During the last while there have been a few letters relating art to various belief systems in which little or no evidence exists to prove or disprove their magic. To try to make our readers’ positions clear, a work of art may be deemed worthy by critics, dealers, collectors, and even the general public, and yet show little or no evidence of meaning. In apparently talentless work, one needs a leap of faith to think there is something there. More than anything, some art cannot work without a liturgy.
Yesterday, I was in Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario. A dozen or so kids were on the floor below the large Barnett Newman Voice of Fire. “I want you to look at this painting and tell me what you think,” said their teacher, allowing significant time for contemplation. A timid hand went up. “It’s not very good,” said a boy. “It’s just three stripes going up,” said another.
The enthusiastic teacher allowed his students might be willing to change their minds. He launched into a well-informed history and deconstruction of the painting that had me, the eavesdropper, in thrall. I took notes. By the time he got around to saying how much Canadian taxpayers had paid for the painting, and the foofaraw it caused, the kids and I were well into a second look.
We were told, among other things, that Newman was a spiritual man who was angry about the US entry into the Vietnam War. To protest, Newman wanted to reinvent the power and majesty of pure form. We were told that the painting’s extreme simplicity helped us in our sense of awe, and that Newman intended that we should see it up close and be impressed by its towering strength. The kids and I looked up and let it tower over us.
“Some art is more than you think,” said our teacher. “It may appear simple but it may also have a depth which only time and appreciation can bring. Real lovers of art seek out the spiritual qualities beneath the surface, the unseen magic. If he does it right, an artist can convey another kind of truth.” I was hooked. As the kids moved on to the next room, I remained behind — for the time being at least — a believer.
PS: “We have lost contact with man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relation to absolute emotions.” (Barnett Newman, 1905-1970)
Esoterica: The teacher read from Newman: “My goal is to give the viewer a feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time, of his connection to others, who are also separate.” The title, Voice of Fire, he explained, was taken from the Biblical announcement of God’s presence to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Mystery modified by liturgy. On the way out one kid got in the last word: “He was a few peas short of a casserole.”
by Bette Laughy, Surrey, BC, Canada
Okay, I’m trying but sorry, I’m with the peas & the casserole. Perhaps it is a serious critique. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s the best he could do to make a serious critique. I just finished re-reading Smokey Joe’s Cafe by Bryce Courtenay — an author who knows what a serious critique is all about, and who regularly does that in an enthralling way. It’s a short book, but much more compelling with respect to the Vietnam War. Sorry, Barnett, but from this I get the feeling that your critique is pretty feeble, both as art and as critique. I believe it’s part of a movement which has misled the public to think minimalism equals profundity, when sometimes it just equals minimalism. If I had seen some other examples of Barnett’s art, I might feel differently — or not.
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The spiritual qualities
by Kay Christopher, TX, USA
It is a great reminder to withhold judgment as we generally do not know what the artist was thinking. We may know at first glance whether we like the piece or not, but then again, if we decide we don’t like it but “seek out the spiritual qualities beneath the surface” heaven only knows what gems we might find there. I am deeply moved by Newman’s intent with Voice of Fire. While art may be used for many things, its ability to uplift us into higher dimensions of feeling and identity is one of its greatest gifts.
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‘Jack the Dripper’
by Stan Munn, Calgary, AB, Canada
As a Canadian having spent a lot of time in Australia, and looking for similarities in our Anglo-Saxon cultures, I thought there was an interesting parallel between Newman’s Voice of Fire and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Blue Poles was purchased for the Australian National collection in 1973 and raised a firestorm of controversy in Oz at the time because of its record price for a 20th century artist, an American artist (rather than Australian) at that. I made a point of visiting the National gallery in Canberra to see Blue Poles. When I finally stood before the painting I was dumbstruck by its presence. The work is enormous, but more than that, it has a depth that one could lose oneself in. It forever changed my view on the power of abstract art, and it is the single most memorable painting I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget the feeling I had, standing before it and consciously resisting the pull of its tangled, multivariate three-dimensionality. For me, if any painting represents the 20th century, it would be Blue Poles. Australian critics dubbed Pollock ‘Jack the Dripper,’ but they don’t get it.
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by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA
For many years I have taught at Maryland Institute College of Art and seen a wonderful cavalcade of excellent and sometimes not-so-successful art pass before me. There’s a growing expectation that the artist should be expected or encouraged to verbally tell people about her or his work before the work is judged. It’s a good and a bad thing. For those of us painters who aren’t planning on living much beyond 100, it’s still a good idea to aim to make art that can stand on its own without anybody’s words.
Security guard surprise
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
During my initial visit to the NGC with an artist friend, Jean, the two of us were standing so close to one painting that a security guard suggested we move back. He then accompanied us into the room where the powerful piece, Voice of Fire was hanging. He explained that because of the money collected by this painting, the entrance fee to the NGC had been eliminated. Also, the stripes were painted in complimentary colours creating a remarkable simultaneous contrast. Standing back, at the correct viewing distance, and staring at the piece, I observed the wonderful way that the dark orange was reverberating against the blue, dancing across, as if it were a flame. I was grateful for the experience and thanked the guard who had enlightened us.
