Over the past 30 years, William Newman has explored many artistic techniques—and one personal history.
William Newman made his reputation on the street, with murals that drew the wrath of groups as disparate as the Reagan administration and the National Organization for Women. Most recently, however, the artist has been painting pictures of the birds that nested this spring outside the bathroom of the cluttered Palisades house he shares with his wife, Anne Fraser; a predominantly gray parrot, Spy; and a high-strung young French bulldog, Circe.
The recent sequence of bird paintings, The Nest, follows a set of flower canvases, the Skylight series, that is represented in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s current retrospective, “William Newman: Peripheral Vision.” Newman hasn’t entirely abandoned the public for the private, though.
As he greets two visitors and escorts them to his second-floor studio, the shaggy-haired artist points out a proof for the 2001 piece NASA Space Mural/Hubba Bubba. He offers Oranginas from a small refrigerator filled with bottles of the drink and notes that NASA gave him five gallons of ultraviolet- and meteorite-resistant coating to safeguard the painting. “I don’t know if I want to use it for the mural or my car,” he cracks, in a voice that’s a sort of booming drawl.
Although the curators couldn’t find the space for this mural, the retrospective offers an outline of the artist’s entire career, from 1972 to 2002. Most of the 30 works are paintings, at least in part. Newman and what he calls his “very talented painting assistants” use a traditional technique, layering translucent color glazes atop monochromatic underpainting, just as Vermeer once did. Yet Newman was also one of the first artists to use a Macintosh, and many of his latest pieces are derived from either video images or computer “morphing” software.
Many artists change their styles as they age, but maturation isn’t the only reason for the domestic scale and novel techniques of the 54-year-old painter’s later art. In 1979, Newman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and these days he navigates his house and studio—and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where he’s taught since 1973—in a motorized wheelchair.
“At first I don’t think I acknowledged my limitations,” he says. But by 1985, when his friend and dealer David Adamson encouraged him to go to Hecht’s to buy a Mac, Newman was ready to try a new approach. “I turned to the computer to make up what I was losing physically,” he notes. That his manual dexterity was lessening as this new technology arrived, he suggests, “was just bizarre timing.”
“I used to do everything completely by myself,” Newman says. In 1976, he completed a 6-by-7-foot portrait of Jimmy Carter for an inaugural ball at the Corcoran in just 96 hours. By then, he’d already demonstrated his productivity with a 1975-1976 series of murals depicting Corcoran student and life-studies model Sarah Tuft. The District’s daily newspapers excitedly reported on the first one: a 24-by-5-foot painting of a reclining and nearly nude Tuft, meant to divert construction workers at a building site near the Corcoran. (The painting was inside the site, but a peephole was thoughtfully provided for passers-by.) The mural, later dubbed Lady Sarah, featured a tempera-paint bikini that would wash away in the first major rain. But the bathing suit lasted as long as the mural, which was soon taken down.
Newman did two more outdoor Sarahs: Sarah Claus, at a building site at 18th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and Sarah and Strawberry Shortcake, for the Third Edition restaurant in Georgetown. The first painting featured a wash-away Santa suit, but the dry snow that winter didn’t do the job. So some Corcoran students in firefighter outfits, with Newman’s blessing, hosed down the mural. The second work was approved and then contested by the federal Commission of Fine Arts. Newman and his friends—including future Guggenheim Museum curator Walter Hopps—assumed that commission Chair J. Carter Brown was opposed. “‘Fuck Carter Brown,’” Newman says Hopps told him. “‘Put it up anyway.’” He did; typically, it didn’t stay up for long.
Unlike Newman and his students, though, not everyone thought that the Sarah paintings were in the tradition of the classical nude—or very funny. “I was already attacked by NOW for Lady Sarah,” says Newman. “And when they washed the Santa suit off Sarah Claus, [feminists] wrote me letters saying, ‘You better have bodyguards. We’re going to castrate you on sight.’
“In retrospect, I think I was kind of an arrogant little jerk, but when I was doing it, it was fun,” he adds. “Sarah thought it was cool. We went and did a story for Playboy in Chicago, where I painted the bathing suit on her body and washed it off. I saw nothing degrading about it at all. The League of Women Voters did ask me if they could borrow Lady Sarah for the presidential debate, so I did have some women on my side.”
The first in this series of controversies was sparked by a painting that Newman didn’t even make, although he was responsible for it. During the Nixon administration, he assigned his students to paint large copies of works in the Corcoran collection, and one chose a Philip Pearlstein nude. Eight of the paintings were erected at a nearby construction site. “If you stood in the right spot with a camera, you could get a picture of the Pearlstein and the White House,” Newman remembers. “Once this got to be known, there were like 150 tourists at the corner taking this picture of the White House and the Pearlstein. One day, I’m down at the site and police cars pull up from all directions, and they jumped out of the car and took down all eight of the paintings.”
