The Voice of Fire

Dear Artist, 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.

“Voice of Fire” 1967
acrylic on canvas
540 x 240 cm
(213 × 94 in)
by Barnett Newman (1905–1970)

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.

“Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II”
1967 acrylic on canvas
approx. 305 x 259 cm (120 x 102 inches)
by Barnett Newman

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.

“Adam” 1951-2
oil on canvas, 242.9 x 202.9 cm
by Barnett Newman

Best regards, Robert 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.”   Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman


“Vir Heroicus Sublimis” 1950-51
oil on canvas, 242.2 x 541.7 cm
(7 feet 11 3/8 in x 17 feet 9 1/4 inches)

            Serious critique? by Bette Laughy, Surrey, BC, Canada  

“Warm Leaf Cool Leaf”
acrylic painting, 16 x 24 inches
by Bette Laughy

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. There are 5 comments for Serious critique? by Bette Laughy
From: J. White — May 07, 2010

The best part of this story is the last sentence, describing the kid who got in the last word “He was a few peas short of a casserole”. This had me laughing out loud. It perfectly sums up this type of art, and others like it. While the artist had noble views and opinions, an explanation of the piece of art and what was going on in the mind of the artist doesn’t make it good, or interesting, or even worth studying. An artist may be passionate, religious, or have strong and righteous views about the state of society, or they may read classical literature, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to production of good art. One can understand the art, but it may still be no more than a gimmick, and may not reflect any real talent.

From: Vadim Luban — May 07, 2010

It always takes a child to point out that the king is NAKED! Now, if ony that child lived on in the hearts of all the Very Important Critics…On the other hand, maybe they do see this “art” for what it is but just like the courtiers of that king are economically dependent on the hype they themselves create around modern day Jackson Pollocks. Anderson’s fairytales are just as current today as they were in his days!

From: E.Murray — May 09, 2010

I have heard many so-called professional Critiques of paintings, sculptures, etc. In my mind art speaks for itsself with much clarity and without HELP!!!

From: Leslie Anderson-Dorofi, Ottawa — Jul 04, 2010

Has everyone read the 12 Million Dollar Stuff Shark?

Gives an insight into why currently produced art is popular, whether it is “good art or not”. “Coles notes” answer: — galleries need to sell to continue to exist; — there is very little good art available for sale; — so, they create markets with art that is available for sale, whether it’s good art or not. Interesting research and exposure on the current art world: — “branded” galleries, — “branded” artists, — evening gala auctions, = ‘chandelier’ bids, etc…..
From: Jay — May 27, 2011

How about actually LOOK at paintings before writing the equivalent of “It’s not good” or “One can understand the ideas, but that doesn’t make the ‘art’ valuable.” Newman’s painting process was very complex, with glaze after glaze of paint which – when well lit (which it is not at the National Gallery of Canada) – is luminous. And there is significant history to the object itself (why it was ‘commissioned, where it was exhibited, etc.) which makes it a valuable object in history. Just as Elvis’ costumes, books signed by authors, baseballs signed by Babe Ruth are valuable commodities.

  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. There are 4 comments for The spiritual qualities by Kay Christopher
From: Anonymous — May 07, 2010

You are “deeply moved by his intent”. But had you not read someone’s interpretation of said intent, would the piece have conveyed anything like that to you? Is art “meaningful” if it has to have an interpreter next to it so you can understand/experience “the spiritual qualities beneath the surface”? I would hope that truly meaningful art, however each individual defines/experiences that, stands as it’s own explanation.

From: Sarah — May 07, 2010

What seems to be missing from the discussion of “Voice of Fire” is it’s breathtaking size. At almost 18′ high by almost 8′ wide, it makes a very strong statement. The little image on one’s computer screen just doesn’t capture the impact of standing beneath the updraft of crimson.

From: Victoria on Okinawa — May 16, 2010

I’m with you Anonymous, is it truly art if it has to be explained? The paintings in the caves in France never needed explanation. Words are one form of art and painting is another, sometimes they go together, a picture book or advertisement-let’s say, but for me a painting is not really a painting if it has to be explained by words orally or written. What would be the point of doing the painting then?

From: Norm — Jan 05, 2012

I had the opportunity to see the voice of fire and view it alone for the better part of a half hour. I stood far away, I walked from side to side, I turned around quickly to view it and I stood close to it and looked at it for a long time. Here is what I found.

When I quickly walked by or viewed it from a far it didn’t have any real impact except for it’s size. When I stood at the viewing spot/rail and looked at it for many minutes a strange thing happened for me. Now I have to say that I am an audio engineer and I deal with sound waves and sonograms, you know the squiggly ones you see on TV and such. Anyway, after quite a few minutes of standing in front of the painting the boarders between the red and blue started to move. An optical illusion, kind of like sound waves moving. I stood there as the lines danced and thought aah..The voice of fire. Probably not what the artist intended, but when I walked away I thought the National Gallery had indeed made a great purchase. It moved me, and I look forward to seeing it again sometime.
  ‘Jack the Dripper’ by Stan Munn, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“Blue Poles”
enamel and aluminium painting
by Jackson Pollock

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. There is 1 comment for ‘Jack the Dripper’ by Stan Munn
From: J. Paul — May 07, 2010


I recently had the pleasure of seeing Blue Poles, and felt the same way. I just could not keep my eyes away from it, and was mesmorized for the longest time. The spell was broken when a young teacher came to the painting with her flock of 6-year old first graders, smartly attired in their school uniforms, sat down with them in front of the painting, and began an explanation of it (in terms they could comprehend). It knocked me for a loop!
  Without explanation by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA  

oil painting
by Philip Koch

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  

“Westward View”
original painting
by Lorna Dockstader

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. There are 2 comments for Security guard surprise by Lorna Dockstader
From: Brian Bastedo — May 10, 2010

Lorna, I admire your work, both for subject matter and style, but I’m with the “casserole kid” on this one.

From: Leslie Anderson-Dorofi, Ottawa — Jul 04, 2010

There are a lot of excellent, ‘starving’ artists working at the NGC.

But, I am with you on the ‘peas’.
  Just colour theory? by Tracey MacDougall, North Gower, ON, Canada  

mixed media
by Tracey MacDougall

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  

oil painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Ken Campbell

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.   $50 replica by Vic Dohar, Ottawa, ON, Canada  

“Rocky Inlet”
watercolour painting
by Vic Dohar

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  

by oliver

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  

“Lilly’s Garden”
oil painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Brenda Jacobsen

“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.”     [fbcomments url=””]    woa

Little Chris

oil painting 14 x 20 inches by Kim Carlton, TX, USA

  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? ”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The Voice of Fire

From: Brad Michael Moore — May 03, 2010

I work on a piece of work (art?) until it satisfies me. I believe, if I am true to myself – my art’s truth will be recognized by others – and hopefully – admired, or inspiring to aspire. – BradMM

From: Need for story — May 03, 2010

Having studied both writing and painting and having done both throughout my professional life, I believe it is important for writers to, “Paint the words” and for artists to “Tell the story.” Therein lies the magic and the ability to communicate creatively in either genre. Are they not really one and the same?

