“…the meaningless materialism of design…”

The New York School of artists faced unbridled criticism from patrons, gallerists, older established artists, and critics as they individually responded to a new, vital energy now prevalent in Greenwich Village. A fervor, if you will, for greater freedom of expression portending creative change!

The color filed practitioners, led by Mark Rothko, cast a solid shadow over the Abstract Expressionists looking to Rothko for leadership and mentoring. Barnett Newman, a native New Yorker who studied at the fabled/famed Art Students League, was a major contributor to the color field realm of painters in Greenwich Village. Newman focused his studio practice around an existential tone/content where his compositions emphasized intentionality, locality, physical presence, a shadow of contingency, and possessed powerful communication pathways.

Describing his point of entrance into the color field realm of A E, Barnett Newman wrote:

“The Kwakiutl artist painting on a hide did not concern himself with the inconsequential that made up the opulent social rivalries of the Northwest Coast Indian scene, no did he, in the name of the higher purity, renounce the living world for the meaningless materialism of design. The abstract shape he used, his entire plastic language, was directed by a ritualistic will towards metaphysical understanding.”

As you examine the uploaded images by Barnett Newman in this blog posting, what are your insights, thoughts, and curiosities when you read the following thoughts by Newman: “Any art worthy of its name should address life, man(woman), nature, death and tragedy.” Do you see these ideas addressed in the images or in the existential realm within which Newman is exploring?

Barnett Newman in his NYC Studio

Barnett Newman, Concord, 1949

Barnett Newman, Adam, 1951-1952

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

30 Comments

30 thoughts on ““…the meaningless materialism of design…””

  1. I feel like art can address a lot of different things at once. It is hard to say if I feel like the color blocking pieces address something specific. For the artist they may have but I think each viewer will always interpret the art with things occurring in their mind and life. I cannot personally see ideas of life, man(woman), nature, death or tragedy.

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  2. I think that fact that art is meant to be interpreted the viewer, it allows for a multitude of interpretations as we all think and view things differently. I think in that sense the work shown has the capabilities to be viewed in those ways, life, man, death, etc. The mere act of a human life viewing it sparks that in sense. In the end, one can walk away from that piece and feel something other than those things, and I think opens that existential realm Newman is exploring.

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  3. I think it all depends on how you see it. In the painting, Concord when it comes to talk about addressing nature. For me, I see within this painting growing trees. Others may not see that but I do. In his painting Adam, I see at the bottom left a persons back and casted in the shawdows on the colors on the right is a head with pointy horns maybe. Once again its how I see it and I may be a bit crazy. Everyone’s art doesn’t necessarily need to address those specific themes. There is more to art than just those topics and besides a person can paint a bunny and the viewer may see a dog. Perception.

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  4. For me personally, art can be interpreted in many different ways. Once an artist releases a piece of work the audience is free to interpret it however they want even if it was originally supposed to mean one thing. I can definitely see how Newman created both those pieces with the intention for it to address life. However while they could be interpreted it as two lines never meeting just like two people in life someone else could interpret it as just two lines on a page. When it comes to abstract art people typically interpret it to how they are feeling at the moment or what they are going through and I think that’s what makes abstract art so special.

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  5. I believe there are many different ways to interpret the ideas that Newman wishes to see within art, especially within his own. His paintings may likely be aiming towards talking about life, especially because they have names of “real” people (ie. Adam), and the painting could easily be talking about the life of a individual, whether fictional or based upon reality. These paintings also have masculine names, going into his idea that art should go after the theme of “man/woman”. So while I personally may not be able to fully interpret the piece, I do understand where Newman is coming from.

    However, I do not think that there should be a pre-requisite of themes in order for art to be worthy of its name. While it could certainly be themes that Newman himself likes to explore, trying to place abstract art within a theme bubble is contradicting. We all have different perceptions and cultural backgrounds that change the meaning of art for all of us, and to imply that abstract art especially should address specific themes is also disqualifying the possible various perspectives that other people may have.

