To take my mind off America’s epic descent into the abyss, I thought I’d look back for a bit and re-examine what I was taught in art school in the early to mid-70s, and what has made American Art the towering wonder of the world it is today. The video above sums up a good deal of it. Thankfully MoMA has summed up the teaching in a few short videos like the one above. If only they’d done it sooner! I wouldn’t have had to waste those four years and all that money! Oh well. Live and learn. At least now kids don’t have to attend art school as they can learn everything they need to know to become a great Modern painter thanks to these videos which lay out all the principles in short lessons. And not only that they actually demonstrate how these masterpieces were made.
The brilliant curator who is speaking above talks pretty fast and it goes by in a blur so I thought I’d slow it down for some of the slow learners who are, incredibly, still too stupid to understand why painters like Newman, Kline and Pollock were the greatest painters of the 20th century. Stupid people like myself who, even after four years of intense study, still failed to get the greatness of these artists. But today, thanks to MoMA, I now get it. I really do understand just how great these painters actually were. So great…. So unbelievably great.
Corey D’Augustine clued me in right at the beginning to what is going on in a Barnett Newman that like the Dummy below I was oblivious to. He recounts this wonderful story where another American painting genius, Franz Kline, puts the Dummy who doesn’t get Newman’s paintings in his place:
Dummy: You know I just came from the Barnett Newman show.
Kline: oh, yeah, what do you think? I haven’t seen it yet.
Dummy: It seemed pretty simple. Just a bunch of paintings with lines.
Kline: Huh? These paintings. They all the same color?
Kline: These paintings. They all the same size?
Kline: How about those lines? They all the same color, same size, same placement?
Kline: Sounds pretty damn complicated to me.
Voila! There you have it. Franz Kline makes clear that deploying masking tape of varying widths, picking out a couple paint colors and canvas sizes and placing the masking tape vertically across the horizontal length of a stretched canvas is far more complicated than it looks. You think it looks easy, right? Just try following Corey d’Angelo’s demonstration and see how easy it is! See if you don’t get the tape all messed up when the paint goes over it. Well, sure that happened to Newman as well but the results were not accidental. Just like Pollock, Newman and the other abstract painters denied the accident. And if they deny it, that’s good enough for me.
Only men with little to no painting experience (like Barnett Newman) possessed the unsullied purity that, combined with extremely sophisticated judgement, resulted in the greatest paintings that America ever produced. One can only imagine the bungled mess any other painter prior to Abstract Expressionist artists would have made of it. Think of a van Gogh being faced with critical decisions like single color selection, canvas size and width of masking tape. He would no doubt have had no idea where to even begin much less could have he have achieved a masterpiece like Vir Heroicus Sublimus.
And once Newman got the knack of the masking tape and flat paint method under way the results are nothing short of astounding. The fussy efforts of artists like van Gogh are immediately revealed for the hackwork Greenberg perceptively described.(see below)* Much like Pollock, who regardless of what he dripped on whatever surface he dripped it on, made works of lasting significance that will certainly stand the test of time placed next to the Night Watch or second-rate Goyas and Titians. (another Greenberg assertion described in upcoming post).
Greenberg, fortunately for American artists, dissuaded them from floundering around in clumsy and meaningless figurative painting which painters like Newman had rendered outmoded and outdated. Cory d’ Angelo helps explain just how meaningful the revelations of Greenberg and Newman were.
Cory D: Why are these lines vertical? It’s because when we relate to each other we relate to each other primarily as vertical forms.
That clears that up, doesn’t it? Enough with the Virgin Mary and Christian mythology, Baroque Art, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and the whole mess of Art History in general. Who needs that nonsense? Let’s cut right down to the core of what human beings really are. Vertical forms relating to other vertical forms.
Cory: As soon as a mark is made on canvas visually one thing is in front of another.
This was the problem with artists of the past. All their messing about obscured this jolting realization. Newman’s blinding insight was that as soon as one makes a mark on canvas the mark next to it will either be in front of or behind it. Get it? Think about it? Look at the painting. One line is closer to you and the other is farther away. That is what painting is all about. In fact, that is what art is all about. You don’t think so? Then why exactly are these artists considered by the Museum of Modern Art to have surpassed and revolutionized art in the 20th century?
As MoMA and American art critics have tirelessly explained. The arrival of American Abstract painting negates the tedious experiments with spatial illusion of Renaissance artists like Uccello and della Francesco and accounts for why their paintings are so boring to eyes enlightened by Modern Art. How can painting of the past possibly stand up to the excitement of vertical lines next to one another each one in front or behind one another? This is the kind of art that one can look at endlessly and always see something new. Anyone even thinking of going back to the dead tired painting of the past is a reactionary and, even worse, a bad artist. Cover yourself in vaseline and stage makeup and slide down a bannister. Sure, that’s ok. That’s moving art forward. But art cannot go backwards after Barnet Newman and Jackson Pollock with the help of Clement Greenberg have brought painting to the heights of Mount Olympus, exposing the threadbare nature of “illusionistic painting” like that which existed prior to 1945.
Cory: Newman referred to these things, if you will, as zips.
