Jean-François Lyotard’s analysis of Barnett Newman’s paintings is that their genius is found in their disintegration of the triadic system of art being an event between the sender, the recipient, and the referent (1998, p. 81). In other words “the message is the messenger; it says: ‘Here I am’ ” (1998, p. 81). Lyotard argues that Newman’s works speak of nothing and cannot be perceived to have come from the artist – instead, what is left is mere presentation, pure presence, it contains no allusions though it has the ingredients of a typical artwork – dimensions, colour, lines (1998, p. 80). It differs from the dominant historical tradition of art that relies on representation, though it still contains a subject matter; namely, time, which is expressed through the sublime. However, in this essay I will argue that Lyotard’s criteria that he sets out for Newman’s paintings is not logically consistent with the concept of art, whether his paintings achieve that criteria or not. I will argue this in regard to the concept of representation in art, the sublime in art, and art’s relation to nature.
Barnett Newman’s (1951) Vir heroicus sublimis
One could argue that Newman’s paintings are radical in their transgression of the restriction of representation – but has this transgression come at the price sacrificing its status as art? Other art forms such as music and literature are apparently free of “the constraints of figurative representation” (1998 p. 85) that hamper the expression of paintings, for example how a “poet opens up an infinite number of associations for the mind; no painted image can equal that treasure.” I agree with this sentiment but I believe that this transgression is made in a more significant way by the surrealist painters, such as Salvador Dali. Take for example, “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking” (Dali, 1944) in which we have represented objects opening up an infinite number of free associations for the mind as a poem would. In this way the painter is not required reduce his work of representation to match the relative freedom of music and literature. However, Lyotard denies this solution because of Newman’s paintings having a greater capacity for sublimity that he sees as crucial to breaking out of the figurative prison that painting is locked within.
Salvador Dali’s (1944) Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking
This sublimity is crucial not only to breaking free of representation but also in addressing the subject-matter of Newman’s paintings. Lyotard asserts that this subject matter is time, but not only that, as for Newman “time is the picture itself” (1998 p. 78).
The event-bound time in which the legendary or historical scene takes place [is reduced] to a presentation of the pictorial object itself. It is chromatic matter alone, and its relationship with the material and the layout… inspires the wonderful surprise, the wonder that there should be something rather than nothing.
(Lyotard 1998, p.85)
However, I would argue that this again does not warrant or allow art’s break from representation. A useful comparison to this is another artist obsessed with time, Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian film director who has referred to his art as ‘sculpting in time.’ Tarkovsky argues “the distinctive time running through the shots creates the rhythm of the picture – and the rhythm is determined not by the length of the edited pieces but by the pressure of the time that runs through them” (1987, p. 117). In other words, Tarkovsky rejects the notion of time being embodied in the piece itself, such as in the cutting process or in the actual duration of the piece but that it can only be meaningfully expressed through representation – distinctive time being that which is caused by character, object, nature (1987, p. 23). Tarkovsky rejection of the filmic cut as an expression of time is also a rejection of what Newman has created by his zips, the vertical lines that segment his paintings. Lyotard writes “the zip, takes place, divides the shadows, breaks down the light into colours like a prism” the zip is not only a segment – it is segment – which forms time in our most bare concept of it (1998, p. . Newman himself writes in his Prologue for a New Aesthetic the time he trying to apprehend was free from that which “involves feelings of nostalgia or high drama; always associative and historical.” I concede that this conception of time seems more appropriate for the still picture, which necessarily excludes rhythm in its stasis, but that it is nonetheless alien to the human experience. In order to experience this mere existence of time – outside of association with matter, object, character – requires taking a position, like Archimedes proposed in order to move the world with a lever, outside of the world and, in this case, outside of human experience. This is at odds with Newman’s own statements, as quoted by Lyotard, that he was inspired to create abstract art by the singular idea: “Man is present” (1998, p. 86). I would argue this example of Newman’s aesthetic philosophy is sound but that it is an artist like Tarkovsky who fulfils this presence of man within time rather than Newman.