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  6. When I look at Newman’s work I could see a conversation about some of these things. He seems to be exploring a type of unity or relationship that could be interpreted visually as one’s “nature death and tragedy” as Newman mentioned. Concord, shows a relationship between two lines, two negative spaces, and a simmilar thin segment in-between. I think this is an interesting type of visual essay that uses simplicity to produce recollection and feeling for the viewer. It would feel different if the lines were horizontal. In this vertical format, it has the feeling of a moment of transition between important, and uncomfortable moments in one’s life. Maybe like waiting alone at an airport, doctor’s office, or a long elevator ride before a job interview. As the viewer I am stuck here contemplating, and moving from space to space in a slightly uncomfortable symmetry.

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  7. Barnett Newman’s work, in addition to other abstract works, is not only pieces of art. I agree that there is more that lies beyond the surface of these works, in an existential and emotional sense. In these pieces, there is no beginning and end creating a path to follow taking you from one specific image to the next. The meaning in the painting is what you ascribe to it once you re-emerge from experiencing these works. Depending on the individual who is viewing the piece, they may recognize life, death, and or tragedy; none of which are mutually exclusive. There is limitlessness within these pieces much like experiences of life and the overwhelming grief that accompanies tragedy. Pointedly, it is what we don’t see or recognize that lies beyond, that lives within, and exists as the true importance of these works. Barnett Newman’s paintings might first have the observer questioning if there is really anything of significance present on the canvas. However, once they sit with the piece and delve deeper into the space he created their experience transcends even the physical, allowing them to feel the movement in these layered colors. These artists sought a deeper truth to express something that could not be conceptually expressed. Abstract works are not only a piece of art but also an experience that one can take with them.

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  8. I think this quote by Newman is the essence of art and what it stands for. Art is often criticized for not being something substantial or useful in the “real world.” However I think real art reflects all that the real world is: life, nature, death and tragedy. The work posted by Newman in this blog relates greatly to his quote. There is a simplicity to his work that resembles the essence of life and almost relates to Taoist beliefs. People believe life is something incredibly monumental and extreme, when really it could be as simple as everyone connected to each other on the same path of life.

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  9. Aundie Soriano
    Art 477 section 1002

    Circling back to my previous response about the Jackson Pollock prompt, I believe that art is subjective to both the creator and viewer. Regarding Newman’s work, his interpretation about art and the way he goes about it is entirely up to him. Looking through the images, there is a part of me that can connect and understand how these pieces address ideas of life and nature. For me, these lines that stand out from a solid background represent one’s life. For instance, the first image where Barnett Newman is in his studio, the paintings behind him make me think about how even in the darkest moments of life there is always that little light that guides you out. I think that color has a strong and powerful way of making one think and feel a certain way. I also think the color combinations he chose have a good amount of contrast to where one does not overpower the other and they stand out on their own but also come together very well. I think it’s really interesting how artists find ways to express different concepts in a way that doesn’t have to be so obvious to the viewer.

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  10. I think that any piece of artwork should touch our inner feelings before we try to make sense of a meaningful conclusion to something we can recognize. I think that Barnett Newman had the intention to communicate his personal expressions through his art in a way that was recognizable for him, individual, and sublime. His expressions of tone and form were what led him to explore the nature of humanity and the purpose of art and brought him to make this statement of art addressing life. He has a very unique perspective that comes along with his ability to communicate this by creating meditative and contemplative forms. I do believe that there are many interpretations and answers to art, especially abstract art, that doesn’t necessarily have to follow specific realms that Newman implies. With abstract art, we can imagine our own realities and step out of visual restrictions to explore our own visual and emotional experience.