From: Alan G — May 04, 2010

Having just read an article on Father Divine – a Depression-era minister who convinced his followers he was God by deep-sounding words, I’m struck by the similarity here. I share the skepticism of the kids. Any art that relies so heavily on self-exegesis is suspect in my book.

From: Patsy — May 04, 2010

Heh heh. I love your sense of humour, Rob. “Out of the mouths of babes”, indeed!

I agree with Alan, and it doesn’t apply only to art.
From: Chris Everest — May 04, 2010

Defending and being defensive…

In the UK our press absolutely adore destroying the concepts of modern art with the voice of the average man in the street. To direct public opinion whether at pickled sharks, layers of bricks or an unmade bed. I find myself defending works that I don’t always believe in. Artists making flippant comments often also serve to detract from their work. Its like the man said I don’t always agree with what is said but I will fight for the right for them to say it. Of course I might be a few peas short of a casserole too.
From: Marilyn Bonnett — May 04, 2010

I was visiting with an art class and admiring The Voice of Fire, when the teacher told us to stare at the middle of the painting and you can actually see flames go up. It is an optical illusion that occurs, because of the particular colors used. Very cool!!

From: Lise King — May 04, 2010

If your work is such that does not convey the story there are always words to fill in the blank. In my opinion the painting was a good background, but missing the words to convey his thoughts into the painting. If he wanted a reaction so that he could share his thoughts… It worked.

Enjoy, Lise King
From: Doug MacBean — May 04, 2010

The majority of artists, on this site, know very well the absence of any artistic merit in “Voice of Fire”. No matter how much verbalizing comes with the “art”, it simply fails. Those with an academic appreciation of painting cringe when stuff like this makes it into our country’s large art galleries. The folks at our national gallery prove, with this kind of purchase, they lack the artistic talent to judge that which has merit, and that which is simply marketing. Gallery walls are for art, not verbalizing, with paint. This is just more graffiti.

From: Linda C. Dumas — May 04, 2010

When you are “nobody” your art can easily be dismissed as “nothing”. When you are “somebody”, does your art automatically become “something”, even if it isn’t?

From: jada — May 04, 2010

The child who saw that the emperor had no clothes is right. Newman was not only a ‘few peas short of a casserole’…any casserole which needs to be ‘explained’ to appreciate it, isn’t a casserole! and the same is true of what is supposed to be a ‘visual’ art.

From: Gene Martin — May 04, 2010

If the title , or ism, must explain it then you have missed the mark.

From: R. Duane Hendricks — May 04, 2010

It is tempting to quote “there is a sucker born every minute”, and that some of them receive government funding to spend excessively on works with little or no artistic merit. The money paid could have been better used to commission several works by artists in Canada. I have heard no explanations to convince me that the purchase of “The Voice of Fire” is other than a big and foolish mistake.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 04, 2010

Unfortunately- your explanation might have been helped along a bit by posting the actual size of this work. Large- even towering- isn’t enough. This is one of the main problems with viewing art on a computer. Its real presence is often lost.

Some folks brains simply cannot extrapolate. These 2 colors when used together do cause a vibrating optical illusion- as Marilyn Bonnett suggests. And when combined with a massive size they can work very well at disturbing/disrupting the viewer’s eye. And that can in fact be enough of an interest to make something simple still end up being quite profound.
From: Mike Callahan — May 04, 2010

I’m with the first kid…it’s not very good.

From: Russell Mang — May 04, 2010

All of the comments so far are very interesting and thought provoking…what struck me about this anecdote was that the teacher was dealing with how to appreciate art and how to move past the usual, visceral first response. “Voice of Fire” may or may not be great art but there’s at least one bunch of kids who are developing the ability to appreciate art, regardless of whether they like the art in question!

From: Gail Caduff-Nash — May 04, 2010

In Voice of Fire, I’m also inclined to agree with the first kid. BUT when the piece is well done & evokes that momentary awe in a person, then it has become art. Our jaundiced minds sometimes disallow acknowledgement of that awe. And children do not have enough experience to make associative observations of art like that. I, for one, wondered why the “stripes went UP” as opposed to down. And I also saw the towering power of a military force in that piece of art, such as in the stripes of a soldier’s uniform. I did not see anything religious in it. Nor spiritual.

I also think that once a piece of art like that is done – there’s really no call for anyone else to do it. Once is seriously enough. There are some very excellent premier artists on this site. I enjoy the work a lot. “Chris” is a perfect model of a sulking boy. Thanks, Robert.
From: Catherine McLay — May 04, 2010

When the “Voice of Fire” was first purchased, there was a lot of dialogue in the national media. A farmer near Edmonton painted three large stripes in red and blue on the side of his barn and offered to sell it for $10,000! My brother and I visited the Gallery a few years ago. He viewed “Voice of Fire” and was very impressed. I chose to spend my time enjoying my favourites, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

From: Laurel R. -New West. BC — May 04, 2010

All that talk of power, majesty, strength, mystery and awe, was probably the baffle-gab, used as the sales pitch to a bunch of politicians (using words they aspired to). Don’t forget, it’s easier when spending someone else’s cash; or they may have been timing the uproar to distract from something else that was going on. The artist may have even had a personal side bet with a friend that he could get it in there by speaking to egos. Back in ’74-75 when I lived in Ottawa, politicians redecorated their office every year; selling the used wool carpets, leather furniture and expensive artworks for ‘pocket change’ to friends. Every government building had some huge sculpture commissioned for the property. One building had a giant brown tubular form that looked exactly like a massive dog crap on it’s lawn! Someone sure had a laugh on that one. I wonder what the sales-pitch on that one was.

I find it interesting to hear the story behind an artists work, especially if I can’t understand what they were attempting to communicate. Often a one word title may help enough to convey the direction. It doesn’t make me want to buy it. It just means it missed the mark. We know it when we see good art; we ‘feel’ it. If good art is explained -who cares? It’s unnecessary. Some people can be intimidated into thinking a brand or idea should be expensive. Critical thinking skills should be taught at home, or by grade 1. I think that selling the ‘Voice of Fire’ was a psychology experiment. Sometimes the actual item is not what’s being sold!
From: Suzette Fram — May 04, 2010

Thank you for this. The words of that teacher are very moving. More moving, in fact, that the painting itself. So who is the artist here?

