Through exploration of gesture, line, shape, and color, many Abstract Expressionist artists hoped to evoke strong emotional reactions. Their grand scale created an overwhelming and, for some, almost religious viewing experience. Mark Rothko famously said that his paintings should be viewed from a distance of 18 inches, perhaps to dominate the viewer’s field of vision and thus create a feeling of contemplation and transcendence.
Abstract Expressionism and the Sublime
Some critics, such as Robert Rosenblum, considered Abstract Expressionism’s interest in the sublime to be a continuation of the ideals of the Romantics. Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement from the late 17th century and early 18th century that placed emphasis on the aesthetic experience and the emotions it evoked. In 1948, Newman wrote an essay titled “The Sublime is Now,” in which he asserts that America is where artists are finally achieving the sublime: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”1
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Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Theories of Modern Art (Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1984), 553.
Awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.
The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.
A large painting applied to a wall or ceiling, especially in a public space.
A state of mind or emotion, a pervading impression.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
Representing a form or figure in art that retains clear ties to the real world.
Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).
The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
An artistic movement made up of American artists in the 1940s and 1950s, also known as the New York School, or more narrowly, action painting. Abstract Expressionism is usually characterized by large abstract painted canvases, although the movement also includes sculpture and other media.
Questions & Activities
The Chapels of Rothko and Nevelson
Mark Rothko created murals for a chapel in Houston, Texas; he considered these murals to be among his most important works. Louise Nevelson created a permanent installation for the Erol Beker Chapel of the Good Shepherd at St. Peter’s Church in New York City.
Research these projects. Start by visiting the Rothko Chapel website and the St. Peter’s Church website.
Compare. How are the two chapels similar? How are they different? Summarize your observations in a one-page essay.
Make an Abstract Drawing
Abstract Expressionist artists used gesture and color to evoke certain moods or feelings. How can you express emotion in an entirely abstract drawing?
Consider how you might use shape, lines, and color to express feelings such as hope, fear, confidence, frustration, and exhilaration. What kind of emotion might a curvy line represent? What feeling does the color yellow evoke? Pick two emotions—a positive one and a negative one—and create abstract drawings to represent them. Remember to avoid drawing any figurative elements, such as faces, hearts, or tears.
Compare the visual elements you used in these drawings. How are they similar? How are they different?
Art and Spirituality
Consider the works of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Watch the videos on the painting techniques of Rothko and Newman.
Reflect. Can the process of making art be a spiritual act? Can viewing art be a spiritual act? Write your response in a one-page essay. In crafting your response, consider your own experiences viewing art.
Although Newman expresses reservations about Kant’s theory it is easy to see how frustration with the material limits of representation might be resolved through a commitment to abstraction. In Eve 1950 and Adam 1951–2 (Tate T03081 and T01091, figs.1 and 2) Newman makes no attempt to depict the first man and woman in any natural or literal sense. Instead of recognisable figures the viewer is presented with vast extents of red, interrupted by darker, vertical stripes. A thin, hard band of purple marks the outer right-hand edge of Eve, while Adam is divided by lighter, softer bands of cadmium to the far left, the left centre and a sharper, thinner stripe to the right. Yet although we have come a long way from the naturalism and idealism of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1510), the titles of Newman’s paintings maintain a connection with the referential. The viewer, in other words, is encouraged to perceive the work before them as emblematic, in some way, of the divine.
It may be, as the art critic Arthur Danto suggests, that Newman was moved by the Old Testament injunction against the making of ‘graven images’ – a passage cited by Kant as ‘perhaps the most sublime ... in Jewish Law’ – and there is certainly a sense in which Newman’s refusal to depict sensible forms can be related to his Jewish background.3 Danto goes on to state that Newman’s painting is about something that can be said but not shown, ‘at least not pictorially’. Abstract painting, he concludes, is thus ‘not without content’.4
The sense of the work as a presentation of that which can be ‘said but not shown’ is enhanced by Newman’s insistence that viewers should place themselves close to the surfaces of his canvases so as to become enveloped or overwhelmed by a sense of boundlessness.