Although Tarkovsky’s films often deal with the decay and deterioration of a world, his characters, on the contrary, in their inner lives are violently opposed to this decay, their capacity for survival while submerged in this “time as chaos” as Lyotard would say, is sublime in itself without the need to restrict oneself against figurative representation (1998, p. 86). This sublimity, of the human figure’s presence in time rather than his absence, is articulated by Tarkovsky in his description of the challenge of filming a dream sequence in Ivan’s Childhood (1962), a film about a child soldier used for scouting by the Soviet Army in World War 2:
Faced with the necessity of shooting dreams, we had to decide how to come close to the particular poetry of the dream, how to express it [method], what means to use [materials]. This was not something we could decide in the abstract. (Tarkovsky 1987, p. 30)
Ivan’s dream is composed of prophecy, his reality, and his memories of his childhood before the war. But instead of relying on abstraction to escape this conflict of time – of past, present and future – Tarkovsky weaves a dream that condenses them, from the forms of this dream we are at once aware of the sweetness of his pre-war memories, of his present condition (as he is no older or young in these dreams) and of the suggestions of his likely fate; death, which is suggested in the associations and by the logic of the dream, which he shares with his murdered mother and sister. “The absolute freedom” of his dreams is overwhelmed by “the absolute totality” of the certitude of his waking life (Kant 1987, p. 106). This is too much. Too much to explain with words (and appropriately Tarkovsky wished cinema to cast off from its parasitic relationship to literature) and too much for our faculties to experience. Ivan’s Childhood erupts a true negative presentation in the midst of chaotic chromatic matter, one which retains its place in diegesis and thus one we can relish from comfort outside of the frame, it is sublimity of the highest order as achieved by cinema (Kant 1987, p. 129). And again this achievement does not rely on the casting off of representation but rather dives into the sublime depths of the world of human experience, into “the subject’s own experience” (Jones 2013, p. 97). This world of the human experience is, I would reason, the arena of all art. This is again addressed by Tarkovsky (1987, p. 110), who defends the concept of the image against that of the so-called figurative prison, writing “the image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected as in a drop of water”
This idea of reflection is key to separating art from nature. And it is crucial to analysing Lyotard’s conception of Newman’s paintings as dissolving the traditional triadic experience of art being between the sender, the recipient, and the referent (1998, p.81). But the problem arises when we ask – if the artist is absent and yet the work remains art – how then do we differentiate art from natural phenomenon? If we suppose Newman’s work does fulfil Lyotard’s proposal then how are his works any different from the minimalist sublimity of a flat ocean or a vast desert since he is no longer present? Lyotard does not address this point but we can find elaboration of it in the philosophical teachings of the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, particular their notion of the Atman (self) and its works having complete oneness and being indistinguishable within the Brahman (nature & cosmos) (Deutsch 2010, p. 12). And evidence for this notion can be found in the name of Newman’s first series, Onement, a monument to oneness. However I believe that this revolution of the conception of art, if taken to its full conclusion, would destroy art. If we truly make “an act in defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Garden of Eden” as Newman (1992, p. 124) argues we should – then we lose the ability, like Adam and Eve before the fall, to use tools, to make works, to be no more than beasts with no capacity for art. Furthermore, in his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel asserts that works that “revert to the imitation of nature” and “completely dissolve into the presentation”, have failed as art (2010, p. 598). In reference to Romantic art but which we can also apply to abstract art, Hegel argues that the artist should capture not just reality or nature in its most basic terms but should instead aim for the lebendigkeit (the liveliness, spiritedness, or quickness) (2010, p. 168) of things, which are often fleeting: “the lustre of metal, the shimmer of a bunch of grapes by candlelight, a vanishing glimpse of the moon or the sun, a smile, the expression of a swiftly passing emotion” (2010, p. 599). In other words, a work can only be considered art if it does more than merely imitate nature. In this, we find another aspect Lyotard’s analysis problematic – the embodiment of Newman’s ever perpetuating Be (1998, p. 88) as opposed to the fleeting lebendigkeit.
However, again Tarkovsky succeeds where Newman fails. This is apparent in Andrei Rublev (1966) a film that follows the fictionalized life of Russia’s most famous icon painter. We follow the life of Rublev who travels from church to church, repairing in desperation the icons and frescoes falling into disrepair, back dropped by the ruins of the classical European empires. The world portrayed is desolate, his personal relationships fleeting due to widespread deterioration and despair. At the end of his odyssey, Rublev, who has suffered much, is given a vicarious victory by witnessing the success of an orphan who succeeds against all odds in being tasked, as the son of a late bell caster, in casting a bell himself despite his inexperience. The bell rings, but this victory is not enough, we have suffered too much and the orphan falls into the mud, weeping in relief and grief, cradled by the icon painter. Rublev rocks him and whispers that they will travel to St Petersburg: “You will cast bells and I will paint icons” (Tarkovsky 1966). We cut suddenly, after three hours and twenty minutes of monochrome film in which we never actually see Rublev paint, into full colour close shots of the real icons of Andrei Rublev, we see every detail and know of each one’s severe, exorbitant cost. In this Tarkovsky successfully allows art to transcend the Weltschmerz (world pain) he has constructed. But the moment of real genius follows just after, when, in a seemingly innocuous choice, the music fades and thunder growls, rain pours down a wall and we fade to a shot of horses grazing on a field next to a river, then it fades to black and the credits roll – but we continue to hear the rain. Nature pours, as it were, out of the frame.
The final shots from Andrei Tarkovsky’s (1966) Andrei Rublev
The genius of this is Tarkovsky’s restraint. He reminds us that Rublev’s art, although a triumph of human spirit, has not abandoned the world in its transcendence, his works are still placed in nature, in the world of grazing horses and rain, this transcendence then elevates not only art, but all of creation. And with the rain overwhelming his own credits, Tarkovsky applies this same principle to his own art. This act of aesthetic prostration clarifies that even if a return to the Garden of Eden or the ideal of the Advaita Vedanta were possible, once there we would have no need of art – for the price of art is having lived, and to live is to suffer through time.
Dali, S 1944, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, online image, viewed 24 May 2019, https://www.dalipaintings.com/dream-caused-by-the-flight-of-a-bee-around-a-pomegranate-one-second-before-awakening.jsp
Deutsch, E 2010, The Essential Vedanta, World Wisdom, Lanham.
Hegel, G 2010, Aesthetics, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Jones, G 2013, Lyotard Reframed, I.B. Tauris & Company Limited, London.
Kant, I 1987 The Critique Of Judgement, Oxford University Press, London.
Lyotard, J 1998 The Inhuman, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Newman, B 1951, Vir heroicus sublimis, The Museum of Modern Art, online image, viewed 25 May 2019, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79250
Newman, B 1992, Selected writings and interviews, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Tarkovsky, A (dir) 1962, Ivan’s Childhood, DVD, Mosfilm, Moscow.
Tarkovsky, A (dir) 1966, Andrei Rublev, DVD, Mosfilm, Moscow.
Tarkovsky, A 1987, Sculpting in Time, University of Texas Press, Austin.