By DONALD KUSPIT, August 2021
The art historian Robert Rosenblum’s notion of the “abstract sublime” was conceived to justify Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1951, along with the untitled abstractions Marc Rothko and Clyfford Still painted early in the 1950s. The works of all three have been grouped together as “post-painterly abstractions”—large, not to say grandiose paintings that eschewed the excited, manic, aggressive gestures of “painterly abstractions,” best exemplified by Jackson Pollock’s so-called all-over paintings and Willem de Kooning’s paintings of women. The abstractions of Newman, Rothko, and Still—especially Newman’s--have been said to be proto-minimalist by reason of their resolute flatness, ascetic appearance, and hermetic insularity. The paintings of the three artists imposed themselves on the viewer by way of their larger-than-figure size—they all but dwarfed the spectator, turning him into a hopefully awed worshipper of the work--and in-your-face colors, usually very few, indeed, in Vir Heroicus Sublimis a few thin lines of barely noticeable color in the broad field of a red, vertically dividing it into a few flat sections. If this is a “Heroic Sublime Man,” he has been castrated; he certainly has no muscles. Indeed, he is disembodied, a sort of scarecrow, a limbless stick figure stuck in the void of a red desert, fantasized to be an aesthetic utopia, “utopia” being “nowhere,” to recall the meaning of the word. Newman’s more or less pure painting—which is what it is without its pretentious, not to say delusionary title (stripped of that it is simply another color field painting)--may be utopian, a utopia being a non-existent place, as Thomas More’s utopia was, in which all was perfect as it never is in reality, and Newman’s work may be the perfect painting, that is, delusionally ideal, but it has nothing to do with the sublime, for the sublime is always mediated by nature, and there is no nature in Newman’s painting.
Jose Ortega y Gasset has famously written about the dehumanization of art. In the post-painterly abstract paintings of Newman and company we witness the denaturalization of art. Painterly abstraction remained in touch with nature, for to paint out of the unconscious as Pollock did is to be in touch with the depths of human nature, and to paint the female figure as de Kooning did is to paint Mother Nature. Newman is painting a red wall to finesse the white wall of the museum. Vir Heroicus Sublimis is one plane of Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair, 1918-1923 writ large, that is, another planar construction, and a structurally and conceptually simpler one than Rietveld’s, and as such is the decadent dead-end of geometrical abstraction. Newman’s work is a sort of conceptual painting, all the more so because he has a simple-minded concept of the sublime, as his denaturalization of it indicates. Does his large painting have more to do with the delusion of grandeur implicit in New York’s skyscrapers than nature’s grandeur--Newman was born, raised, and lived in New York, and painted in a large loft in Manhattan (his work is a good example of what might be called loft painting, that is, it echoes the emptiness of a big loft)—than with a lived experience of nature in all its ingenious complexity, certainly more complex than his simplistic painting? His is an art made for other artists, the artist being superior to other human beings, capable of deeper experience and insight, as his “theories” of his art make clear.
According to Rosenblum, “In its all-embracing width (114 ½ inches), Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis puts us in a void as terrifying, if exhilarating, as the arctic emptiness of the tundra; and in its passionate reduction of pictorial means to a single hue (warm red) and a single kind of structural division for some one hundred and forty-four square feet, it likewise achieves a simplicity as heroic and sublime as the protagonist of its title.” This nonsense contrasts rather sharply with Kant understanding of sublime experience, his view that the sense of the sublime was contingent upon—inseparable from—a lived experience of actual nature. It was the sort of experience the great masters of 19th century landscape painting, Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, aroused through and conveyed in their works. Writing about “examples of mathematical sublimity in nature,” “a tree which itself is measured by the height of a man” and “the immeasurable host of milky way systems,” he argues that it is “afforded by all instances where we are given not so much a larger numerical conception as a large unit to be a standard of measurement for the imagination.” In contrast, “when we estimate nature as being dynamically sublime, our idea of it must be fearful.” “Bold, overhanding rocks which seem to threaten us, storm-clouds piled up in heaven…a high waterfall in a mighty river,” among other natural phenomena, “reduce our power of resistance to impotence as compared to their might.” But “nature is not aesthetically estimated to be sublime so far as it excites fear, but because it calls up in us the power, which is beyond nature, to regard all that we care for—wealth, health, life itself—as small.” We may be small standing next to Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, but unlike the landscape paintings of Friedrich and Church and Cole, Newman’s unnatural abstract painting does not “elevate the imagination to picture situations in which the mind can realize the proper sublimity of its own destiny as surpassing nature itself.” Newman’s abstract painting does not surpass nature, but betrays it, and betrays the mind with its simple-mindedness.
Rosenblum’s “abstract sublime” is a big lie. It gives Newman’s painting more meaning than it has and deserves—more meaning than its clever title tries to give it. It shows the power of a title to give meaning where there is none. Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis is empty, static, sterile—emotionally shallow and empathically unappealing—pathetically inexpressive and aesthetically trivial--compared to the representational paintings of Friedrich, Church, and Cole. (And also compared to the “naturalistic” abstractions of Pollock and de Kooning.) The artistic attempt to convey the sublimity of nature—art’s romance with nature, its engagement with it, its respect for it as an awesome end in itself, a sacred space in a profane world (as Wordsworth thought)—is abandoned in Newman’s work. It is a modernist painting for modern times—an unwitting acknowledgement of the “death of nature,” irreparably ruined by its exploitation, the ongoing climate crisis its death rattle, just as Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis signals the death of art, implicit in its indifference to nature. Newman’s 20th century painting may be technically exacting, as Rosenblum writes, confirming that it is a product of the technological society that has ransacked nature, but his abstraction lacks the imagination of the 19th century paintings of the sublime, which is why it has to rely on theory to justify itself, for without theory it has no raison d’etre, artistic or otherwise. Rosenblum’s notion of the “abstract sublime” may be used to justify—rationalize-- Newman’s painting, but it is simply a large color-field abstraction, “innovative” in its rejection of painterly gesture, and as such an emotional vacuum, its emptiness covered over by its pretentious, delusional title, not to say Newman’s delusion of theoretical grandeur, for he seems to think he is a heroically sublime man, as the much noted phallic character of his erect and simplistic gestures suggests. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author