So elegantly put. So we have marks next to each other with one being visually in front of the other and both are not so much lines as they are zips. Exciting and pretty damn complicated to boot. The more one thinks about and contemplates these paintings the more complicated they are. This isn’t the kind of stuff for your basic fourth-grader. If you’re going to try to teach this to one of your students, make sure that they’ve at least passed advanced calculus.
Cory: And these zips are vertical lines which connect the upper and lower edge of the painting.
!!!!! This was the critical moment in Western painting! The upper and lower edge of the painting had been connected by a zip. The cul-de-sac of painting since Giotto had finally been shattered! Now painting could finally free itself from the albatross of spatial illusion tied to a visible world and get on with the adventure of Pure Cosmic Mind. Very few people outside of those following self-help gurus, people practicing Transcendental Meditation, and adepts in Eastern Religion and Philosophy have actually experienced the depth of Newman’s paintings. Without advancement to the plane of cosmic consciousness, the paintings just look like rectangles with vertical lines of varying widths painted on top or under the ground. So, while understanding the technical mastery involved one can really only appreciate Newman’s achievement if one has reached the level of Spiritual Awareness of artists like Barnet Newman and critics like Clement Greenberg. It’s a rare purity of spirit that resided in these men, not to mention exquisite taste and social breeding.
Cory: By looking at one of the zips we can actually see that the color of the zip had actually been painted first, under the color of the ground, etc..
For those interested in this kind of technical mastery, it’s imperative to realize the relationship between the zip and the ground. The crucial decision is whether the zip will go down first and then the ground on top. Or whether the ground goes on first and the zip goes on top. Or the zip goes on first and the ground goes on top and then another zip goes on top of the ground. Confusing, right? Damn complicated. And on top of that one has to pick colors and decide on the size of the canvas and width of the masking tape. Painting the Sistine Chapel was child’s play compared to the kind of decisions Barnett Newman faced every time he confronted a blank canvas.
The video demo was a mindblower, wasn’t it? The Secret Knowledge revealed! Personally, I found it even more exciting than demonstrations on youtube on how to prepare a canvas by applying GAC100 followed by spreading the ground with a spatula. It had color! The excitement was intense. Of course, Cory is an adept of Newman’s technique and no doubt has learned well from the master. So if the masking tape and ground color applied over it doesn’t work for you at first, as it does in the video for Cory, it’s to be expected. Painting like this isn’t something one can accomplish in a few short video lessons.
Note: If you are going to try to make an abstract painting, be sure to put on the Erik Satie music just as you hear it in the video as this will provide the right atmosphere. And be sure to pick up a Latin dictionary so you can choose a title like Vir Heroicus Sublimis beforehand which will give your works the proper gravitas and you won’t just be dicking around. The title Newman chose is perfect. Man, heroic and sublime. Yes. Man as a vertical form in relationship to another vertical form surrounded by a handsomely-colored background or foreground depending on whether the ground was applied before or after the zip.
*In his comprehensive review of van Gogh’s shortcomings as a painter in the Feb. 1950 Partisan Review Greenberg writes:
“Though van Gogh’s originality is constituted by the distortions and displacements provoked by emotion more than normal in its intensity, his best work was done before his first attack of insanity…. His style may have become more strongly affirmed thereafter, his drawing more nervous, his color more direct, violent and original, but his art lost its strength and unity; it became more striking and strident, but also more monotonous in its stridency. The pure flow and its sure, subtle coordination fail. He had become too sick to control and modulate the expression of his feeling…”
The combination of great critical eye and mind that was the man Clement Greenberg detected early on the ridiculousness of van Gogh’s late paintings. This was something that lesser critics, in their complete ignorance failed to notice. While they ladled praise on van Gogh’s obstreperous and mentally confused daubings, Greenberg applied his unerring taste in seeing through their outright failure as works of art As he noticed, the strident colors are so incredibly monotonous. Fortunately, painters like Newman, helpfully instructed by Greenberg’s acute perceptions, used colors that were not at all strident and far monotonous. Can one imagine anyone thinking 17 feet of running canvas covered in red paint broken with five vertical stripes was monotous or strident? This is unified painting. Elegant and zippy, just like the man who painted it. Newman avoids, with expert dexterity (and masking tape), the monotonous flurry of deranged and overly emotional painting lacking all unity and leaving a weak mess that unfortunately sums up the entire late production of Mr. Vincent van Gogh, mental case with incredibly poor fashion sense and buffoonish manner. Thank God for America and the world that painters like Barnett Newman set this kind of painter packing.
Small wonder that van Gogh’s efforts were so feeble, as we know that the man had really let himself go go as far as getting three square meals, and so he naturally lacked the vigor of a well-fed specimen like Newman with the boundless energy necessary to put a couple coats of paint on the 7′ x 17′ foot surface of Vir Heroicus Sublimis. While Newman might have been a liability had he worked on a crew of housepainters, left with a chance for breathers, snacks, coffee breaks and phone calls he accomplished the kind of wonders that painters like van Gogh could only dream of accomplishing. Virile! Heroic! Sublime! All the things that make American Painting what it is today. Not to mention it’s innumerable imitators around the globe.