Many viewers were surprised when abstract impressionist painter Barnett Newman first showed his “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani” series at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1966. The 14-painting cycle, now on display in the National Gallery of Art’s Tower Gallery, even struck some as “ridiculous,” says Harry Cooper, the NGA’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
Newman’s minimalist paintings are rendered in white, black and gray, often with expanses of raw canvas as a fourth “color.” Each features two vertical lines that Newman, who died in 1970, called “zips.” How could these works depict Jesus’ route to the crucifixion? (And wasn’t Newman Jewish, anyway?)
“He tried to discourage the idea that each painting was one of the stations,” Cooper says. Rather, the cycle, painted between 1958 and 1966, was meant to express the anguish of Jesus’ question: “Why have you forsaken me?” Newman was a “not-very-observant Jew” who wanted the series “to be about the question of God, especially in a post-Holocaust context,” Cooper says.
Like other 20th-century painters, Newman was “trying somehow to broach great, tragic subjects with just abstract means,” Cooper says. But the artist’s work is today prized more for its elegance and luminosity.
“Newman talked about the paintings in terms of light,” Cooper says. “Creating light out of these very simple means.”
That’s one of the reasons Cooper selected “The Stations,” supplemented by other Newman works, for the museum’s intimate, daylight-rich Tower Gallery. “The Stations” and most of the other pieces are owned by the NGA, but they have not been presented like this before.
“The works have a lot of drama in themselves, with those zips like lightning bolts,” Cooper says. “Then there’s the drama of seeing them up there, in all that light.”National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Feb. 24, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)