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Just colour theory?
by Tracey MacDougall, North Gower, ON, Canada
I cannot remember exactly what these colours were now as this was a couple of years ago. When I went to the National Gallery, it was on a school trip with my son’s grade 1 class. So I will admit that perhaps what you have described would have been a concept too complex for 6 and 7 year olds to comprehend. At the time, they were learning about colour theory. I remember still feeling that what they paid for the painting was a crazy sum of money if all it was colour theory being used to trick the viewer’s eye. Now that Robert has given a much deeper explanation behind the painting, I am a little more understanding.
Sticks and stones
by Michael Bird, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Years ago, when I attended the San Francisco Art Institute, one of my classes was critiquing each other’s work. One of the students had put four sticks on the wall. In explanation of his work he went on extensively about how these four sticks came from the back of his favorite chair that he had during childhood. As he continued on about their psychological meaning, I just couldn’t help but think to myself, “How am I supposed to know all this had I walked into a gallery and saw these four sticks on the wall and why should I care?”
When he finished, the Instructor questioned everyone in the classroom about what they thought. When it came to my turn, all I could say is that all I could see was four sticks on the wall. After having said that, everyone in the classroom looked at me as if I were an idiot.
A cultural museum
by Ken Campbell, Victoria, BC, Canada
Several years ago I was in the National Gallery and stole away from the Group of Seven Salon to see the Voice of Fire for myself. My wife, like so many others, stood looking with incredulity. I agreed with her to some extent, but found myself defending the piece and the Gallery for purchasing it.
However, on this day as I stood looking up at the actual work, my defense went something like this: It is the mandate of the National Gallery to collect, preserve and exhibit the best examples of period art relevant to Canadians. In effect, it is a cultural museum. As such, I want it to find the best examples for their collection and let me, my children and grandchildren see it and learn from what we see. To believe they are important parts of our cultural heritage. Even if outside of my taste, they play an important part in understanding my world. I believe this is balanced to some extent by the classical miniatures, matrimonial tapestries and penis sheaths in other areas of the gallery.
by Vic Dohar, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I’ve seen the painting a few times now. Living in Ottawa, I remember the controversy over how much was paid for this work of art. To the point where someone in the outskirts of the city erected a replica painted on plywood for about $50. I’ve never heard of that specific history of the painting you mentioned. I am sure a lot of paintings have stories to tell but I have to ask, did you see the fire? Did the painting speak to you? I’ve stood in front of it, staring at it, and eventually that red strip down the middle came alive and shimmering against the cool blue background. I always thought the play and impact on our optical senses was the meaning behind the painting. I guess we all get different things out of it. I am sure the gallery would get a nice profit, if they were to sell it. I can’t say the same for that sheet of plywood.
Love the tools
by oliver, TX, USA
I’m not sure who the writer anymore was, but someone said something like, “You have to love the craft, nouns, verbs, sentences, paragraphs in order to write.” I think that is true in any art form, you have to love the tools. Overlaying, a message on top of the craft can be effective and useful sometimes, but often, this can lead to just poor work when the message dominates to the extent that the craft is lost.
In great work however you can sometimes see both. How much religious painting etc. from the middle ages through the Renaissance, can be viewed as topically and sometimes just thinly so as religious, but really explorations into the development of the craft, for example, perspective and shading. I’ve seen arguments that plein-aire painting was facilitated by the simple device of paint in tubes — you can take paint and brushes outside with you and the subsequent explorations lead to Impressionism. One can argue that various forms of abstraction in painting were a response to the realism of the camera. All that said part of art is to stimulate discussion, and indeed Newman according to Robert’s letter did stimulate discussion at the time and discussions continue even to this day as evidenced by the student and teacher dialog you reported.
More than you think
by Brenda Jacobsen, CT, USA
“Some art is more than you think,” said our teacher. “It may appear simple but it may also have a depth which only time and appreciation can bring. Real lovers of art seek out the spiritual qualities beneath the surface, the unseen magic. If he does it right, an artist can convey another kind of truth.”
Now I have been introduced to the work of Barnett Newman. The above quote from the kid’s teacher strikes a chord with me as it is my intention that my art has an underlining spirit and magic. My present art teacher told me that abstract art is dead. Well, I disagree with him on that account but he does say that art has to “say something — express a concept, make meaning.” And I couldn’t agree more, though it is easier said than done at times. Artworks sometimes convey messages that slap you across the face and other times, their meaning is hidden, needs to be pondered or grappled with.
A lesson in your letter is to not judge art too quickly at times — find the back story, get to know the painter, his intentions, social context, and personality. These lessons are universal as well, come to think about it, and can be life lessons — when interacting with others near and far! I am challenged once again to taste my own medicine! Just this morning a friend sent me this amazing link to the Sistine Chapel. Listen and view the artwork. I am speechless. Here is another example of mystery and art that is “more than you think.”
oil painting 14 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Rick McClung of Atlanta, GA, USA, who wrote, “Voice of Fire, the king’s new clothes, a more appropriate title would be Voice of Crap.”
And also Tim Tyler who wrote, “Nah………..”
And also Nikki Coulombe of Lewisville, TX, USA, who wrote, “Most viewers will never know the depths of what we experience as we work or of what results. Do we even know what we’re doing? ”
Enjoy the past comments below for The Voice of Fire…