June 14: Newman grand but oddly wiggly

Robert and Jane Meyerhoff must have been either very peppy connoisseurs, or very well advised, or both, judging from the show of their collection at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco ( until October 12).*

"Third Station of the   Cross" 1960 [wikiart.org]

“Third Station of the Cross” 1960 [wikiart.org]

The show includes all fourteen of Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross,” painted between 1958 and 1966. Now I have to admit that the title of the series pulls my chain. Talk isn’t what makes a work of art important. But just looking at the paintings, these are large, serious pieces. Some are more compelling than others, but nearly all are substantial. Each is focused on some subtlety or other–in “Third Station” (right), it’s the texture of the two stripes along the right-hand side (see the detail below). The power of the thing is in the minutia: they’re stripes, but no inch is quite like the next inch.** The broad, open spaces of the canvas give the little things a great sense of scope and intensity: the world is huge, and then there are all these intricate, intimate things happening. You follow a stripe or an edge along, and it gets very involving.

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So far, so good. But “Stations of the Cross?” Here we get into the talk part. Newman says that the series refers to Christ’s words, “Why did you forsake me?” — “. . . the question that has no answer.”

Okay, that’s interesting as a beginning point for him, as a part of his train of thought. Artists have these internal monologues. And yet I doubt that many viewers, contemplating this series, would be put in mind of Biblical themes if they weren’t prompted. I have to think that this is simply Newman’s ploy to impart spiritual grandeur to an abstract formal exercise. It projects insecurity. It’s as if he were standing behind me in the room, tapping me on the shoulder to inform me, in case I’m not sensitive enough to figure it out on my own, that this is Big Stuff.

And then there is his signature. You’d think that on canvasses so grandly conceptual, so provocatively minimal, so baldly calculated in their nuances and lacunae, that a name, a bit of cursive, would be an intrusion, an alien presence. Nevertheless, there is a personal, squggly signature written small but earnestly somewhere along the bottom edge of each canvas. In the context they seem oddly  cuddly and domestic. Possessive and insecure. Go figure.

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*Well, mostly well advised–any collection that includes David Salle or Eric Fischl has clearly gone off the tracks at least temporarily. We’ll come back to that next week, along with other, serious delights.

** See similar devices in Rothko: archive, 11/30/12.