The monumental canvas invites you to stare until your soul merges with its utter blueness. Barnett Newman painted Ulysses in 1952, after the failure of his first two solo shows. But instead of making his art more accessible his paintings had been criticized as "nearly blank" he traveled farther into abstraction. Ulysses and its companions, the inkier Day Before One (1951) and the sable Prometheus Bound (1952), strike the viewer with the primeval and inexplicable force of Stonehenge monoliths. These works need to be seen to be believed. "There is no substitute for the personal experience of these paintings," says Ann Temkin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Barnett Newman," curated by Temkin, offers the chance to encounter the full power of this artist. A joint project of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and London's Tate Modern, the show is Newman's first major retrospective since 1972 and runs at the Tate until Jan. 5, 2003.
Newman lived the cliché of the struggling artist: born in New York in 1905, the son of Jewish-Polish immigrants, he put aside his artistic ambitions to labor in his father's clothing business. He sold up in 1937 and worked as an art teacher and writer until 1947, when he turned to painting full time. His work went unrecognized until his last decade. After shows in prestigious venues led to acceptance by a younger generation of artists, he died in 1970.
The earliest works here date from the 1940s. Writhing with organic shapes and bearing titles like The Slaying of Osiris and Pagan Void, they depict nothing recognizable, though there is a floor or horizon for the viewer to hang on to. But in the exhibition's next room, full of canvases from the period when he found his own vision, the ground has fallen away and the viewer is suspended, gazing at pure painted surfaces and beyond them into unreadable depths. The only features are the verticals that became his theme. In The Word I (1946), brown paint is scraped over pale blue, segmented by a vertical ray.
Onement III (1949) is a version of the painting he saw as a personal breakthrough. About the height of a man, the canvas has one scarlet stripe on an opaque burgundy background. The surface is hardly modulated, so that details such as the rough canvas grain and the stripe's distressed paint become the story.
The exhibition recreates Newman's first solo show, in 1950, in the Betty Parsons Gallery. He had helped Parsons put on shows of Native American and contemporary art, but his own work baffled the public, critics and his friends, who had not followed its evolution. "He had been working in secret and none of his friends knew about the paintings," says Temkin. "They knew him as a writer. What kind of nerve did he have to pick up a paintbrush?"
Between 1951 and 1958 there were no more solo shows, and Newman was included in just one group exhibit. Things only began to look up in 1958 when his third solo show took place. Temkin finds the paintings he made after the early shows, when he withdrew to work in privacy, among the most beautiful. "You try to penetrate the canvas or have it penetrate you," she says. In 1955, Newman was 50 and his finances were shaky. He made one vast painting, Uriel, also in the Tate exhibition, whose verticals are balanced by an expanse of bird's egg blue, and then produced nothing for two years.
After suffering a heart attack in 1957, he began to work again, starting a series that continued until 1966 and was eventually entitled The Stations of the Cross. The paintings are in black or white on plain canvas, whose natural cream surface is disturbed by flecks of dirt in the weave, stains, splashes or seepage from the oil paint. "Subtlety was so important," says Temkin. "Little drips, 'tears' of paint, scratches," and areas where the color has bled under the masking tape. Against a void, these details carry an emotional charge it's not hard to find meaning in tears, scratches and bleeding. When these works were shown at the Guggenheim in 1966, some questioned the theme's suitability for a modern Jewish artist. Newman pointed to the subtitle, Lema Sabacthani, the psalmist's cry of "Why hast thou forsaken me?", telling an interviewer: "This is what the paintings mean to me. The cry."
After the Stations, he needed to reinvent himself once more, says Temkin, and he took to the new bright acrylic paints. His surfaces became denser and he moved into a more upbeat phase, coining the word zip for his trademark stripes. As you approach Anna's Light (1968), a 6-m spread of pure scarlet bordered by white painted during this period, your vision blurs as you find nothing to focus on. The painting is so large and featureless that you can't tell if it's very near or far off.
At his 1951 show, Newman tacked up a notice telling the public to stand up close to his big paintings. "There is a presence opposite yourself in some cases 20 times as big as you are," Temkin explains. "Like when you're looking out at the ocean sitting on the beach: there is its hugeness and there is you. Newman was trying to recreate that, not by painting an ocean but by purely abstract means." Like Stonehenge, his works inspire a sense of uncanniness that can't be readily explained away.