, it is
primarily through my drawing . . . . Instead of using
outlines, instead of making shapes or setting off
spaces, my drawings declare the space. Instead of
working with the remnants of space, I work with the
whole space.25
On these terms, the significance of Newman's
narrow band or (to use his own term) 'zip' of
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'The Sublime is Now' was published in late


1948, and its exultant final pasage in the present
tense about making cathedrals 'out of ourselves'
suggests that Newman had already achieved the
breakthrough to a non-ideographic sublime art.
The key work in this respect is Onement 1, a
painting which Newman commenced in 1947 and
'lived with' for a year before its completion. Of this
work Newman said in 1962:

My subject is anti-anecdotal. An anecdote can be


subjective and internal as well as of the external

world so that the expression of the biography of self


or the intoxicated moment of glowing ecstasy must in
the end also become anecdotal. All such painting is
essentially episodic which means it calls for a sequel.
This must happen if a painting does not give a
sensation of wholeness or fulfilment.26
For Newman this 'wholeness', 'fulfilment' is
clearly rooted in bringing the ultimate confrontation between the artist and the Unknown to
expression. On these terms, we must understand
his titles not as terms which denote a particular
subject-matter or even the artist's personal experiences, but rather as terms which connote the
ultimate and universal experience of the sublime
(from which all other 'glowing ecstasy' flows).
However, the very fact that Newman's titles have
to be de-constructed in this way rather vitiates
their status as interpretative aids; and one
suspects, indeed, that any resort to extraneous
elements of this sort means that the content of
such works is far from 'self-evident'.
Newman does, however, come to terms with this
problem in another way. After a number of
experiments with scale he arrives by 1950 at a
characteristic canvas size in excess of about 8' x 7'.
A colour-field on this scale, of course, is liable to
swamp the viewer with the physiognomic
emotional qualities intrinsic to it; and, in a work as
large as Vir Heroicus Sublimis of 1951, these qualities
- as set off by the zips - do tend to instil
experiences of awe and great emotional intensity in
the observer. But we must remember at this point
that Newman is seeking to express rather more
than a Burkean sense of 'delightful horror', and
seeks essentially an art that embodies self-understanding in the face of the unknown. However, it
again seems clear that the increase in the scale of
his works does not of itself make such transcendent
sublimity self-evident. Rather we require in

Fig. 2: Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51, oil on canvas, 96 x 216". The Museum of Modern Art, NY, New York.
Gift of Mr & Mrs Ben Heller.
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colour, is that it achieves self-definition within the


'whole space' by its accentuation of the colour-field
- thence intimating a transcendent rather than
purely aesthetic or physiognomic level of meaning.
The implied analogy is that just as the zip is
properly defined and comprehensible only through
its opposition to the colour-field, so humankind
can only define and express its own finite rational
nature in opposition to the infinite and unknown.
Reciprocally, just as without its opposition to the
zip the colour-field remains undeclared, so too are
the infinite and unknown only established as such
by virtue of their opposition to humankind's finite
rationality. Reading Onement 1 in these terms
explains why Newman was so excited by it. He
could express humanity's relation to the unknown
not simply by destroying form in the standard
manner of sublime art, but by creating an artifact
that embodies this relation through a subtle kind
of non-representational symbolism.
It will be recalled that in 'The Sublime is Now'
Newman suggests that 'we are creating images
whose reality is self-evident'. Yet it is, of course,
precisely the transcendent reality of Onement 1 and
Newman's subsequent work which has proved
elusive to so many observers. Apart from resorting
to Newman's background theory, one superficially
plausible means of access to his transcendent
meaning is by referring to the titles of the works
themselves e.g. The Beginning, The Command,
Abraham, Horizon Light etc.. However, there are
problems even here. First, these titles function
superficially as denotative expressions, naming
events, concepts, individuals, and phenomena.
Whilst this might seem to import a purely personal
or anecdotal significance to the paintings,
Newman himself was at pains to deny this:

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respect. Whilst such perceptible difference may