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  11. I find it quite “misleading” to try and detect any “life, man (woman), nature, death, and tragedy” in any of his paintings at first glance without any other deep thought. Any viewer at first glance will simple see it as a two colored canvas with lines. Maybe say, “Even I can do this.” But that’s the thing. “You” didn’t make it. The next thing to consider is the title, which Newman says that “art worthy of its name should address” so and so. Taking a look at Concord, I gave myself time to think of what the purpose of these two lines mean along with the two chosen colors of yellow and green. The artist has the power of what colors are chosen. Not only the colors, but how the art will be created and how it’ll look like. It is up to the artist to be able to let the viewers understand and interpret what it is we’re looking at. Or so maybe even have us thinking if they are the type to make us do so than have it explicitly given to us. It is more implied and we look back at the title to try and make that connection with the piece. I feel in itself it can be somewhat “abstract” since there is no visible forms or organic forms to really determine any “life” into the piece, Concord. This can go the same for Adam. I feel it all makes sense through the artist’s point of view when they create a piece, but if it isn’t that explicitly shown then us viewers will have a harder time figuring out what it is. I always found it interesting to be placed in the artist’s POV by looking at the sort of “abstract” piece they created which has a real meaning to it despite it looking “simple” or “empty” and we really have to think the “why’s.” Looking up the definition of concord does help me see the meaning behind the Concord piece itself with the balance of both lines in “harmony” with one another. Though I still wouldn’t be able to guess much more beyond that since I don’t have much more to go on to or connect it with something else that would help me understand it better. I like not being able to know the whole meaning behind a piece in truth and leave me thinking to the many possibilities, or even a specific range of possibilities.

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  12. Personally, it is hard to see any ideas expressed in his paintings as they feature two lines, but as a viewer that is bad at interpreting abstract art, that is just my opinion. Other people may see it exactly what the artist was aiming for. Maybe he intentionally gave it no meaning, as in worldly things are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, therefore all we have are two lines: the plane of existence and questioning how real we perceive things.

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  13. When I see Newman’s paintings I don’t really get a sense that they address the ideas that he is trying to portray, instead I’m more reminded of things because of the colors I’m seeing, if that makes sense. In Concord I think of nature and life because of my associations with the color of green and nature, and subsequently nature to life. On the other hand in Adam all of the ideas he mentioned are brought up in my mind because the red and black remind me of death, and that results in me going through all the others ideas related to them. My only issue with these readings is that I feel that I am relating these artworks to his intended themes because I was given his quote beforehand. If I had seen them blind, without knowing anything about the artist or his goals for creating artwork, I’m not sure I would have come to the same ideas and themes. I wonder if Newman made it clear to anyone who views his work that life, man, nature, death, and tragedy were what they should be seeing from his work or if he intended anyone to see his works to go in blind and come to those themes on their own as they saw it.

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  14. Art can be interpreted in many ways. I believe it all depends on the viewer and the artist because art is subjective. While the artist may have intended to address life, man/woman, nature, death and tragedy, I personally did not see these ideas addressed in the images, but that is because I have trouble interpreting abstract art. I do think the blocked colors emit strong emotions, such as Concord. It evokes a calm feeling, and now after reading the quote I would think it addresses nature, but prior to looking at the work, I did not consider any of these themes. Also, with Adam, the red and black evoke an angry emotion, but now I can see how it could address death and tragedy.

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  15. Art is something that is different for everyone that experiences it. Depending on the piece, people could have many different interpretations of said pieces. The pieces shown above are very simplistic and straight to the point at first glance. The more I look into them though, the more I can see what Newman is trying to say in his pieces, although I might just be grasping at straws. In Concord and Adam, I believe that the parallel lines are representing the lives and fate of individuals. Man, nature, death, and tragedy are all vital when it comes to the meaning of life. People go their whole lives without interacting with another in any way. Something that could be intentional as well is in Concord, the left strip of yellow is muddied with the surrounding turquoise color. This could mean that its path/journey was dirtier than the one on the right. Although I might have interpreted his pieces in a way that he did not intend, I do see the intricacies of his simple looking pieces, and the depth some pieces have really get your mind going.