I am sure that the size of this painting alone would be impressive, and yes, the elegant simplicity is touching. But really, millions of dollars?? Someone somewhere is too star-struck to realized he has been duped.
From: PeggySu — May 04, 2010

Bruce Wilcox got it right. Newman’s paintings are meaningless as reproductions. I’d be very surprised if anyone who has a chance to see Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” in person isn’t simply awed by the experience.

But whatever you think of the painter, kudos to this teacher!
From: Darla — May 04, 2010

I agree with Gene Martin, who wrote that if it has to be explained to be appreciated, you’ve “missed the mark”. Isn’t the point of visual art that it shows its meaning visually? If you have to explain it, maybe you should write a book instead of painting.

From: Tatjana — May 04, 2010

Robert, thanks for exposing us to so many different things. It is always amazing to find out how the same art may be loved or dismissed by different people. I am always mystified by that. Some art communicates to what is common in all of people, and some to very specific things and only some of us. And then, there is art that talks only to its creator. I think that this is the puzzle that many of us would love to solve. Some art that doesn’t move us at first, eventually manages to win us over. Minimalist art in most cases doesn’t keep my attention, although I appreciate the play of color, composition and scale. There are times when I feel it as very soothing. Sometimes focusing on only one or two elements is all that is needed.

From: Serge — May 04, 2010

Thanks again for sharing another of your stories, insights and observations. I enjoy reading them a great deal and for those I did not make time to read, they are safely not deleted from my mail box for that one future moment(s) I’ll be inclined to cherry pick my favorite.

Aside from this, and mostly about this current Voice of Fire’ I’ll refrain to elaborate and give too much of my opinion BUT! One important question(s) does bubble up to mind and heart; (As we often hear, us say or others mention) ” A picture is worth a thousand words” I wonder dearly; ‘ Does it take a thousand words to make a picture worthy?’. … And of course if ‘Art’ can’t speak for itself is it worth listening to it’s intent? After all ‘the road to hell is paved with a lot of good …ones’ … Must be why I don’t sell my private ones… Or so I wonder!
From: Bev Searle-Freeman — May 04, 2010

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” comes to mind … it is what it is.

From: Naomi McLean — May 04, 2010

I think that writing is writing and art is art and

that is what is wrong with “Voice of Fire”.
From: Linda Saccoccio — May 04, 2010

Well there you have it in a nut shell or a pea pod in this case. :) Sometimes all we need is an entry and an open mind and we may shift to experience the power in a work of art or anything. Then there are those who just may not have a place yet for what is being serve up, not enough to hold onto in the case of the last student. Simplicity can be profound and it can also be baffling especially in a high speed, multi-flash image, junk food society. What can you say, some people need more candy, while some of us have paused to reflect and resonate with stillness.

From: Heather — May 04, 2010

This article brought a faint smile as I remember walking my husband down Georgia Street to the old Vancouver Art Gallery. He had never been and I was very excited to have him see what I considered my second home. It was the California Group of Seven that was on display. Long (and short) pieces of plexi-glass of various colour combinations were in every room leaning on walls with their appropriate names on the sides. He was appalled. His roots were in Europe and what was this in an art gallery? I was deflated and had not done any homework. There was a beanery (almost life size) that had been formed. You could walk through while smoke and stale beer smells wafted through. This seemed more real to him, but highly questionable. This was in the ‘60s, but from that time on I have always taken the tour and talk when going to a new presentation. You are quite correct in stating – “some art may be more than you think.” WE don’t necessarily have to like or appreciate all art, but understanding an artist’s concept does not hurt.

From: Alex Nodopaka — May 04, 2010

Now seriously! Do you want us to believe in your beliefs? lol

We were sold a similar bag of voodoo tricks in regard our creator but the more I listened to the great philosophers the more I realized they preached their own beliefs to serve their own purposes. I know that the repetition of the advantages of anything is a great marketing ploy and that with enough drilling it into us by rote the more readily we accept it. The only thing I regret about Barnett Newman is that he imitated Mark Rothko. I on the other hand would’ve hung a document that would’ve read the following Herein, imagine 4 drawn circles of differing size with a dot eccentrically positioned inside each representing the 4 stages of man’s life. It’s name, Eccentrick Voices.
From: Odette Nicholson — May 04, 2010

crystallized images

borrowed this thought from another artist pondering the rain turned to snow and then to water again literally crystal. otherwise as thought from one to another wondering about stories and why they need to be spoken aloud, and lost – against my ability to listen. remembered as thought brazenly twisted out to shape mishaps, perhaps that’s a resort, leading a retreat and go where it takes me. paintings as thought are not the same thing at all, at all, at all visuals are not words, tho words can and do create reality. as the boy thought Barnett Newman is a few peas short of a casserole, both have a Voice of Fire. goes to the world of thought where visual artists are feared and revered comes the moment of truth when you stand there and just look.
From: Robert Head — May 04, 2010

I recall when the national gallery bought the painting – all the public seemed concerned about was the price tag (I think about $10,000,000). Some guy in Quebec made a billboard copy of it to “prove any idiot can paint”. It was nice to see people getting involved in art, even if misguidedly.

I have seen the work in situ several times, and I always find the choice of colors interesting….there is a depth to the work, spiritually, but also technically. The National Gallery of Canada should be visited as frequently as Life permits, it is a great gallery.
From: Charles Peck — May 04, 2010

Barnett Newman may be a “few peas short of a casserole” or it can be just as easily that ” art is more than you think…an artist can convey another kind of truth.”

Either way, all this “proves” to me is the absolute ineffectiveness of the internet to give even a modest thumbnail sketch of Art. This description of the rapture found at the feet of Newman’s painting, though not clear whether it was Newman’s work or the elegantly lucid rhapsodizing of the teacher, is similar to a real experience of mine. This was at Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas. I stopped by for a short visit while traveling through Houston in the mid 70’s and ended up staying until the Sun went down truly awestruck. I have tried to share that experience with fellow painters lately who look it up on the internet. They have no more experience of Rothko’s work looking at it on a LCD screen than if they had never seen it….in fact not having seen it is a more honest experience for they aren’t fooled into thinking they know something about it. “Real lovers of art seek … the unseen magic” of the REAL experience not some watered down gruel so thin it can’t sustain itself. Did I mention I think it is foolish to look at Art on the internet and think one knows anything about it? There is an insidious infection stealing into the mind of modern man that is isolating it from reality and forebodes ill for true ART I feel.
From: Theresa Bayer — May 04, 2010

Amazing how much a good writeup can improve a painting — it’s even better than a good frame.