In 1984, when Newman created yet another controversial mural, it wasn’t the police who arrived, but the Army. On a construction fence outside the Federal Trade Commission, the artist had rendered Ronald Reagan looking at the sky with the legend, “five minutes”—a reference to the former president’s officially off-the-record joke that he would begin bombing the Soviet Union in five minutes. The mural was first blocked by a pile of furniture and then papered over. Both times, Newman cleared away the obstructions. Then a military crew appeared, dismantled the entire fence, and hauled everything away.
A photo of the piece does appear in the “Peripheral Vision” catalog, somewhat to Newman’s surprise. “Half of the stuff I wrote for the catalog was a little politically incorrect for the institution,” he says. “I’m amazed that they even let the Reagan five-minute piece go.”
Newman has some playful gripes about both the catalog and the retrospective, but mostly he just wishes the show were bigger. “It would be ideal if there were three times as many pieces,” he says. “Then the transitions would make a little more sense.
“I was unbelievably delighted” to get the exhibition, he adds. “I love the Corcoran. The summer after I graduated from the Maryland Institute of Art, I was the night manager of a Lum’s restaurant in Landover [Md.]. This was a tough job. Then I saw an ad in the paper to run some art shop, and I found out it was the art shop at the Corcoran School. It was 1971 when I started working at the art shop. I’ve never left. My whole life has been at the Corcoran.”
The exhibition catalog contains two photos of Lady Sarah, but no less an authority than Newman’s wife vetoed one of Sarah Claus. “I lived with Sarah for 10 years,” Newman explains. “I’ve been married to my wife for 15. And I don’t think she wants to hear that much about Sarah.” Indeed, Newman keeps his newspaper clippings about the Sarah murals posted in the elevator to his studio, apparently so Fraser won’t have to see them.
A 1985 Newman show at Adamson Gallery included his first computer drawings, done with a mouse and an early version of MacPaint, as well as images derived from a rudimentary scanner, which was based on a surveillance-video camera and named MAGIC (for Macintosh Graphics Input Controller). But the show, says Newman, “was really about my breakup with Sarah. It was profound. It took over everything, including my art. This person who had become my everything was, like, gone.”
That the later works in “Peripheral Vision” are about Newman’s life is self-evident. Most of them feature the artist’s face, sometimes morphing into images of his relatives, Fraser, Spy, or Poppy, the bulldog who preceded Circe. These combined portraits are also the basis for the exhibition’s two videos, which show the process of fusing Newman’s mug with other visages.
“My art does seem to have a lot to do with me, what’s happening to me,” Newman allows. Thus his earliest paintings, which depict, he says, “real blood and guts,” were shaped by the pre-med courses his father had him take before he defected to the Maryland Institute and got a BFA. Blue-tinted paintings such as 1982’s Jessica and the Swan, which portrays Newman’s daughter, reflect the temporary period of color blindness the artist experienced soon after the onset of MS. And 1985’s triptych What Ya Thinking—Mitsubishi Electric is about the end of his relationship with Tuft. “The pictures on each side,” Newman says of the piece, “are what Sarah was thinking and what Bill was thinking. And I knew what we were both thinking.”
Those pictures are video stills from a Mitsubishi device that Newman acquired around the same time as his first Mac. “You clicked the button, and it printed whatever was on the TV screen. Just a little image,” Newman recalls. “For about seven or eight years, I was obnoxiously obsessed with it. I wouldn’t watch TV unless I was clicking these pictures off.
“I have a box over here that has 30,000 of these images in it. When I get to the point where I can’t move at all, we’re going to the 30,000 pictures,” he chuckles.
The Corcoran exhibition also includes some pictures inspired by a period in the early ’90s when Newman allowed himself to be regularly stung by bees, because bee venom was reputed to allay MS symptoms. “I made a pact with Steve Szabo,” Newman recalls, referring to a local photographer and fellow Corcoran teacher who also had MS. “We each got 50 stings a week for 50 weeks.” It didn’t help, and Szabo, Newman says, “died two weeks after reading about the bee paintings,” in May 2000.
Newman has seen an MRI that shows how MS has affected his brain and says that his case is not as serious as Szabo’s was: “I’m not worried that I’m going to die. I am chronic progressive, but it’s real slow.”
Newman takes a swig from the Orangina he’s been too busy talking to drink from the past 90 minutes and prepares to head for the elevator. “In fact,” he says, “I feel like I’m riding a lucky streak now.”
“William Newman: Peripheral Vision” is on view to Monday, Aug. 26, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 639-1700. CP