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  16. Personally, I believe that art can be about anything and have the same level of meaning as life, death. tragedy, etc. These genres are just things that many people share and have in common which is probably why they are so popular. At the end of the day, I believe that we all value different things and that to say that all art should be about these genres is somewhat demeaning to art itself and how it is used as a medium of expression. As for these artworks, that are within this post, I do not exactly see, quite frankly, any of these genres in the works presented here. I’m sure that there are others out there that might see more than what I do since everybody can interpret it differently, but for me specifically I do not see much of anything that would get me to the conclusion that the work has any more meaning than a few strokes that could theoretically lead to something else.

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  17. Annie Lin
    One of the vital elements in helping us to understand Newman’s work, is to see the work in person. When I see the scale of them compare to galleries’ wall, I understand there is limitation in our screens. For now, I am able to read Newman’s elements more clearly in Adam. The contrast between black and red makes me think of blood, death, and tragedy. Further, the thin line on the right is fragile compare to the other two. If I imagine myself standing in front of it, my attention will be occupied by the other two thick lines, while the thin line lingers at my side view. The uneasiness is quite interesting.

    Further, abstract expressionism is open to meanings, it is for the audience to decide what is man(woman), nature, death and tragedy in Newman’s painting. In a way, the audience is finding their own meaning to these element first, and they will connect their meaning to Newman’s painting. In the end, they built a bridge of communication. I enjoy how abstract expressionism is similar quantum, which provides possibilities and potentials.

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  18. I don’t think addressing the themes of life, humanity, nature, death, and tragedy are super necessary for something to be considered art. I think art can exist without large themes being present, or any theme at all. Personally, I don’t see any of these ideas in these images, but my interpretation is not the only interpretation out there. When I see abstract art, I never think of big ideas like life and death, I just tend to admire the art itself. But plenty of people, when looking at work like Newman’s, are able to relate and draw these connections themselves with blocks of color present. Different cultures associate colors with different things, so even with a meaning the artist was trying to get across, it would eventually be lost regardless. It really all up to the viewers, and you can’t really force someone to see it one way or the other.

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  19. Sorry this comment is late!! But I still wanted to make a contribution. I think this is an interesting question as I think art can be expressed in many different ways. Including the idea that I do not think that art needs to address these certain themes stated by Newman. I for one, as I have previously stated struggle with finding meaning in abstract pieces, especially when they do not exhibit a lot of movement like the ones seen here. However, there are slight suggestions through the bend of lines in Adam, that could give the whole piece a different meaning as well. Again, I may not understand these, however, seeing my fellow students comment has given me a different perspective in seeing their ideas.
    This is what is important in art for me, it’s expressing yourself and being able to see peoples interpretations/opinions, wether they be straightforward or very abstract. Another point that I have always noticed in my own art, is the artist will always interpret their piece the “correct” way, time and time again people have critiqued me for things that I never would have noticed because I was so focused on what I wanted it to be. It is just an interesting take seeing what Newman believed of his own pieces.

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  20. I see the aspects of the themes mentioned in Newman’s quote within his pieces, but most within the portrait of him sitting in his studio. He is in a space secluded with his art, not looking back at it (only looking forward, perhaps thinking of the next painting or his next action apart from it), but also smoking his life away simultaneously. That which gives him life exists in the same space as that which he has chosen to hinder his mortality; certainly ironic, but perhaps that is the whole idea, especially in regards to tragedy. As for the paintings alone, while I enjoy them, I cannot honestly say I would have associated his themes without having read them before examining the art itself.

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  21. Lizbeth Ramirez | Art 477

    When I read the quote by Newman “Any art worthy of its name should address life, man (woman), nature, death and tragedy.” I immediately thought that according to him art had to be in this box. I feel like most art might use those elements as a subject/theme but I don’t think it’s necessary to have them in order for the work to be worthy. It also goes back to interpretation, because looking at the images of his work I don’t see it addressing these themes. I could be wrong though because for him maybe the colors represent something or the different sizes of the lines/boxes.