Above all, however, Newman’s painting is about the act of creation itself. And here again the works lend themselves to a religious interpretation. It is tempting, for example, to regard the vertical bands of colour as analogous to ‘an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void’.5 As the artist’s friend and critic Thomas B. Hess notes, Newman himself claimed that the artist, like God, begins with chaos, the void.6 The artist’s first move is to re-enact God’s primal gesture by informing the void with a downward stroke or ‘zip’, created by laying a thin strip of masking tape over a freshly painted ground, which the artist then removes at the end of the painting process in a dramatic, revelatory instant. The zip has also been regarded as a representation of man, indeed, of the first man, Adam, ‘who walks upright ... virile, erect’.7 The name ‘Adam’, moreover, is derived from the Hebrew word adamah (earth), but is also linked with adom (red) and dam (blood).
Yet Newman, while fully aware of the religious cognates of his work, urges contemporary artists to free themselves from ‘the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend [and] myth ... Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life”, we are’, he insists, ‘making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings’.8 The ‘subject matter’ of Newman’s work is thus ‘creation itself’, an act associated no longer with God but with man. Ultimately, the terrifying or overwhelming aspects of Newman’s paintings become subordinated to the idea of sustaining the distinction between form and formlessness. As Newman stated, after visiting the sacred mounds of the Indians in south-west Ohio: ‘Looking at the site you feel, Here I am, here ... and out beyond there (beyond the limits of the site) there is chaos ... but here you get a sense of your own presence ... I became involved with making the viewer present: the idea that “Man is present”.’9
In recent years much has been made of Newman’s stress that ‘man is present’. He has been accused, variously, of a ‘fetishization of virility’ and of a politically regressive ‘exaltation of the individual’.10 Yet, as the cultural theorist Jean-François Lyotard has suggested, Newman’s affirmation of the individual is precariously conceived.11 In Eve, for example, the zip separating form and formlessness is located on the outer margins of the canvas; it barely registers as an act of creation. The fragile division between something and nothing, marked by the sudden disclosure of the zip is, above all, understood by Newman as a temporal event. In his 1949 Prologue for aNew Aesthetic, the artist wrote that he was not interested with a ‘manipulation of space nor with the image, but with a sensation of time’.12 Lyotard adds that the conception of time presented in ‘The Sublime is Now’ has nothing to do with continuity or duration and as such is opposed to the constitution of the human subject. ‘Newman’s now’, writes Lyotard, ‘is a stranger to consciousness and cannot be constituted by it. Rather, it is what dismantles consciousness, what deposes consciousness, it is what consciousness cannot formulate, and even what consciousness forgets in order to constitute itself.’13 By way of Slavoj Zizek’s neo-Lacanian critique of the sublime, we might add that Newman’s now, materialized in the form of the zip, stands in for the impossible, inassimilable kernel of subjectivity. Far from aggrandising man, the creative act in Adam and Eve can thus be said to mark the degree zero, the bare minimum of difference necessary for the emergence of the human subject.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
Oil on canvas
support: 2429 x 2029 mm
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
Oil on canvas
support: 2388 x 1721 x 50 mm
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
In his landmark essay ‘The Sublime is Now’ (1948), the American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman announced that ‘the impulse of modern art’ resides in the ‘desire to destroy beauty’. The problem with beauty, according to Newman, is that it prevents the artist from realising ‘man’s desire for the exalted’, in other words, for the sublime. In religious art, for Newman in particular, a preoccupation with the beautiful – with its emphasis on the figurative, the perfection of form, and the ‘reality of sensation’ – has impeded the perception of ‘the Absolute’.1 Newman’s view accords here with that of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) who argued in his ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ (1790), from The Critique of Judgement, that the sublime, unlike the beautiful, ‘cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason’.2 The sublime, that is, is on the side of the mind rather than nature; and since the extent of the mind is unbounded it cannot be adequately represented by an object with determinate bounds.