There’s an odd canvas, a coda in the new reinstallation of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross (Lema Sabachthani) at the National Gallery of Art. It isn’t truly part of the Stations. It dates to 1961-1964. Newman called it Be II. An initial thought was that it was displayed with the Stations because the curators have so much space and so many pictures, and this one fits in a way – it’s the same large-scale size dating to the same era. The painting also is like the other canvases – fourteen in all – in style and composition. On its left edge Newman has painted a line of orange that is a thin, imperfect stripe. On the right is an echoing stripe of black, slightly heavier, and its lines are precise rather than spluttery. Between is an expanse of white.
At first glance, what the shared lines of the coda and the Stations canvases affirm is the power of abstraction, the distillation of shape and line, the patterns that move from one canvas to the next and grow or shrink in the process. Though when you look slowly at the Stations, you begin to notice the texture of the brush, the bleeding of paint seeping from under the lines of tape that Newman used to structure the compositions, the flat-out free painting of lines where the tape was not used, the messy and raw edges of the canvases in shadow against the white walls. The hand that is present in Newman’s canvases builds up abstraction and gives it nothing as impersonal as the geometry of a wooden crucifix, but gives it a body – the artist’s body, if not the holy body suggested by the name of the series. Some of that messy perfection transfers to the coda.
But the coda painting nonetheless is distinctive. For one thing, it is slightly isolated from the rest, though that may not matter to how it is looked at all that much. The gallery is built like the prow of a very large ship, triangulated, sliding glass doors on the narrow end where the coda hangs, an opposite wall – it looks a bit like a free-standing wall – at the widest, separating the space from the Rothko paintings in the next part of the room. The architect I.M. Pei raised the height of the walls at the narrow end of the gallery. The resulting dramatic funnel of the space impels the visitor forward and out the doors, into an adjoining rooftop sculpture garden, making it easier to rush past the coda and not see it, to respond to the building’s demands rather than to complete the circuit around the room that the fourteen stations ask for.
More to the point: Be II’s colour is anomalous. The other canvases are inky blacks and deep whites on a canvas surface that is sometimes exposed, sometimes soaked with thin lines of wet greys or masked entirely with paint. If the paintings quietly evoke the patterns of a tallit or, less quietly, bandages ineffectually holding back the pain at being forsaken – bandages which seem so much like the tape that Newman used to paint the lines — then the giddy orange of the coda painting simply jars.
What are we to learn from the painting as a coda? Perhaps it offers to us is what we might expect: an extended meditation by an artist described by Richard Schiff as feeling himself to be a deeply moral painter “who felt obliged to respond to the political and social situation of his generation, which had been marked by the life-and-death absoluteness of the Holocaust.” [i] The Stations, unplanned as a set, gave Newman a place to confront, canvas by canvas, the terrors and the violence of the Holocaust as he painted them over the course of eight years, adding one to three pictures each year. Newman’s title speaks his despair: “Lema Sabachthani – why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why?… Lema? To what purpose – is the unanswerable question of human suffering.”[ii]
Or perhaps the coda gives us something different: a key to understanding the Stations. How so? The coda unlocks the problem of boundaries in the Stations. It doesn’t explain them. It exposes them. For when you stare at the canvases for even a few seconds, a vibrant orange line emerges at the top edges where the gallery’s white light hits the black paint. There is no orange paint there. It’s an optical illusion. By replicating that exact colour of that illusory orange line on Be II, Newman seems to be using the coda painting to draw attention to a peculiar kind of blindness we have about edges – or rather, a blindness about boundary lines.
So: boundaries. Boundaries turn out to be embodied in this installation not only in the fleeting light; they possess a materiality, as well. As illusions, they are tricks played on the eye: colour where colour does not exist; the inviting warmth of orange, something the eye moves towards and dwells on. The eye can easily move away, though, because those boundaries flicker and disappear as the light changes. And sometimes the boundaries are the opposite: regulated and stiff and material in the most concrete sense of the word — traces of tape being ripped off an unpainted ground so that order can continue to exist, black where it ought to be, white where it ought to be. Still, for these boundaries as well there’s a denial of the power of the eye to see, a predication of blindness. For the black and white symmetry — in spite of its material neatness – produces something like the visible-yet-invisible orange line, a bright whiteness that blinds and a black darkness that is visionless.
