Barnett Newman and the art of not making graven images
By Richard Mather
Barnett Newman was born in 1905 to Abraham and Anna Newman, Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to New York City in 1900. Although not religious, Barnett’s father was a passionate Zionist and a supporter of the National Hebrew School of the Bronx. As well as attending Hebrew school, Barnett and his brothers and sisters were educated at home by Jewish scholars from Europe. He went on to study philosophy at the City College of New York and later made a living as an art teacher, writer and critic.
In the 1930s he made a number of paintings but eventually destroyed all these works. Newman started painting again in 1944 and he made a number of chalk drawings but it wasn’t until 1948 that he produced his artistic breakthrough: Onement 1 was a major achievement and it was this artwork that earned him the reputation as a pioneer of color field paintings.
It was around this time that Newman became preoccupied with Judaic creation stories. Art critic and friend Thomas B. Hess has described how Newman immersed himself in the Torah and Kabbalistic writings in the mid-1940s. Newman began to evolve a distinctive pictorial image: a vertical band, zip, or what Newman called a “streak of light” running from the very top to the very bottom of the canvas. The vertical strips of light (usually created by the ripping away of masking tape from the canvas) are thought to relate to the Kabbalistic notion of a ray of infinite light (kav) used to create the world. The form of the divine produced by this first ray of light is known as Adam Kadmon, literally, “Primordial Adam.” Perhaps this is why some critics regard the zip to be a representation of man, indeed, of the first man, Adam, who walks upright.
Thomas B. Hess regards the vertical bands of colour as “an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void.” Newman himself claimed that the artist begins with the void. As Newman remarks in his essay “The Plasmic Image,” “It can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist for the Creator in creating the world began with the same material, for the artist tries to wrest truth from the void.”
In 1951 Newman created Adam, an abstract expressionist colour field painting, complete with multiple zips or “streaks of light.” Adam is dominated by two colours: red and brown, blood and earth. The name Adam derives from the Hebrew word adamah (ground), but also adom, (red) and dam (blood). As it says in the Torah, “the Lord God formed man [ha-adam] of dust from the ground [adamah].” Newman makes no attempt to depict Adam in any natural or literal sense. As with many of his paintings, there is a conspicuous lack of literal representation. Art critic Arthur Danto suggests that Newman was moved by the Judaic injunction against the making of graven images. The Shulkhan Arukh (a codification of Jewish law) states that “it is forbidden to make complete solid or raised images of people or angels, or any images of heavenly bodies except for purposes of study.” The Shulkhan Arukh takes the literal meaning of פסל pesel as “graven image” (from the root פסל P-S-L, “to engrave”). The prohibition is seen as applying especially to some forms of sculpture and depictions of the human face.
Newman’s Adam is a “body-without-organs” (to borrow a curious phrase from philosopher Gilles Deleuze). It is pure surface, a plane of immanence, or what Newman calls the “the picture plane.” Newman’s streaks of light or zips do not destroy or collapse the painting; they unite it into a totality, into a plane of consistency. And yet there is just enough movement, just enough God-given possibility, to ensure that Adam isn’t congealed into a lumpen artwork devoid of energy.
Adam has a companion piece, Eve, painted at the same time. In a letter to the Tate Gallery (dated April 6, 1983), Newman’s widow Analee writes: “I think he thought of them as a pair because he worked on the first painting and then on the second continuously until they were finished and then named them ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’.”
Like Adam, Eve is a color field painting, with one of Newman’s vertical bands or zips at the right side. Adam is slightly larger than Eve. It is different in colour. Whereas Adam is predominantly brown with red zips, Eve has a vast expanse of red, interrupted by a single, narrow band of purplish-brown running the length of the canvas’ right edge. The two paintings were the last Newman completed before his second one-man exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in April–May 1951. At that time, Adam featured two stripes, but Newman added a third one down the left centre a year later, which is why it’s now inscribed with the double date of 1951-1952.
Both Adam and Eve are in the possession of the UK-based Tate art institution, but neither artworks are currently on display.
Richard Mather is a writer and journalist. He writes for Israel News Online and Arutz Sheva, and occasionally blogs for JPost. He has also written for the Jewish Media Agency, Poetica Magazine, Drash Pit, Voices Israel, The Best of the Manchester Poets, The Holiday Times Magazine (Chabad Lubavitch) and Triggerfish Critical Review.