reasonably be said to be a necessary condition of
stylistic development, it is by no means a sufficient
one. We surely demand in addition that such
'differences' provide both visual evidence of radical
self-reappraisals on the artist's part and bespeak
also a sense of progression and advancement. For
example, in Jackson Pollock's painting after 1946,
although the artist is still (as in his earlier work)
concerned with the problem of expressing the
unconscious self, his artistic means of realisation
take on a radically new aspect with the introduction of the drip technique. Indeed, between
1946 and his death, Pollock adapts and extends
this mode of self-expression, through a number of
strikingly different phases, that are not only
visually different but also give a clear sense of
progression - of problems encountered and solved.
With Newman, in contrast, we find that almost all
his works after Onement 1 are visually different in a
way that does not radicalise the paradigm structure of the colour-field/zip. Indeed there is not
even any real sense of a progressive and explorative
elaboration of this structure; rather we find
switches and swaps, and a multitude of mere
repetitions.
This lack of stylistic development is, I think, one
reason why Newman has been such easy prey for
the modernist interpretation of his work. His
theory-determined repetition of a minimal visual
format is easily misread as an insistence on the
two-dimensionality of the canvas for its own sake,
and thence as an attempt to reduce painting to its
pure essence. But what (one might ask) of the
theory of the sublime? Why have the modernist
interpreters been able to shunt this aside so easily?
This brings me directly to the second major
difficulty that arises from the application of
Newman's theory. In arriving at the paradigm
structure of Onement 1 and exploiting it so extensively, Newman effectively reduces the expression
of the transcendent sublime to a formula. His
theory, indeed, demands this in order that the
authentic subject-matter, the 'pure idea', should
be absolutely paramount. However, by coming up
with a formula for sublimity Newman tends to
inhibit the possibility of a complete experience of
it. For even if we have totally grounded ourselves
in the background theory, its constant repetition in
an impersonal mode of abstraction deadens all but
our intellectual sensitivity. We lose interest in the
emotional possibilities of the sublime and see it
instead as a merely causally significant idea which
led Newman to produce works whose real and
abiding interest lies not in their 'subject-matter'
but rather in their status as painted surfaces. This
attitude is entirely characteristic of the way
Newman's work has been received both by critics
(such as Greenberg),28 and artists (such as Don
Judd). 29

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addition a thorough-going knowledge of Newman's


theoretical presuppositions. This is why Newman's
much quoted remark that 'Aesthetics is for the
artist as ornithology is for the birds' turns out to
be so ironic. Newman's work (as much if not more
so than any other twentieth-century artist) depends on a matrix of aesthetic theory in order to
be read authentically. Unfortunately the practical
application of Newman's theory is beset by several
other problems which I shall now consider.
First, Newman's obsessive pursuit of the transcendent sublime leads him, as I have shown, to
develop the colour-field/zip format, and so
differentiate himself from mainstream abstract
expressionism. The problem is, however, that
whilst this mode of artistic praxis enables Newman
to find his own distinct style, it ends up as selfdefeating in two clear senses. First, if as Newman
holds, transcendent sublimity (with its affirmation
of the self) is the only authentic subject-matter for
painting, and if (as Newman also holds) this
subject-matter can only be expressed in a certain
mode of non-geometric abstraction, dien the artist
is committed to a style which by its very nature
admits of no significant development beyond its
root format. The colour-field and zip(s) for
example cannot be respectively articulated other
than in terms of basic monochrome, for to
introduce polychromatic elements would be to
invite naturalistic associations that obscure the
'pure idea'. Again, to introduce more overtly
painterly and gestural elements would be to overemphasise the artist's personality, thus inaugurating a regress into the personal and merely
anecdotal. All that remains, therefore, (if the
purity of the 'idea' and the 'wholeness' of the
image are to be maintained) is to make endless
variations on the basic colour-field/zip format. In
practice, this is exactly what Newman does in
almost all his work after Onement 1. The zips are
sometimes narrow, sometimes broad, sometimes
horizontal - but zips they remain. Similarly the
colour-field is sometimes slightly differentiated,
sometimes pure, sometimes one colour, sometimes
another - but always fundamentally a colour-field.
The only alternatives (in his painting at least)
which Newman seems to have entertained are the
gentle self-parody of the Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow
and Blue? series of the mid-sixties and the
triangular-shaped Jericho and Chartres of 1969.
Again, however, the actual internal structure of
these works turns out to be, once more, a variation
on the colour-field/zip format.
It might be claimed that even though Newman
derives his art from a theoretically determined
basic format, the variations he makes on this (such
as the breadth, number, and positioning of zips)
give adequate criteria for talking of his style
'developing'27. However, all that these 'criteria'
really establish is the truism that each of his works
look different from one another in some specifiable

Conclusion

Having traced the self-defeating consequences of


the application of Newman's theory, it now
remains for me to show how these consequences
stem not just from Newman's obsessive pursuit of
the sublime, but also from a deep-seated mistake in
his theoretical articulation of it. The basic problem is
this; we apply the term 'sublime' to art in two
logically different senses - descriptively and
evaluatively. The descriptive sense is the one
employed by Newman, and holds sublime art to
consist in the possession of certain characteristic
phenomenal features - formlessness, form in the
act of dissolution, all-encompassing voids and the
like. Whilst such properties are the basis of a
useful category for describing a certain kind of
artwork, and whilst, indeed, such works may evoke
sublime emotions in us, the former is by no means
either a necessary or sufficient condition of the
latter. For example, James Ward's Gordale Scar (or
indeed almost the entire oeuvre ofjohn Martin) can
Notes
be justly described as 'sublime' and possess all the
1. This is a revised and extended version of a paper originally
appropriate phenomenal characteristics. However,
read
to the Staff/Postgraduate Art History Seminar, in the University
their capacity actually to evoke sublime emotions
of St Andrews. I am indebted to participants in that seminar for their
is very problematic in relation to the modern
comments, and in particular to Professor Martin Kemp, Mostyn
sensibility. One feels that they are simply trying
Bramley-Moore, and Louise Durning.
too hard, and that this obvious sense of human
2. Barnett Newman, quoted in Thomas Hess: Barnett Newman,
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Fig. 3: First Station, 1958, Magna on canvas,


