Secret Symmetry: Barnett Newman and Henry David Thoreau

By: Christopher Snow Hopkins

Contact Sheet
Barnett Newman, Annalee Newman and Miss Hosmer at Walden Pond and other landmarks in Concord, MA. Photos: Barnett Newman or Annalee Newman. © 2017 The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York.

“Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness, and at his own helplessness before the void.”
—Barnett Newman, 1947

In 1950, Barnett Newman held his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Apart from a favorable review by Aline Louchheim in the New York Times, the cognoscenti excoriated his work, with one critic going so far as to put the word “paintings” in quotation marks. Like original man shouting his consonants, the artist presented 11 paintings in the main room of the gallery, a monastic space with none of the furnishings that were common in New York galleries at the time. Newman sold only one painting, End of Silence (1949), taking home $84.14 after paying for gallery expenses.

All of the works in the exhibition exploited the vertical stripe—later referred to as a “zip”—as a compositional device. In effect, Newman had invented a new species of abstract expressionism, one that dispensed with the red-blooded theatrics of Jackson Pollock and the lambent palette of Mark Rothko in favor of what many regarded as “empty canvases with a stripe down the middle,” as later recalled by the art critic Harold Rosenberg.

People didn’t know how to respond to his work. Was it an allegory of man’s first expression, a reenactment of the first artistic gesture in which primordial man made his mark on the void? Newman refused to say. He kept it a mystery. His only clue to the gallery-goer came in an artist’s statement: “These paintings are not ’abstractions,’ nor do they depict some ’pure’ idea. They are specific and separate embodiments of feeling, to be experienced, each picture for itself. They contain no depictive allusions. Full of restrained passion, their poignancy is revealed in each concentrated image.”

Despite the protestations of the artist, at least one painting, later named Concord, seems to contain a depictive allusion, albeit one cloaked in abstraction. The work features two zips in rusty yellow-colored paint—parallel tracks overlaid on a field of diluted green paint. Much has been made of the bilateral format of the composition, but few can deny that the green brushwork brings to mind an agrarian landscape seen from above. As the art critic Thomas B. Hess rhapsodized years later, this “is one of the artist’s most relaxed, pastoral pictures.”

Concord is the key to understanding the artist’s affinity for transcendentalism and its most famous practitioner, Henry David Thoreau. In the summer of 1936, Newman and his wife, Annalee, spent their honeymoon in New England, where they visited a variety of landmarks associated with transcendentalism and the Revolutionary War. After traveling by boat from New York to Provincetown, MA, they took a train to Boston and then proceeded to Concord, MA, where they collected pamphlets from the Old Manse, the Wayside and the Old Mill House (Reuben Brown House). As Mrs. Newman recalled during an interview with the writer Dodie Kazanjian, her husband was intent on reading everything he could about Thoreau and wished to do everything that the philosopher had done, even climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. (She expressed misgivings, however, about ascending the 3,165-foot peak on her honeymoon.)

When they arrived in Concord, the couple visited a tavern operated by “Miss Hosmer,” the scion of a prominent Massachusetts family and an ambulance driver in France during World War I. Miss Hosmer shuttled the newlyweds to Walden Pond and other places of interest, all while holding forth on the transcendentalists. Her uncle had a connection to Thoreau, and Miss Hosmer had a collection of pencils made by the philosopher while working in his father’s factory. Before the newlyweds left Concord, she presented one to Newman.

“The abstract expressionists didn’t really have role models in visual art because, until then, American art had been fairly provincial,” said Ann Temkin, currently the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the organizer of a landmark Barnett Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2002. “So, they looked to philosophy and literature. Newman was drawn to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau, in particular, because these writers embraced what they saw as certain American traits: self-invention, self-realization, independence, originality…Newman was certainly conscious that his name could be ’new man,’ and he wanted to out-American the Americans who had preceded him.”

In Thoreau, Newman found an apostle of individualism who “lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” as Thoreau writes at the beginning of Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). Yet, beyond a shared desire to “start from scratch,” in Newman’s words, the two men had much in common. Both had been required to work in family-owned businesses while trying to establish themselves in their respective fields. (For Thoreau, this was a pencil-making factory; for Newman, it was a garment factory in Lower Manhattan.) Both expressed anarchist sensibilities and wrote essays on the subject of personal freedom. Both manifested a desire to attain to a metaphysical realm, to “participate in the sublime,” as Rosenberg observed. And, both were habitual walkers who venerated the natural world: “I remember years ago shocking my friends by saying I would rather go to Churchill, Canada to walk the tundra than go to Paris,” Newman said in 1962.

In this way, the parallel zips of Concord suggest a concordance of biography, sensibility and temperament; two vectors that will never intersect but share the same pictorial field. Newman has suggested that the zip is a surrogate for “the self, terrible and constant,” but here we have two. The bilateral format of this painting, if it means anything at all, may well suggest a “secret symmetry,” in the words of Hess, linking two men in pursuit of a new beginning.

The author wishes to thank the Barnett Newman Foundation.
Christopher Snow Hopkins is an independent writer and critic living in Boston.

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