But then, sometimes, the boundary lines fall more dramatically between illusion and paint and thereby create a blindness that only half-way sticks. For a third type of boundary is made-up, wavering, composed of free-hand gestures. Through the intransigent presence of lines as marks and through the suggestion of fragility and permeability as white and black marks messily intermix, this type of boundary conveys danger and hope. Such boundaries are dangerous in the sense that they are halfway useful; they maintain a gesture towards cohesive abstraction of colour, towards an almost oppressive division of the painting surface. They’re hopeful in the sense that they will give way, they will not regulate or be regulated; they were never taped down. They do the visual work, in sum, of drawing the eye in and out of a space of a warm embrace paradoxically tinged, possibly, with violence, forcing it to see how artificial the marked line is by following Newman’s gesture of making with the eye, retracing that not-quite-invisible boundary line.
Yet in a way, the coda painting insists that Newman’s hand doesn’t matter. By directing attention to this dimension of the Stations just as a generic diagram would operate, the coda inserts a wedge between the paintings and the artist’s authority. It exposes how the set occupies its own distinctive temporal space, somewhere between the artist’s hand and the beholder’s eye, between past and present. That is, the presence of the coda in the gallery denies a radical contextualization of the Stations. It makes clear that the installation is not simply a pictorial rumination on pain and grief at the tragedies of WWII. Nor is it only the material biography of an artist. The Stations dwell in a gap between the Holocaust and Newman and this piece of writing about it. From this position, historical contact between moments so seemingly unalike is renewed.
And that renewal matters. Viewed through the coda, the installation does important cultural and visual work of illuminating how boundaries operate across moments and spaces of political authoritarianism. These are the lines of response to German fascism, illuminating the response to new lines – the lines in American politics that turn out not to be so new. They range from America’s material boundaries that define borders: the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States; the oil pipe-lines crossing the northern border with Canada through First Nations’ lands; the geographic borders surrounding the target Muslim countries with which Trump does not do business and whose peoples have been banned from crossing the boundaries the United States. They move as well into the terrain of fakery. There are the opposite, increasingly invisible boundaries between falsehood and fact: the terrorist attacks in Bowling Green; the assertion that Hitler never used chemical weapons in wartime Germany.
When light and paint traipse back and forth the political lines are troubled most, since those imperfect boundaries bring into view decisions and impulses about how and where to see and to pause for a moment or move on. In a literal sense, they might be prompting us to ask: What are the fault lines of the American political map? Or: what does it mean to join or break a protest line?
Less literally, the imperfect boundaries show us that seeing is and is not believing. The repetition of permeable lines swelling from one canvas to the next gives us insight into the future — in the way that optical illusions work to compensate for what is not there and what we might wish to see, what we might believe to be around the corner, coming up. In this vein, the coda moves us from all of the past historical moments it captures as a key to the Stations and points us forwards in time. There’s a groundedness to this movement, though, a reality in the pigment and canvas. We are presented with our own blindnesses in stark black and white, and the opportunity for making sense of how our sight is denied as we try to see where we’re headed – the direction in which, to return to the analogy of the boat, we’re sailing.
So where does the coda leave us? I would like to suggest that it leaves us with what Newman described as a certain kind of awareness, if not knowledge. It is an awareness of practical interrelations and the inextricable physical and material relationships between us. The coda proposes that a sympathetic apprehension of continuous interactions in the changing environment of the Stations forms brand-new connections with it, and that the painter’s work allows us to observe the workings of our own eyes in the act of making those connections, and thereby brings the real into collective focus. The self-knowledge that visitors are being prompted to become aware of thus is one that through its fragile and real messiness gives to us nothing less than a shared sense of infinity. As Newman put it himself, “The cry [Lema Sabachthani], the unanswerable cry, is world without end. But a painting has to hold it, world without end, in its limits.”[iii]
[i] Richard Schiff, “To Create Oneself,” in Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Ellyn Childs Allison (New York: Barnett Newman Foundation; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 4 [2-115].
[ii] Newman 1966 Guggenheim catalogue.
[iii] ARTnews 65, no. 3 (May 1966): 57 [26-28, 57].
(photographs by author)