In the last years of his life, ridiculed no longer, the New York painter Barnett Newman (1905-1970) resembled a grandee. He wore a monocle, a watch fob and a Brigadier's moustache, and glowed with self assurance.
In talks to students, he mixed high seriousness and laugh lines, arcane allusions and noblesse oblige. When he spoke about his paintings, with their glowing color fields precisely intercepted by the thin stripes he called "zips," it was easy to believe that Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, all of the stripe painters and all the field painters and the minimalists as well, were in Barnett Newman's debt. By then he was acknowledged as a major modern master, and he looked the part.
Yet it is his caution, not his confidence that marks "Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969," the troubling exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Newman loved a fight. He liked to fire off letters to the editor, and he wrote manifestos in haughty, biting prose. In person, too, he seemed, despite his real sweetness, fearless, almost arrogant. But his drawing show is timid. It is edited, defensive. One leaves it gnawed by doubt.
Why are his works so scarce? Is it possible that Newman, in a quarter of a century, was able to produce, on average, less than four drawings a year?
It seems certain that he made his drawings quickly. The speed with which his brush moved is apparent in the work. The abstract drawings here, particularly the early ones, are not labored, but spontaneous. "I always have done a lot of them," he said. Then where are they today?
Baltimore curator Brenda Richardson, the scrupulous researcher who organized this show, attempted to recover all of Newman's mature drawings-yet managed to retrieve only 83. They fill a single room. The gaps between them yawn.
If he "always" did "a lot of them," what happened to the drawings that Barnett Newman made between 1950 and 1958? Between 1961 and his death in 1970 did he manage to produce only one ink drawing? Or, as seems more likely, were the drawings from these "empty" years intentionally destroyed?
Newman, in his writings, insisted on precision. He always was fiercely jealous of his reputation. When, in speaking of his work, people as distinguished as Erwin Panofsky, the art historian, and the painter Robert Motherwell made careless, small mistakes, Newman savaged them in print.
"Most of Newman's attacks," wrote the critic Thomas Hess, the artist's biographer and champion, "are against what he considers to be distortions and falsifications of history-his history as he has lived it."
Yet the current show implies just such a distortion. The 25-year development that it pretends to trace is much too trim, too neat. The dotted line these few drawings trace is lifeless in its straightness. That does not seem an accident. Newmans was not sloppy. "He keeps scrupulous records," Hess writes, "dates all his paintings, knows precisely which have been shown and where." Newman was determined to edit his own history. There are no drawings here that he did not wish posterity to see.
Newman, the polemicist, was for nearly 40 years a familiar figure on the New York art scene. His artist friends included Rothko, Gottlieb, Avery, Pollock, Clyffod Still, David Smith, de Kooning. But many of his colleagues thought his stark pictures foolish. They knew Newman as a catalyst, a school teacher, a writer, but felt that as a painter he was an amateur.
"Of all the major New York artists, that is, of all his friends, who, during and directly after World War II, created a new kind of painting." writes Hess, "Barnett Newman had the most difficult-heartbreakingly difficult-struggle to gain acceptance, recognition, and, finally, a decent living."
His first one-man exhibition, held in 1950, was not a success. In those days Newman's fields and stripes did not look prophetic, but Bauhaus-like, old-fashioned. Many of his friends laughed at Newmanhs art, and their laughter must have stung.
Newman was, in later years, jealous of his precedence. Silly as it sounds, he would insist, for instance, that he was the first painter to paint stripes. In 1967, in one of his many letters to the editor, he labeled as "grotesque" his experience in Basel, Switzerland, "where a Zurich painter, in my presence, was explaining to anyone who would listen that he had done 'the stripe' 10 years before any American, meaning, of course, me."
In 1948, he made a small red painting with a central orange stripe that he called "Onement I." He studied it eight months. Yet the dates that he inscriped on the drawings now in Baltimore would lead us to believe that he had found the stripe, his trademark, his insignia, in a full two years before.
Did he find the stripe in 1956 or 1948? Today it hardly matters, except to art historians, but it mattered much, perhaps too much, to laughed-at Barnett Newman. We see in this exhibit why so many art historians are suspicious of his dates.
The drawings in Baltimore are displayed in chronological order. But Brenda Richardson warns us that "it is essential to remember that the 'chronology' is, in many instances, almost arbitrary."
Newman rarely inscribed his drawings when he made them. Almost none of them were shown before 1960. In 1961 he sent one to be photographed to New Yorker Eric Pollitzer. The drawing was not signed, neither was it dated. But then, a few days later, Newman sent the drawing back to be photographed again. In the intervening days the work acquired an inscription: "Barnett Newman '46."
Though Newman rarely made preparatory drawings or sketches for his paintings, he turned to ink and paper to develop his ideas.
Among the finest drawings here is one owned by Cleve Gray, dated 1959. Newman showed it first to Gray in the process of explaining how he "had arrived" at the cycle of black-and-white paintings that he was to title "The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani." But the first painting of that series is dated 1958. How Newman arrived at a 1958 painting with a drawing made in 1959 is among the many dating puzzles of this show.
Most of the drawings now in Baltimore, from the "surrealist" early works on to the zipped fields are relatively minor works, mere footnotes to his larger, grander colored paintings. Only in the later works do we see the mature, assured Newman. The "zip" drawings from 1946, with their curious dates, seem to have been preserved to make a suspect point. "Without the body of paintings," writes Richardson, correctly, "Newman's drawings would not have their present importance."
In 1955-19568 in what he called his "blackest years," Newman, broke and still unrecognized, "decided to give up painting," writes Hess, "and get a job as a fitter with a tailor."
A few years later he was famous. The striped pop flags of Jasper Johns, the straight bands that appeared in the works of Stella, Louis, Noland, Davis and the rest, had pulled him from oblivion-and changed the look of U.S. painting. Newman, writes Hess, "changed in about a year's time from an outcast or a crank into the father figure of two generations."
There is something deeply poignant in the Newman drawings that survive. Seen together they suggest that in Newman's editing, his after-the-fact dating, he struggled much more than was necessary to carve a niche in history. Though posterity applauds him for his courage, the Newman seen in Baltimore is an artist plagued by doubt. "Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969" will travel to Detroit, Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amsterdam, Cologne, Basel, and to the Pompidou Center in Paris after closing in Baltimore on June 17. CAPTION:
Picture 1, Newman in 1970: Determined to edit his own history. By Steve Szabo; Picture 2, Barnett Newman's untitled brush-and-ink drawing, dated 1946, from the Baltimore Museum exhibit.