78 X 60". Coll: Annalle Newman, NY, New York.

artifice rather inhibits any profounder sense of


revelation. Curiously enough, the very fact that the
work is in a characteristically 'sublime' format
conspires against it having a sublime effect.
Newman is, of course, a case in point here.
The fact that the possession of descriptively
sublime properties is not even a necessary condition of sublime experience in art is brought out
clearer by the 'evaluative' use of the term. By this,
I mean our tendency to call 'sublime' those works
which do succeed in evoking a profound realisation
of the self-understanding that arises from the
confrontation between the artist and the ultimate
powers of life, death, and the unknown. In this
category we could place the works of artists as
stylistically disparate as Watteau and Van Gogh.
Indeed, it is crucial to note that the very fact that
such works do not have a descriptively sublime
content makes them all the more effective. Our
experience and awe is all the more intense by its
arising from a format where one did not expect to
find it - such as in a. fete galante, or in a still-life of a
pair of peasant boots. On these terms, the
superficially anecdotal or mundane elements act as
the positive backcloth against which the artist's
transcendence emerges all the clearer into view. If
Newman had realised this, he might have taken up
the challenge of producing an art that achieved the
sublime through its stylistic quality30 rather than
through its possession of characteristically sublime
'subject-matter'.
I have argued, then, that Barnett Newman's
notion of the self as the subject-matter of painting
finds its way into his art through a quasi-Kantian
notion of the transcendent sublime. I have further
argued that Newman's theory on this topic rigidly
determines the structure of his art and accounts for
its lack of stylistic development. If Newman had
not construed the sublime in a purely descriptive
sense, he might well have discovered that representational art, or even geometric abstraction,
could embody authentic sublimity by its capacity
to transcend mundane associations. As it is,
Newman's persistence with an art rigidly determined by a flawed theory leads in the end to a
kind of self-negation. The theory seems obscure or
irrelevant, and the art world thus assimilates
Newman's work within the prevailing ideology of
modernism. Ironically, Newman becomes a crucial
influence on the theory and practice of post-war
art only insofar as those features which defined his
own sense of artistic personality are denied.

Tate Gallery Publications, London 1972, p. 47.


3. Birnett Newman, quoted in Harold Rosenberg: Banutt
Ntwman, Abrami, New York 1978, p. 21.
4. Hess op. cit.
5. Rosenberg op. cit.
6. Robert Rosemblum: 'The Abstract Sublime', Art News,
February 1961, pp. 38-41, 56-57.
7. Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Inquiry into tht Origin of OUT Idtas
of tht Sublime and tht Beautiful, ed. John Boulton, Routledge t Kegan
Paul, London 1958, p. 136.
8. Immanuel Kant: Tht Critiqiu of Judgment trans., J. C.
Meredith, Oxford University Press 1973, p. 90.
9. ibid p. 106.
10. Barnett Newman: 'The Sublime is Now', Tigtr's Eyt, October
1948, pp. 51-53.
11. Barnett Newman: 'The First Man was an Artist' included in
Thtorits of Modtrn Art, ed. Herschel B. Chipp, London 1968,
pp. 551-552.
12. Barnett Newman: introduction to 'The Ideographic Picture'
exhibition catalogue; included in Chipp ibid. pp. 550-551.
13. The First Man was an Artist' in Chipp ibid. pp. 551.
14. 'The Ideographic Picture' in Chipp ibid. p. 550.
15. ibid. p. 550.

16. 'The Sublime is Now' p. 51.


17. ibid. p. 52.
18. ibid. p. 52.
19. ibid. p. 52.
20. ibid. p. 52-53.
21. ibid. p. 53.
22. See ibid. p. 51.
23. Kant op. cit. p. 91.
24. Bamett Newman: interview with David Sylvester included in
Rosenberg op. cit. p. 245-246.
25. Bamett Newman: interview with Dorothy Seckler included in
Tht Ntw York School ed. Maurice Tuchman, Thames and Hudson,
London 1970, p. 112.
26. ibid. p. 112.
27. This approach is the one implied by Franz Kline's comments
quoted in Rosenberg op. cit. p. 64.
28. See, for example, Clement Greenberg: 'After Abstract Expressionism', included in Atsthetics: A Critical Anthology, ed. George
Dickie, St Martin's Press, New York, 1977.
29. See, for example, Judd's essay on Newman in Modtrmsatien and
Modtrn Art: A Critical Anthology ed. Francis Franstina and Charles
Harrison, Harper and Row, London 1982.

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