His Cross To Bear

Barnett Newman Dealt With Suffering in ‘Zips’

Courtesy of the Barnett Newman Foundation

By Menachem Wecker

Published August 01, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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Artists who have used the Crucifixion as a symbol of Jewish suffering include, most notably, Marc Chagall, whose “White Crucifixion” (1938), at the Art Institute of Chicago, shows Jesus dressed in only a tallit loincloth. He is nailed to an enormous cross adorned by a Hebrew and Aramaic inscription that identifies him as the king of the Jews. The crucifixion is flanked by such Jewish symbols as a burning Torah scroll, a flying rabbi and a figure that arguably represents the Wandering Jew.

Other artists who have used New Testament imagery for Jewish purposes include Samuel Bak and Emanuel Levy, both of whose works were part of the exhibit “Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion” two years ago at Ben Uri Gallery: The London Jewish Museum of Art. Levy’s 1942 “Crucifixion,” which was part of the Ben Uri show, pays homage to Chagall by dressing the crucified Jesus in a prayer shawl and phylacteries, although Levy’s titulus above the cross reads “Jude” in blood red.

Uncrossed: Newman’s straight lines seem to vibrate like plucked strings.
Barnett Newman, ‘First Station,’ 1958. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Uncrossed: Newman’s straight lines seem to vibrate like plucked strings.

Some critics dispute the significance of Judaism, and especially of Kabbalah, in Newman’s work. Godfrey quotes Newman’s widow, Annalee Newman, who wrote in American Art in 1995, “The only connection that exists between Barnett Newman and the Kabbalah… is that Newman used kabbalistic language for the titles of several of his works. He did so, I am certain, because the language was poetic and fanciful.”

While Godfrey argues that Newman’s Jewishness — at least as a painter — could be overstated, he is convinced that one can say, at the very least, that Newman chose to present himself as an artist “who was interested in Jewish religious and literary traditions,” and also “as an amateur scholar, comfortable enough with religious literature to be able to use it and to defend his use if necessary.” The key for Newman, Godfrey concludes, was control over the meaning of his artistic project: “‘Yes’ to Jewish intellectual-artist-architect; ‘yes’ to scholar; ‘no’ to maker of ‘Jewish art.’”

But it’s also important to ask how deeply one can question Newman’s decision to mine Christian subjects. As my friend Tom Barron, a painter in Brookline, Mass., reminded me, Christian themes have long been a part of the canon, and it would be surprising for a Jewish artist not to draw on them.

Newman “did a good job with his taking a common, by his time clichéd subject and redoing it in abstract terms,” Barron said. “A Jew like Newman, removed from and unmoved by traditional Christian iconography, could see this eternal theme with fresh, ‘inner’ eyes.”

Perhaps by being removed from and unmoved by the cross, Newman was able to capture its symbolism even more poignantly.

Menachem Wecker blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at blog.chron.com/iconia. Follow him on Twitter @mwecker


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