“First Station” (1958)
“First Station” (1958)

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Barnett Newman had a very different 1958 than some of his contemporaries, a fact we’re reminded of in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition on the abstract expressionist. By that year, Mark Rothko was producing his definitive work, including the series that would evolve into the Rothko Chapel, the culmination of his spiritual ambitions. Jackson Pollock had died in a car crash two years earlier, his cult firmly established by his proclamation, “I am nature.” Newman had discovered his own trope, the zip painting, in the mid-1940s, but by 1958 he had still failed to earn a solo muesum exhibition. And far from conquering nature, he suffered a reminder of his subservience to it that year when he had a heart attack. But that year was the moment in his development when Barnett Newman, quite literally, came to Jesus.

“The Stations of the Cross,” a cycle of 15 paintings found in the latest show in the National Gallery’s “In the Tower” series, was an aching departure for Newman. For these paintings, begun in 1958 and finished in 1966, the colorist gave up color. That decision alone might have struck his contemporaries as a repudiation of his earlier work, as Newman had until that point largely relied on the interaction of progressive and regressive colors across a vertical axis—a method he discovered. Now, working with simple black and white colors in acrylic, oil, Magna, and other stains, Newman focused on the application of subtle gesture and enormous restraint.

The “Stations” paintings are not so much an explication of the Passion as they are a catechism for abstraction. Newman did not paint them in a linear order, and there is no formal way to read his paintings and discover in them allegories for crucifixion or resurrection. The restraint in color suggests totality, though, and in his gestures, Newman conveys absolutes: a commingling of barely there brushstrokes with precise line, the void separating planes of raw canvas.

Newman said that with these works, he hoped to capture Christ on the cross, crying out to God in dread and confusion. But in the National Gallery’s tower, that cry is muffled: The paintings are some of the finest of any abstract American project, but they do not sing in the space. The I.M. Pei-designed Tower is too small for 15 paintings (which are joined by “Be (II),” a painting Newman tacked on when the Guggenheim Museum showed “Stations” for the first time in 1966). And the space, with its latticed glass ceiling, is too modern and secular, more fitting for the snarkier and less lofty artists that the National Gallery usually programs there, like Mel Bochner and Nam June Paik. The East Wing of the National Gallery is no sacred space; the ongoing restoration of its facade has revealed that it is not made of stone through and through, but stone built over a brick frame. The building has always felt a little insincere for certain artists; for Newman, whose work is quite important in the National Gallery’s collection, the Tower seems downright insufficient.