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt — May 04, 2010

As I look at it ;it still appeared like a wall painted red which in my mind does not seem appropriate to have it on the wall .I thought of the ideas that are represented by colors red is associated with blood,fire and in intangible sense bravery and even sinister idea as a death by violent act that blood is shed. It is not very pleasing and is very overwhelming.As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder so the audience can draw their conclusions.It is really very controversial and I hope true art would not be reduced to such work of art.

From: Peter Marsh — May 04, 2010

On the weekend, at the Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour/ la Société Canadienne de Peintres en Aquarelle, John Inglis was elected as a ‘Life Member’, an honour bestowed infrequently on those who have reached a pinnacle of both achievement in the medium and contribution to the art world. In acceptance of the title John noted that ‘it is the poetry in art that gives it its meaning’. Technical skill in abundance is always appreciated but it is the poetry of the world that marks the piece and elevates its projection. Young students might have thought his comments “a few peas short of a casserole” too, however, his many OCAD college students over the decades, like his nominator David McEown, the great Canadian painter of the Arctic, Antarctic, and the Canadian landscape, have apparently been inspired greatly by his understanding and held him in great regard for it.

From: Ron Challenger — May 04, 2010

Esoterica – One smart kid ! at least one of them got it right .

From: Faith — May 04, 2010

I’d just like to point out that the title of this or any abstract work is itself an instrument. Supposing this one had been called “Regimental ambition” or “Wounded soul” or “Chasing butterflies” instead. What would the viewer have thought then? I particularly like the idea of looking for those butterflies, or imagining an army marching somewhere, or even indulging in some soul-searching at the behest of the title. Fact is that the person who names a work has the power to control how we interpret it. That isn’t far off manipulation. And it can be a way of suggesting some kind of intellectual process where there has been none.

I’m never sure what to do at exhibitions of abstract works. Do I look at the painting and make something out of it according to my own imagination and current mood or inclination, or do I look at the title first, then try to make a connection? And of course, huge paintings have their own dynamics. At worst they intrude on our comfort zone and can be downright threatening. At best they wrap themselves around us. The one thing they really have in common is their universality, whether abstract or figurative. From baroque murals to street art to graffiti. Larger than life fascinates.
From: Pene Horton — May 04, 2010

Years ago I remember being in the Kelowna Art Gallery and looking at a similar painting to The Voice of Fire … this one was three stripes on a cream background … it baffled me, but the docent said that if you stood in front of it, closed your eyes for a minute then opened them and looked at the stripes, fire would run up the stripes … an optical illusion … so perhaps it was worth the several million dollars paid for it.

But I also recall reading somewhere that Picasso said that a painting should stand on its own merits, or words to that effect, and that if he felt his paintings needed descriptions he’d have written a novel. Sorry to be this vague, but I tuck stuff away in my brain like a chipmunk tucking nuts in its cheeks.
From: Virginia Hanley — May 04, 2010

My first response is “Oh, my, those lucky children, to have such a teacher!” It is a gift to be able to help anyone see beyond the obvious first impression. Lucky, lucky kids. And you, Robert, for being there to hear what was said.

From: G Rai — May 04, 2010

Well, I suppose he took simplicity very literally… paint in pot, brush in hand and a clean surface… do whatever you like and, voila… (just like some fence posts I’ve slapped paint on)… that’s called painting isn’t it?! I think all his peas were in his casserole, it’s just not the casserole that I would cook, or eat. However, some committee somewhere, paid taxpayer’s dollars for it, so it was someone’s cup of tea, or casserole….

From: Angela Treat Lyon — May 04, 2010

I like to create my work with the view that, 2000 years from now, there will be no gallery card, no newspaper review, not critical online blast that will explain it for anyone when they dig up my work somewhere. If the work itself doesn’t convey the message I want it to embody, right now, to real human beings, without any written or spoken words to augment it, then it probably won’t then, either.

I love Jackson Pollack’s work, but wonder what some poor archeologist will think when he digs it up!
From: Claudia Roulier — May 04, 2010

I am almost ready to side with the boy who said it was just three stripes. I understand history , I understand cubism, dada, etc. However I think that the history sounds almost like an afterthought, context is important but if you have to explain the context, history, and the bio of the artist, all of which is interesting, but a lot of work, then I think the piece is not very effective, and is only justifying the price. Also I might add you would have to be in agreement with the political view point as well as twisting yourself into a pretzel. If you didn’t agree with the politics then you probably wouldn’t like it much, which is the problem with political art.

From: Michael Epp — May 04, 2010

I thought that giving a little kid the last word was kind of a cheap shot at Newman. Give that same little kid a sip of beer or wine and see the face he makes — he has a lot of tastes to acquire on the laborious road to adulthood. Vis a vis abstract expressionism I’m reminded of this exchange from a Kurt Vonnegut novel [I’m paraphrasing]: Q: ‘How do I tell a good abstract expressionist painting from a bad one?’ A: ‘Look at a thousand abstract expressionist paintings.’

I tried my hand at an abstract expressionist painting once, and my son Paul said ‘I wouldn’t give you ten dollars for that painting’. He was right of course, but then, it was my first attempt. Maybe if I painted a thousand abstract paintings I’d paint a Newman too. As Hamlet had it, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We should be careful about passing judgment too quickly. Picasso: ‘People say they don’t understand Cubism. Well, I don’t understand Chinese, but the Chinese language still exists.’
From: Orythia — May 04, 2010

Being an art therapist, I immediately gave way to the thought that there is a definite overlap of “Art” and art therapy. Each receives their own inner message to the perceived Art whether it is self-art or done by another proclaimed Artist. .

From: Jan Werdin — May 04, 2010

And the Emperor has new clothes….

From: Barbara Lussier — May 04, 2010

Sorry, Robert, but there is no fire in that piece for me….

From: Jane Hinrichs — May 04, 2010

I think it’s a hoot. I love the student’s closing remarks. He sounds like the child who shouted at the crowd seeing the Emperor and his new clothes, “But he’s naked!”

From: Margé Drew — May 04, 2010

Ah yes ..yet another case of a story behind the explain the emperors new clothes..sorry but the children are right…and art which requires such fabrication to support it and its buyers to think that it is more than it is is still just stripes of color. Selling it for high price to anyone definitely priceless and in my opinion the ultimate scam.. P. T. Barnum was right and this is surely a great example/evidence of it..a sucker born every minute. This artist must have been a good good as the framed fields of color..solid color …talentless people with good stories will be the death of artistic skill.

A painting which REQUIRES this much of a sales pitch is not art…even though it was purchased by a city which now has people defending it with loftly stories to explain it. My my what lengths are used to justify modern want a be art made most likely by people who cannot draw even.
From: Marjorie Tressler — May 04, 2010

I guess you had to be there —a good salesman can sell you anything if they make you a believer

From: Heather Britton — May 04, 2010

My money’s on the kids! It’s good to know that today’s young have some common sense!

