AMERICAN Barnett Newman emerged on the art scene in the late 1940s and early '50s, at a time when artists in the United States were looking for ways to escape from the dominant character of European art and from art history and tradition. In her book of essays ``Has Modernism Failed?'' Suzi Gablik quotes a remark by Newman as evidence of typical modernist thinking. ``A new art was necessary,'' writes Gablik, ``and according to Barnett Newman, `we actually began ... from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed.'''
Newman, it should be noted, said ``as if.''
For a number of years Newman did not paint at all, feeling that art was in a trap and only entirely fresh beginnings could rescue it. Finally Newman came up with a painting, which he called ``Onement.'' This incompleted image, with one color crossed vertically by a strip of paint which both divides and joins its symmetrical left and right sides, gave him new inspiration. It opened the way to all of his subsequent paintings and sculptures.
His art was categorically ``modern,'' uncompromisingly his alone, and seemed to be quite cut off from both traditional and European art, and even from the art of his American contemporaries. Some saw his work as an extraordinary liberation. Others were able only to see its negations - what it wasn't, rather than what it was.
These same contradictory views of Newman's art have continued. Insensitivity to his art, criticism that Newman's minimalism and abstractness are esoteric, elitist, cold, or sterile has actually expanded to become a rather popular indictment of abstract art in general. Modernism, the claim goes, has ``failed,'' and nobody seems to regret it much, least of all those nostalgic traditionalists who never saw anything in it anyway.
The '80s have witnessed an increasing clamor of voiced doubts about the whole notion of ``the modern'' - of what is thought to have been an endless bid for the latest freedom, for the newest beginning, for a persistent series of rebellions against the previous, short-lived norm. The fact is that few artists have ever thought in such simplistic terms, but commentators have.
``We can see now,'' wrote Gablik, ``that rebellion and freedom are not enough: modernism has moved us too far in the direction of radical subjectivity and a destructive relativism.'' Then - the bell tolling for adventure and originality - she suggests: ``At this point we might do well to make the most of a few well-observed rules again, for this is the mainspring of all art. Only when traditional rules exist, and one is used to expecting them, can one then enjoy breaking them.''
This is the principal, perhaps, of ``you can't fool around on skates until you have learned to skate properly.'' The modern artist has long replied: ``Who says?'' As applied to painting or sculpture, the need for rules to break is a clich'e. It has long formed itself into that old query - ``How can you tell if an abstract artist is any good unless you first know that he can DRAW]''
But if modern art has often achieved a new potency by simply ignoring such ``traditional rules'' as correct or academic drawing, it is not just such abolition of old ``well-observed rules'' that has spelled its ``failure'' - if it has indeed failed. What's happened is more in the realm of cold feet: a growing lack of conviction in man's endlessly renewable capacity to be original. And there may also be a confusion about the vast difference between originality and mere novelity or change for its own attention-seeking sake. And there is a final irony in modernist art being accused of ``dogmatism'' - the very thing it has always striven to escape from.
Newman heartily believed art should not be dogmatic. And to look straight at his work, with all its apparent simplicity, its reduction to basic concerns of color, of verticality, of edge - the viewer does not find himself faced with the mayhem of ``broken rules,'' with individual freedom leading to rampant chaos, with a ``subjectivity'' so ``radical'' that it has no responsibility except to the artist's personal vision and decisions.
Instead Newman's art has an order that no one can miss, an immediacy and openness that does not suggest meanings or significances that are some kind of mystery or secret between the artist and himself alone; nor, on the other hand, is it so blandly without a reference-point that it has negative significance.
While it seems to acknowledge no historical precedents - not even earlier modern abstract artists like Malevich or Mondrian - there is something so essential and inevitable about Newman's art that, for all its modernity, it comes across as ageless.
The ``timelessness'' of art - or its capacity for stilling the motion of time - is profoundly buried in man's primal concept of art, his undying respect for it. In penetrating to this primary nature of art, with the utmost seriousness, Newman did not resort to storytelling, to unthinking magic symbolism, to the mystical, or to sophisticated redigestion of tribal primitivism.
Instead he tried to redefine art as the very act of creating, art as beginning. This meant art had to be ``modern,'' of course, but not in the sense of a self-consciously fashionable revolt. It was, rather, the conviction of the possibility that an artist could be completely fresh. In this way Newman's sense of the ``modern'' - and it is clearly encountered in his work - is also, instinctively, as old as the hills.
What could be more uncompromisingly a monument, a sign, an essence than a standing vertical?
The bronze ``Here I'' comes, as a sculpture, straight from the verticals in his paintings. These he called ``zips.'' A zip, says Webster, is ``a ... sibilant sound such as that made by a flying bullet.'' Newman's zips streak simultaneously up and down the color surface of his paintings. They move, but are also motionless. They are dynamic but fixed. They are passionately accurate, even when their edges waver.
Their verticality is so undistracted, so singular, that they take on an intensity which is unexpectedly compelling. At the same time, their edges, width, height, placement, and the way they are painted - in varying degrees of strictness and trembling sensitivity, all these things press themselves on the attention as vividly significant. In them lies all of each painting or sculpture's meaning, all its subject matter, feeling, or narrative. And Newman himself seems to have found his ``zips'' inexhaustibly various as the means for ``art.''
The thing Newman realized he could do with such apparently basic and imperative means was go back to what his own imagination convinced him would be the genesis of art, art stripped of everything that had accrued. The ``beginning'' had to be ``new.'' It had to be ``modern.'' It had to be universal. It had to be individual, but at the same time, if true, it would strike an instant chord of recognition in the open-minded or open-eyed viewer.
In our current (and probably continuing) discomfort about the ``modern'' we have perhaps mislaid the meaning that overused word had for earlier ``modern'' artists. It almost never meant that all their efforts went into rebelling against the previous, into rebellion and change for its own sake. It almost always included a calm assessment of past achievements, of traditions, even, and a recognition that the necessity was not to demolish earlier art, but to revitalize its essence.
It is striking that Gablik writes: ``The period through which we have just lived has been, on the whole, one in which whatever was inherited from the past was thought of as a tiresome impediment to be escaped from as soon as possible.''
It is exceedingly hard to find any worthwhile ``modern'' artist, however abstract or abstruse, who hasn't been acutely interested in past art or past thought, knowledgable of it, and challenged by it. The fact is that C'ezanne wanted to remold Impressionism with some of the solid certainties of the old masters in the Louvre, Picasso re-assessed Vel'asquez and Cranach, Henry Moore was inspired by ancient Mexican sculpture and Michelangelo, Jackson Pollock said the art that interested him most was American Indian sand painting and that of the 19th-century American Romantic Albert Pinkham Ryder.
But this was not because older art presented them with ``rules'' to be ``broken'' any more than it presented rules to be learned and imitated. For the modern artist, older art provided a springboard; it hinted at the sources and resources of creativity or discovery still - and always - available for any artist who wants to be ``new'' in his own time.
If Barnett Newman is genuinely an exception to that, he is only the exception that proves the rule.