‘It is a place, Makom, where each man may be called up’: Being and time in Barnett Newman’s art

vir heroicus

Vir Heroicus Sublimis (painted in 1950-51)

‘Even if you don’t know Newman’s place in art history, walking into a space full of his paintings can inspire contemplation. They give you nothing and everything to look at, these huge canvases whose only subject is themselves, enveloping you in the moment, confronting you with seemingly pure fields of color and contrast.’ (Molly Glentzer, “A different stripe,” Houston Chronicle)

By Richard Mather

In an 1965 interview with art critic David Sylvester, Jewish-American artist Barnett Newman stated that his overwhelming Vir Heroicus Sublimis (painted in 1950-51) “should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself.” The notion of place rather than space plays an important role in Newman’s work. Space is relatively unimportant to him because it is common property, without identity. Place, by contrast, takes into account both time and consciousness. It is place that generates in the viewer a “feeling” of his or her own “totality,” of their own “separateness” and “individuality” as they stand before his painting:

“[T]he painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there … To me that sense of place has not only a sense of mystery but also has a sense of metaphysical fact. I have come to distrust the episodic, and I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”

That Newman was given to metaphysical pronouncements will not be surprising to those who are familiar with his writings on art. Newman had a philosophical background and was later exposed to some of the existential ideas of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, Heidegger and Sartre’s preoccupation with being (being-in-the-world, being-for-itself etc) can be seen in some of the titles of Newman’s work: Right Here; Here; and Not There-Here, among others.

Many critics have noted the significance of place and its Hebrew correlate, makom, which means “place” but is also a name of God (ha-makom) in Judaism. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:5) explains that God is the place of the world, and yet the world is not his place. This idea resonated with Newman, according to Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery. “He hoped such a place would be created between his art and the viewer,” Cooper remarked. (Quote taken from “His Cross To Bear” in the Jewish magazine Forward.)

Indeed, Newman used the term makom in 1963 when describing his design for a synagogue:

“It is a place, Makom, where each man may be called up to stand before the Torah to read his portion … My purpose is to create a place, not an environment … Here in this synagogue, each man sits, private and secluded in the dugouts, waiting to be called, not to ascend a stage, but to go up to the mound [bimah]where, under the tension of that “Tzim-tzum” that created light and the world, he can experience a total sense of his own personality before the Torah and His Name.”

The space between the viewer and the artwork (or in this case the bimah) is no longer just space, but sanctified place where the physical and metaphysical meet. This meeting is what might be termed presence, a term that captures the sense of physical location (here), time (the present) and awareness of self (here I am). It seems that with the design of the synagogue, Newman intended the worshipper to have a real sensation of “being there,” that is, the consciousness of being present before the Torah. This awareness of being-there, this awareness of presence, is what Newman elsewhere calls “sublime.”

Time and the il y a

It happens that the materiality or sheer presence of Newman’s paintings exposes us to what Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the il y a: literally, “there is,” “the horror of being,” existence without being. Levinas describes the il y a as impersonal, anonymous, as something that deprives consciousness of its subjectivity. The experience of the il y a is an experience of existence in which nothing happens.

But it would be a mistake to think Newman’s chromatic abstractions represent the il y a and nothing else. On the contrary, Newman’s mature paintings boast a particular and distinguishing feature: the Newmanesque zip.

The zip is a vertical band of color, often made with the aid of masking tape and palette knife. Newman introduced the technique in the late 1940s and it remained a constant feature of his work throughout the remainder of his life. Paintings in which the zip went down the middle of the canvas (as in Onement 1) developed into paintings where the zip was off-center, and others in which there were several vertical zips. In some paintings, the zip is up to eleven feet tall. (There are a few instances of horizontal zips, but the vast majority of his paintings feature the vertical bands.)

Newman’s zips act as a kind of intervention or temporal event that differentiates the canvas, preventing Being from falling into the anonymous and impersonal il y a. The zip is what might be described as ecstatic temporality (ecstatic from the Ancient Greek ek “out” + histanai “to place, cause to stand out”). Time not only gives sense or meaning to Being, it marks the emergence of sensation, the physical materiality of something or someone. Humans, in particular, but also some animals, are not just in time, they are conscious of time and take account of time. As Claude Cernuschi points out (in Barnett Newman and Heideggerian Philosophy), “Humans exist in the present, with the past, and in anticipation of the future.”

Time is a physical experience: To those of brought up under the influence of Greek philosophy (which is most of us), the past is behind us; the future ahead of us, while the present is where you are located at this exact moment (hence the words presence and present). The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, thought of the past as something in front of them, as something that can be seen, while the unknown future is hidden from our view, as something behind us, hidden from our eyes.

Time was a dynamic process for the ancient Hebrews. Whereas the Greeks tended to think in terms of space and stasis, the Hebrews conceived of time as activity, the unfolding of events. In fact, this dynamic sense of time is embedded in the four-letter Hebrew name of God: yhwh, which is a derivation of yhyh (future), hyh (past) and hwh (present)

I mentioned earlier Newman’s association of makom with the synagogue. Interestingly, inscribed over the Ark in the sanctuary of many synagogues throughout the world are the Hebrew words דע לפני מי אתה עומד — da lifnei mi attah omed — “know before whom you stand” — which is based on a phrase found in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b. This, in turn, recalls God’s words to Moses at the site of the burning bush: “…the place [ha-makom] upon which you stand is holy soil.” And it is here that God reveals the temporal nature of his name: yhwh.

And so we have a close proximity of place (makom), time (yhwh) and event (burning bush). It is also here that Moses emerges as a particular someone, a someone who stands in unique relation to the Divine:

“The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am! [hineni]’.”

Hineni: Here I am. With the word hineni, Moses emerges from anonymity into the self-consciousness of being-there in the presence of God. It is here, at this time, in the presence of God, that generates in Moses what Newman might have described as the feeling of “totality,” of his own “separateness” and “individuality.” In fact, this brings us full circle to the beginning of this essay where I cited Newman’s assertion that his painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis “should give man a sense of place [makom]: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself.”

To experience space fully, we must have a sense of time. Newman once remarked that the sensation of presence “is the sensation of time.” “Each person must feel it for himself,” he remarked. “The concern with space bores me. I insist on my experiences of sensations in time — not the sense of time but the physical sensation of time.”

It is the awareness of time (yhwh) that turns space into place, into makom or holy ground. This, I think, is what Newman successfully captures in his huge canvases (but also in his design for a synagogue and his sculptures). And it is why Newman deserves to be seen not just as a New York modernist but as a distinctly Jewish painter who manages to represent the sheer presence of being and time without resorting to pictorial representation (“do not make graven images”). Newman’s chromatic abstractions are, in my view, the finest examples of a bold Jewish art that aims for the heights of the Hebraic sublime.


Broken Obelisk (designed between 1963 and 1967) in front of Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas 


Adam by Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman and the art of not making graven images

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.


Barnett Newman

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.”


‘Adam’ (1951-2) by Barnett Newman

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’.”

Eve 1950 by Barnett Newman 1905-1970

‘Eve’ (1950) by Barnett Newman

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-mather2Richard 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.