From: Zan Barrage — May 04, 2010

I have always thought that an artform that must depend on another artform to explain itself has failed. If you need to explain a painting in words, why not write an essay! My personal belief is that a work of art should stand on its own.

Mr. Newman makes good fabric patterns. I would love a tie designed like voice of fire. Would I admire it as a painting? …
From: Brigitte Nowak — May 04, 2010

I’ve painted fairly realistically all my life; it is what I do, what I know, though I do find some abstract work interesting and appealing. After the foofaraw around Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire” and the millions it cost us, I paid a visit to the National Gallery, fully expecting to look down my nose at this piece of over-priced drivel. Instead, I found it had a mesmerizing presence, a aura of power, drama and dignity that few works of art have for me. Size, of course, matters. I wonder how many of the responders to this newsletter who are denigrating the painting have seen the actual work. A postage stamp-sized reproduction doesn’t quite articulate the majesty and awe the work projects in real life. I don’t know if it was worth the money we paid for it; but if it gets people discussing the value of art, what determines the merits of a painting, how modern art fits into our existence, and the fuller meaning that some abstract art provides, that’s certainly worth more than all the badly painted daffodils in the world.

From: Zan Barrage — May 04, 2010


I agree totally. I have not seen the work in real life and should have. I was simply making a comment that a work of art should stand on its own merit without an essay attached to it. It seems that the work did stand on its own merit for you in person, which is good.
From: V.G.Pena — May 04, 2010

you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time?

The kid was right on! Critic’s use their influence to fool the public to pay for such works just as the tour guide did with the children. But not all are fooled. Sadly other works that actually are fantastic art go unnoticed because they have no , “tour guide or critic” to promote their work much less notice it.
From: Jackie Knott — May 05, 2010

Even with representational work the story behind the artist and/or painting adds to our understanding.

Seeing the Mona Lisa from my art history books and a computer screen didn’t prepare me for the jaw dropping experience of seeing greatness. Likewise, I am reluctant to dismiss an abstract work without actually viewing it in person. I remember seeing a piece in a gallery constructed of vertical crinkled hard board, one side painted in progressive shades of blue and green. The other side leaning to the yellow, orange spectrum. At first glance it looked like some high school kid’s failed science project. The title was Aurora Borealis. Oh. I backed up and walked from the left to the right and could see the color and light change as I stepped. The piece moved in exactly the same manner as I remembered seeing the Northern Lights as a child. The title gave me a hint as to inspiration and I needed that to appreciate it.
From: Lynne Saintonge — May 05, 2010

Some of these comments are very depressing. Even in ‘visual art’ we see with more than our eyes. I think it’s worth considering that for a moment or two.

From: Dorenda — May 05, 2010

Whether you like the piece (or not)…isn’t a great thing that a human being took the time to make a piece of art that has you all communicating? That is an art unto itself! Whatever keeps the creative spirit flowing is worthy of at least a glance.

From: Moiya Wright — May 05, 2010

I take part in some workshops in the National Gallery. Our class spends an hour, with our instructor, observing and discussing a number of paintings. We then return to the Studio to paint.

One day we stood in front of the Voice of Fire. Just looking at it and thinking of all the derogatory remarks which have been made about it. ‘Spending all that money on a painting just because it is large” and such. Our instructor told us about the painting and also asked us to look intently at the line between the red and the blue. Of course they began to overlap and gave a whole new feeling to the painting. He then asked us to gaze intently at the edge of the painting. It looked as if the red was on fire. I quietly walked away from the painting in awe.
From: Nancy Vandenberg — May 05, 2010

I agree with the kid on the way out.

From: Claudia Hershman — May 05, 2010

Thank you for your wonderful letters. I look forward to your insights and wisdom weekly. I am a printmaker, but so much of what you say about painting can be transferred to other media. The most important part of art-making is the joy and passion that it gives our lives. I am trying to pass this love on to the next generation so that the gift keeps on giving!

From: Jean Fournier — May 05, 2010

This is the kind of nonsense your subjected to by academia art critics and teachers. I got an ear full of this language while attending the San Francisco Art Institute back in my innocent youth. It’s the case of Jackson Pollack, does he demonstrate any real skill at painting or is he just making an interesting mess of a canvas and justifying it as some kind of intentional effort in deconstruction of form? Then you have artists who sling ape shit

onto a board and call it a metaphysical piece examining the decay of spiritual values in contemporary society. There’s no end to the bullshit. What ever happened to selfless humble creativity that lifts the viewer to deeper sacred space? I suppose the demonstration of real commitment and technical skill have no place in the world of modern art. The irony is that the public at large finds a lot of what’s being passed off as art is ugly and self indulgent. There’s too much emphasis on the artist and not enough on the art. I’m a professional artist and teacher, the best advise I can give to my students is to abandon their ego and simply work from their heart. Develop technique and skill before you start tossing paint or any other substance around on a canvas. Have real intention about what your doing, and be very cautious when it comes to art critics and question your teacher (that includes me).
From: Betsy Seeger — May 05, 2010

Sorry, I agree with the little boy’s friend – its just 3 stripes going up. If art is so personal that it is unintelligible without explanation then it might as well be painted for the artist alone in his or her journal.

From: Henry Vermillion — May 05, 2010

Your piece about Barnett Newman provokes me (a painter) to reply, Barnet Newman was no doubt a spiritual and sensitive man and he was an articulate writer. However, as a painter (his main occupation), his job surely is to express his deepest convictions visually, pictorially. In his etchings, Goya made art which strongly conveys his dismay with the stupidities and cruelties of war. Picasso, Philip Blume and many, many others have done the same, and the world is richer for their work. Newman’s work is bold in the mode of his day (as is Robert Motherwell’s’ “Elegy To the Spanish Republic” series of paintings), but the paintings alone, being abstract, obviously present nothing more than size, color, design, and the artist’s skill in making them. These pictures may or may not succeed as handsome designs, but by their nature can’t succeed in conveying the sort of complex concerns the painters would like us to be aware of. In short, if the art has to be explained in this way to make the intended message clear, it’s not a successful piece of art. The challenge to us as painters is to find the visual means to express complex ideas in the painting itself. It ain’t nearly as easy as painting abstracts.

From: Frances Stilwell — May 05, 2010

Not that i’m close-minded, but Voice of Fire shows the power of brain washing. Maybe the reproduction wasn’t very good — those weren’t even the COLORS of fire. Terrible to teach those kids to go against their intuitive knowledge.

From: Janet Toney — May 05, 2010

My paintings of flowers must have a magical story to accompany them and if anyone should see me, I must begin to look the part.