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  22. By glancing at the works of Newman, I cannot specify which art illustrates life, man, nature, or death. However, this does not mean that the artist’s intention of his art is wrong but rather emphasizes that everyone’s perception is different and thus, cannot be said both artist’s intention nor an individual’s interpretation can be said to be either wrong or right. To guess, I personally feel nature for “Concord” and death for “Adam” from its colors. I may be wrong, but wrong, only in that it differs from the artist’s intention and not that my perception is wrong.

    Personally, though, I do not want to support Newman’s quote of discussing “worthy” of art because I feel like discussing the worthiness of art in any way is meaningless in that purpose of art is not to be discussed if it’s worthy or not.

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  23. From my experience with Newman’s art, I feel like there are ways that his work can be expressed representing different perspectives (life/death, man/woman). The reason I feel like this can exist in his minimalist work is because of his contrasting colors and striking lines. For me at least, this can read duality and opposing viewpoints like life and death.
    I feel though, if one was looking at his piece’s without any previous context, pulling perspectives like life/death and man/woman would be much more difficult to come to

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  24. Dear Professor Tracy,

    As I examined the Concord, 1949 by Barnett Newman, in this blog posting, and reflecting on the quote, “Any art worthy of its name should address life, man(woman), nature, death, and tragedy.” 

    Thinking and examining Barnett’s composition emphasizes intentionality, physical presence, and a shadow of contingency; In my opinion, I see a man behind the two lines as a sliding glass door that is partially open. I believe that the quote shows humanity and its inherent divide. As Barnett was an existentialist who opposed defining human beings as primarily rational, you can see subjective rather than pure rationality. 

    Sydney-Paige Kay

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  25. Newman was interested in creating the art of the “pure idea” in which man can speak about his tragic situation. The artist minimized every narrative and all figurations of art to achieve this situation, even the details, and pictorial events. Newman, who adopted the idea of ​​”pure idea” in 1948, said that the artist had to “liberate himself from obstacles” to produce “real, inspirational and concrete” images. (Met Museum)
    Newman’s paintings represent emptiness as a whole, rather than using outlines, making shapes, or keeping spaces separate. It is a work that consists almost entirely of canvases covered in one color. Sometimes a light or dark vertical stripes are made to disrupt the monotony. I think this is to turn a blind eye to the workings of life and existential philosophy. In his work called “Adam,” not much can be seen by looking at the dense color areas with simple vertical lines. It can be seen that the black background tries to reveal a growing range that opens into infinite red lines. For Newman, who says that the first person was an artist, this work is very relatable to me. Fun Fact: As evident from the above sentence’s sentimentality, Barnett Newman is considered too romantic by other painters who painted in the same period.

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  26. I think that art can be interpreted in any way, although I am not a fan of abstract, I can see meaning in Newman’s minimal abstract paintings. I do not agree with Newman’s statement; “Any art worthy of its name should address life, man(woman), nature, death and tragedy.” I feel that art can address things outside of these themes. I interpret his art outside of these themes. With “Concord” I get a sense of regalness and pristine, while with “Adam” I get a sense of sensual drama. I do not see these other themes really at all. I definitely do not see really anything existential within them.

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  27. Why are some of the art so plain and simple. My guess is that the artist likes to make his art simple yet interesting for all those to see. Which is the kind of artist I am on the inside.

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  28. I could see the ideas that Newman intended on expressing within his works. The clear cut lines and color used within each piece can yield to many different meanings and interpretations. I think you can rewire your thinking to include any idea when looking at a piece of art. If he had said that his pieces deal with themes of “expression and individuality” instead of “life and death” I can see how those meanings correlate to the given image.

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  29. I agree with Jack Torres comment on this post. Viewing his art as an audience, we would not interpret his painting exactly as Newman intended. I don’t think he would expect the audience to understand his art without context either. While I agree that the colors and tones that he chose can emanate energy, no one, at first glance, can outright claim that they got the message of “… address[ing] life, man(woman), nature, death and tragedy.” As an audience, we can say what we think the piece is trying to convey if we didn’t have the background knowledge about him and his work. If he truly wanted the audience to fully understand his work, art education needs to be more accessible because art viewing is a developed skill.

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