Barnett Newman -- the drama of black and white

I remember once seeing a huge pine tree -- weakened by age -- shake, buckle, and fall onto the snow. There was a terrible roar and then dead silence. In a few moments everything was exactly as before except that the snowy hillside now had a huge black gash down its middle.

I recalled that experience while viewing "Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969" currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through April 13. In drawing after drawing, my memory of the crack and roar of the falling tree and of the black gash upon the snow was echoed by stark images consisting of vertical slashes and stripes of pure white within fields of black.

Of course, Newman is famous for these "zips," these vertical charges of light and energy emanating from the compacted whiteness of the untouched paper and given life by the forcefulness of the blacks which surround them. But I had never seen so many of these drawings together before, and neither had I seen more than two or three of his earlier colored drawings and watercolors.

These earlier drawings resemble insects, seedlings, processes of growth, etc. , and are highly lyrical and delicate. Some are actually quite lovely, a word one would normally never apply to Newman's art.

But it is the black-and-white "zip" drawings that command our most serious attention. There is power, even violence, in these drawings, but it is the power of life insisting it be heard. and the violence is the violence of birth.

To understand them, to grasp their impact, one must first realize what the drama of black and white can mean to an artist like Newman. As he himself said, "When an artist wants to change, when he wants to invent, he goes to black; it is a way of clearing the table -- of getting to new ideas. "But black, be it ink, charcoal, or crayon, can only find its voice upon, in, or through a light surface. Pure black against pure white was Newman's primary creative arena as a draftsman. He slapped, pushed, and dragged black onto white paper in order to force the remaining narrow slivers of untouched whiteness to project with the force of lightning bolts.

By doing so he transformed untouched white paper into charges of energy and light. It was this drawing out, this activation of the negative into the positive which lies at the heart of these drawings and which presents us with the crucial clues to his mature paintings. What started out as narrow and tentative shivers of white verticals within fields of black, gradually became dominant fields of white against which vertical black lines were set.

Using this open field divided by vertical lines as the formal basis for his mature paintings, Newman proceeded to orchestrate the inner luminosity first brought out in these drawings. Translated at times into color or, as was the case with his famous "Stations of the Cross," he kept to the barest suggestiveness of line against field, this sensitive manipulation of the formal and symbolic potentials implicit within bare canvas opened up new dimensions of pictorial expressiveness.

The danger in this kind of art, of course, is vacuity. Who is to determine if a large canvas divided by two or three vertical lines is a work of art or merely a section of empty canvas with a few lines scrawled on it? It's a tricky proposition, and a serious one, especially in this day and age when it is often enough to declare oneself an artist to be accepted as one.

The answer lies in constant viewing of the art itself. (Nothingness cannot bear continued scrutiny). And in careful examination of the artist's roots and development. This exhibition does full justice to both Newman's evolution and quality.In addition to the 79 drawings, the show includes 18 colored lithographs conceived as a suite under the title "18 Cantos," and two of his paintings. Of the latter, "Uriel," a huge oil painted in 1958, gives a good indication of what emerged from the drawings and serves as proof, if proof is needed, of the vision and creative integrity of Barnett Newman.

What is cleary demonstrated in this show is Newman's steely determination to find and to seize what was most essential to his creative identity, and to bring it to its fullest realization in works so simple that they look vaguely decorative and yet so profoundly suggestive that they provoke metaphysical resonances of the subtlest kind.

It is a lonely art and an extremely private one despite its large scale. But its overall effect is much like finding the first tiny green proof of continuing life after a hard winter.

With this excellent exhibition of Newman's drawings, the roster of the original abstract expressionists given recent major shows is almost complete. Of the group of Jackson Pollock, Clyford Still, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, only Kline has not been seen in force lately. That hopefully will be remedied soon.

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