Hum what to wear, maybe a long black skirt, black print peasant looking top, sandals, black and um, maybe purple beads and ear rings, very dangly, and let my hair grow long, straight and never add color, just allow my gray to show thru, and just a little make-up on my 60+ year old face. Have my picture taken with a black background and me looking up at a beautiful flower. How’s that? I’m on my way, just some creative writing and there it is. Now, do I need to paint anything else, or just sell the prints? I know take it all into “abstract” and just paint the “essence” of an iris from now on. Maybe people like artists whose casseroles are missing some peas.
From: Richard — May 05, 2010

Voice of Fire is nothing but a sample of Awning Material supplied by “The American Tent and Awning Company.” NUTS, I would take it out back of The National Gallery and Quietly rename it “Set on Fire.”

From: Liz Reday — May 05, 2010

You wouldn’t know that this painting depicts a historic spot where Spanish missionaries stopped to water their horses as they traveled up the coast of what became California. The confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco, this spot became a small village, then grew into the sprawling megalopolis known as los Angeles. Still a confluence, the army core of engineers erected concrete walls to stop the river from flooding and periodically destroying the bridges that linked the city to the rest of the country. It is now a substrata of street culture, a calligraphy of sorts. Many unusual rites and rituals are performed in this space nightly, judging by the talismans left behind. I only paint there in the mornings.

From: Sylvia — May 05, 2010

Somehow my gut always reacts to cerebral art such as this as having a strong relationship to The Emperor’s New Clothes .

From: D Adair — May 05, 2010

If visual art is about oratory, then it isn’t visual art anymore, it’s a short story or, in the case of the gentleman mentioned, a novel. Artists struggle, push boundaries, challenge themselves in order to tell a story by ‘picture telling’, or ‘sculpture telling’ or, you get my drift… and that’s the utter joy of visual art.

If I want to read a book about an angry man, I’ll read a book. If I want a lecture on an angry man, ditto… but if a man is angry enough to paint something descriptive, challenging and evocative, then I’ll revel in what he has to say with his ‘picture telling’… and even if I don’t ‘get’ it, I’ll admire the work for the work’s sake… this guy was either too angry to want to work at it or was simply no artist. If you want other people to understand your cause, let them in on the secret. The kids were right. They learned nothing by looking at his work, they needed to be told, so, is that the point of visual art?
From: Anne Swannell — May 05, 2010

The written word doesn’t, of course, change the art….the art must still stand alone as far as composition, balance, colour, etc. go, but titles make a huge difference to our understanding of the piece. For example, I just finished a piece where the figures (people) are casting huge shadows. The figures are upside down, and the shadows take up most of the space. I’ve called the work “What Matters.” Without that title, I’m not sure people would “get” what I had in mind.

From: Gavin Logan — May 05, 2010

Robert’s story, and the readers reactions reveals why many of us distrust art that requires liturgy. But if it were possible to believe that visual art might include a concordance, if only to clarify its meaning, and seen as part of the art, then might it not be greater and richer? Like adding sound to film, resisted by purists at first, makes the medium an even more compelling one.

From: Gene Martin — May 05, 2010
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 05, 2010

I find I have a further comment. As an abstract artist I’ve often been “expected” (by someone who doesn’t have a clue) to explain my work.

So folks- my work’s abstract- it’s geometric- it vibrates- it’s sometimes painful to look at- it’s structured- it’s random- it’s colorful- it’s brilliant- it’s time-consuming- people love it- people hate it- people can’t see it as art because to them it looks like a quilt- I hate that… What more do you want? It means not just something to me- it means EVERYTHING. It represents my direct mystical spiritual experience without any written dogma whatsoever. BUT! I’m also a poet. I did a show a long time ago and wrote a short paragraph for each of the 10 pieces in the show. I’m hanging a solo show next week here in Denver. Alongside my visual art I’m hanging 7 metaphysical poems I’ve written (since 1990) that pretty much describe my awakening and opening up to the Universal Energy Field I’m immersed in experience. And not a single one of these poems actually goes with any visual piece. So what! All you folks who are berating “Voice Of Fire” without standing in front of its towering presence do so from a position of cluelessness. Sorry. You’re all the ones a few pees short of a casserole. The burning bush- or god’s voice coming out of the fire is a VIBRATION. Together these colors work to produce a VIBRATION- an image that vibrates if you stare at it long enough. Anger over war doesn’t have to be put into words. War is a truly pointless construct of a vengeful god and a stupid humanity following along because they are afraid of hell. All people should be angry that war still exists- especially artists.
From: Robin d’Arcy Shillcock — May 06, 2010

Newman, the exalted artist. The less there is to see in a painting, the bigger the yarn. I was never taken by the huge canvasses in simple colour fields by Newman. We in Holland have our own Newman, and some years ago it was severely cut up by an angry artist (no, not me). During restoration it was discovered that the paint had been simply rolled on in acrylics, revealing a somewhat different approach than the mystique Newman usually coughed up about his art.

Acrylics and paint rollers are fine as far as I’m concerned, but I always questioned the depth of this particular artist. Being hung in major museums wasn’t enough to convince me. After all, art historians and museum directors can be pretty dumb where avant-garde art is concerned. I never could make the connection between the paintings and the tall stories he made up around them. Big is impressive, that’s pretty obvious, but who was it that said: “If you can’t make ’em good, make ’em big”? Standing in front of a hand-painted fifties cinema billboard can give you a buzz, as big if not bigger a buzz as standing in front of a huge canvas in two tones of orange by Newman. Orange, by the way, is not one of my favourite colours.
From: Gordon France — May 06, 2010

Mr. Wilcox’s pedestrian blather and chest thumping reminded me of an H.L. Mencken quote. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

From: BobboGoldberg — May 06, 2010

There’s a story about Harrison Ford being told, early in his career, that he didn’t have a shot at pictures. “Why?” His detractor said, “Think of Tony Curtis. If he comes on playing a pizza delivery guy, you say to yourself, “there’s a movie star.” Ford replied, “Aren’t you supposed to be saying, “there’s a pizza delivery guy?” Seems to me that if an artist needs to write down his intention in order for me to “get it,” perhaps he should be writing. “Emperor’s New Clothes” does it for me, too. No offense meant, but the guy coulda used a roller!

From: Darr Sandberg — May 06, 2010

A number of people have explained this painting to the effect “you have to see it in real life”. Ok, maybe it has some extra oomph at full size.

But Caillebott’s “Paris Street in Rainy Weather” (one of my favorites) is amazingly communicative and evocative in reproduction, on web page, in a book. Seen in person, its size adds the sense being “there”, in the moment; but the painting loses nothing of its meaning when viewed in a smaller scale. So the “you have to be there” not only sounds like an excuse to my ears, it seems to defeat one of the purposes of art – to communicate to someone who can’t be there – can’t be in Paris on a rainy day, or in the presence of a specific person, or inside the feelings and thoughts of the artist. Is it just an interesting accident of timing that the letter today could be just as applicable to “The Voice of Fire” as the previous one? One could argue that such works reflect puppyhood, and be concerned that “The downside may be chronic mediocrity, the effect of which can fan out through an entire culture.” I have to admit to being concerned that it has become enough to simply have an idea, particularly a provocative one, and that communicativeness, skill and technique, content and delivery seem to be increasingly irrelevant in the visual arts. Personally, I expect a painting to communicate to me on its own, without some 3rd party interprettor providing critique and backstory. Those things may contribute additional layers of nuance to my appreciation of a work, but I expect art to communicate to me on its own first.
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 06, 2010

Is a paint roller somehow illegal for painting large work? I’ve seen an artist on a PBS documentary do just that.

Maybe Mr. France would feel more comfortable at a kennel…
From: Joyce Coolidge — May 06, 2010

shhh-The emperor is nekked

From: Gabriella — May 06, 2010

After having observed a painter friend’s struggle for several weeks with painting reds, and reddish oranges in acrylic, and fail to achieve a successful surface where the paint application didn’t detract from the sonority of the reds, reddishoranges, neon reds, I realize there is more to painting minimalist, colour-field paintings in the acrylic medium.

Many commenters here make statements based on ignorance and lack of experience. Ignorance of optical colour theory, and lack of experience with disciplined methods of applying paint in order to achieve a desired result. Mistaking what appears on the surface to be simple does not allow consideration for underlying complexity of materials and means, let alone idea. It is too bad that this is a forum for persons to engage in diatribes, rather than discussion wich may lead to mutual understanding. Using terms like ” a few peas short of a casserole”, while cute and homey sounding, lowers the tone of possible discussion. Too bad.
From: Theresa Bayer — May 06, 2010

The Emperor is indeed Nekkid, however, he still benefits from having a writeup done. I’ve started doing writeups on my paintings. I paint them to stand alone — as I think art must do, but it’s FUN to add in those words. The Emperor is looking quite natty in his Verbal Fig Leaf!

From: Russ Hogger — May 07, 2010

I can not believe what I’m reading here. This must be put down Barney Newman week by people who call themselves artists. If you are any kind of an artist you should have some decency to appreciate other artists work, whether it be representational or non-representational. New York artist Barney Newman claims hard edge abstraction to be his rise to fame. He also took part in the Emma Lake workshops, Saskatchewan in 1958 and 1959 as workshop leader.

From: Cathy Harville — May 07, 2010

Voices of Mood

My paintings all tell a story, or have a connection to the state of mind I am in, or the current mood swing of the bipolar disorder I have. For example, I had been recently painting in very intense, weird color palettes. Now that I am feeling better after my March “vacation” in a lock-down pysch ward, my palette is back to its cheery self. While depressed, it was as if i had no choice – the paint just chose itself. Of course, most people don’t realize the mood, thinking, or primal instinct behind my work. How could they? It is very personal and intimate. Even when I explain a piece (at the client’s request), they often glaze over, and look like they want to escape. So I keep it simple. I skim off the top layer of meaning, and clients are happy. I have had to change titles of paintings, because they evoked tears and even fear from clients. The funny thing is, I paint nature – the land and sea. It is not like I am painting the devil or hellish subjects. People are sensitive. People also like to feel good. And people buy what makes them feel good. So I often change a “depressed” painting into something intensely bright and fun. Is this trickery? No, because beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the viewer. Cathy Harville
From: Dayle Ann Stratton — May 07, 2010

I don’t see the issue as being one of putting down an artist’s works (in this case Barnett Newman), so much as it is a discussion of whether a painting that needs so much exposition to “explain” the meaning is what the artist claims it to be. I have seen the painting in question. On the wall, it does indeed have that firy illusion if one stands and looks at it steadily. A technical accomplishment on a large scale. So what?

Minimalism is not abstraction. It is about the techniques of art. Abstraction is the culling out of the essence of a subject to evoke an emotional response. It takes great skill to do this successfully. In a sense, all art, even representational, is abstract, because the artist must select those elements that convey the sense of what he/she wants to convey. I agree that those kids were being taught to distrust their own responses to art, and to defer to some “expert” analysis of what it was. Yes, they have growing to do, but if they learn early to trust their response to art, and have a chance to talk about why one painting appeals to them over another, they will acquire a love of art that someday may bring them to reevaluate things they didn’t “get” at first. In the case of Barnett Newman, I’m not sure there is really anything there to bother with, beyond a clever use of optical illusion.
From: Edna Waller — May 07, 2010

Oh, come on! I don’t suppose I am allowed to make the comment I would like to, but it is abbreviated BS! I thought we had gotten past such nonsense.

From: Edna Waller — May 07, 2010

Excuse my rudeness, but sometimes it is just too much. Dayle Ann Stratton has put it very well. Thank you, Dayle.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 07, 2010

While the emperor’s new clothes is a story of a fool who let’s himself be swindled- REALLY- only in a society where being naked results in such harsh judgment would his nakedness even matter.

We’re all born naked. Only our own foolish stupid ridiculous myopic unfathomable primarily religious insecurities make being naked bad or wrong. There’s nothing (but our own judgment of self and others and our own fear of being sexual beings) wrong with nakedness. NOTHING. Clothes should exist for warmth and comfort- not because we’re all afraid someone will see us naked. You all should check your value judgments around this issue- they are very telling.
From: Janice Robinson-Delaney — May 07, 2010

There is an element of universality that we all strive for in our work, it’s part of what sells, I can see the patriotism in Mr. Newman’s work but I wouldn’t have picked up on the protest without the narrative either, which might be attributed to my lack of knowledge of our sister country Canada.

From: Lida van Bers — May 07, 2010

To read this letter did me a world of good. I am an abstract painter and just finished an exhibition in Montreal. At the opening night there was a person who told me that she could sit for hours to look at my paintings. ” It gives me such a peace, just what I need right now”

That was the biggest praise I received that night.
From: Theresa Graham — May 07, 2010

And sometimes three lines are just three lines……my opinion!

From: Marguerite Larmand — May 07, 2010

If I approach Barnett Newman’s painting knowing nothing at all about the painting or Newman, what is exhibited along with the painting is my response to it.

I may see an object, with three stripes on a canvas separated from the world by a frame and I may further separate myself from this kind of work because of some standard I brought with me by which to judge all paintings. In this case, what is exhibited alongside the painting is resistance and an unwillingness to accept the value that the painting has already been established by it’s presence here. If, on the other hand, I take the time to respond to the painting, to let the painting awaken something in me, then a relationship of giving and receiving slowly forms. The painting will reveal something of itself and something of me. Yes, I have stood before Barnett Newman’s painting knowing nothing about him or his work. And I saw a world divided into red-orange and blue-black. It resembled a stage whose dark blue curtains were opening to let the red-orange through. Not only was the red-orange pushing, the blue bands were spreading to allow it through. This was a world of force. And as I read the title, I realized what had been awakened in me was both shock and relief.
From: Laurel R. — May 07, 2010

If Voice of Fire was horizontal, smaller, or in analogous colours, I doubt it would be hanging in the National Gallery. (even with an explanation).

Even though there are cultural differences in symbolism and meaning, there is universal appreciation for great art regardless of style, size, or medium. Just as colour energy illicits response in the blind, and sound is felt by the deaf; people generally ‘know’ great art when they see it, (or hear it), even when it’s not in their favoured style. Concepts such as contrast, pattern, and rhythm, anomaly are picked up on automatically (like in music). We can study and describe what we like about it. Voice of Fire may just be a large design-theory example. People are able to respect an artists idea, attempt, and effort; but not the finished product. If it doesn’t work, we don’t buy it. Taxpayers expect the highest standards for choosing what is purchased for National collections, including innovative or experimental works. Perhaps the purchase price was just way too high for us to ignore. Kind of like the musical scales making it to a ‘Hit Parade”.
From: anon — May 07, 2010

I don’t understand why people keep mentioning emperor’s new clothes when bunch of people already wrote that. But then, I also don’t understand why people keep painting babies in ancle-high water, purple irises, paintings with vertical red stripes…I must be missing something…

From: Bea — May 07, 2010

Bruce Wilcox made me laugh – if you have any hanging mamalian glands and had to run naked real fast, you would immediately know why being naked is wrong! LOL

From: Nicole Hyde — May 08, 2010

“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.”

Yes! I like the painting.
From: Phillip King — May 08, 2010

Thank you for your very inspiring newsletters. I’ve been reading them for quite some time but, last friday’s letter about “Voice of Fire” at Canada’s National Gallery was well beyond me. That only inspired me to comment on it — and the ludicrous painting by Picasso that sold for the absurd amount of $106.5 million last week at Christie’s Gallery in New York. I have no explanation for that kind of ?? Art ??.

Just think what that amount of money could do for the thousands of Homeless Shelters and Soup Kitchens around the country. For what it’s worth, I have been a watercolorist most of my life and I just revel over the Hudson River School of painters which, most artists these days seem to turn their noses up at. Oh well, “that’s what makes the world go ’round”. Cheshire, CT, USA
From: Gary Parks — May 08, 2010

I did a painting just like this one in 1953.

I also looked like the featured painting ‘Little Chris’ when my mother got through with me. As soon as my buttocks stopped stinging enough for me to stand still, I repainted that wall in my bedroom. If one stares at anything long enough, your bored brain cells will start to conger up remembered images to help make some sense of why you are looking at this , or imagined ones if the object is nondescript enough. Without the narrative, it is ‘just’ a painted wall, an accent piece. For me painted art falls into two categories; It tells me something the painter wants me to know (without narrative), or, It is a colored accent piece for a room, which is not really art, it is a ‘piece’ of what pills the total room together. But, as I learned many years ago, “beauty is ALL in the eye of the beholder” (fortunately [$] for Mr Newman)
From: Saundra-USA — May 08, 2010

One has to ask, if like the city of Pompey, this building were unearthed 2000 years from now, would it be considered art, or a painted section of wall?

From: J. McSporran — May 08, 2010

Obviously there are some types of art that won’t stand alone unless the artist’s motives are included. The question is, are they valid as art if they can’t stand alone? Do they communicate effectively? Consider logos.

The Ontario Hydro logo is brilliant, about as complicated as Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and as incomprehensible to the viewer until one learns what it represents. Then it becomes so obvious that we think about a whole history and ideology of the company whenever we see it. A little education goes a long way. A conceptual art work can be seen as “logo” for an idea, an ideal, or a concept, that has significance to the artist. It draws attention to the idea and acts as a catalyst for thought in the audience. But again, a little education or explanation may be necessary in order to get the ball rolling. Is there a place for this type of art in our homes and galleries? Compare art to physical activity. Sometimes we need a challenge, a fitness program, an exercise routine that stimulates the parts of our bodies that are neglected in our regular daily activities. Sometimes we need to rest. Our brains also need stimulation and rest. Conceptual art requires us to stretch and exercise our brains. It requires us to consider points of view that we tend to overlook in our daily lives. Conventional or pictorial art lays it all out for us. The more work the artist does for us ,the more “realistic” the painting or sculpture, the less work our brains do. It gives us a place to rest. A healthy person and a healthy society needs both ( and, especially the continuum between the two extremes)
From: Peter W. Brown — May 08, 2010

The kind of painting to which Barnett Newman hitched his star was called, “Minimalism,” and sometimes, “Color Field Painting.” I preferred the name “Tape Paintings.” It was a response to the Abstract Expressionists. It provided the other extreme. I was in college at the time, and it was clear to me, and to most of my fellow art students that this kind of painting was akin to, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The movement culminated for me in the early 70’s, when I was asked to make a 4 x 5 color transparency of a painting that was a five by nine foot canvas that was painted a single color of tomato soup-red. This vapid attempt at art was also hanging in a museum, and purchased at great expense with public moneys. It was hideous.

No amount of mumbo jumbo could have stolen my basic intuition that art is more than a field of color. Those little children at Canada’s National Gallery nailed Barnett Newman, “It is not very good.” They were quite correct. The composition would make a boring towel or quilt. How could it possibly be a great painting? What if it was very small? Would it still be good? I think that art is about making metaphors. A great piece of art tells a story, or maybe just suggests a story. Not all that is enshrined in museums, is worth our attention. And surely not our admiration. “It is just three stripes!” I look to painting to fill my heart. I look to painting to say something. Tell me a story! Tell me of a moment in time. Do not show me a big, boring washcloth.
From: Doug MacBean — May 14, 2010

“He was a few peas short of a casserole.” I like the honesty.

This proves, how much we can learn about art, from a child. Maybe a few could be approached, for consultation, at our public galleries?
From: Victoria Hadden — May 17, 2010

Robert, your article should have been entitled “Voice of Ire.”

From: Nick Graner — Jul 04, 2010

I have a simple test to determine the value of a piece of art. Have a hack do something in a similar style and show both pieces to artists unfamiliar with the work. The artists should be able to instantly identify which piece was done by the hack. I don’t think this piece could pass the test.

For art purchased with public funds the average citizen should be able to make such a distinction; based on the kid’s response this work certainly does not pass the test.
From: Willie B. Hardigan — Mar 13, 2011

Will he be hard again?


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