Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951. Courtesy of Pictoright Amsterdam / Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
An idea bigger than an object
My introduction to Abstract Expression was made a couple of years into my art history and visual culture degree. The teacher in question had the nasal authority of Stephen Fry underpinning their Joburg burr, tones well-suited to an institution that fondly thought of itself as ‘the Oxford of the veld.’
At the time, before the great Fall, it was in vogue to question` but bothersome to problematise. As a consequence, this version of the movement was not a cautionary tale about the risks of state-appropriated creativity or the reaches of ‘intelligence’ agencies, but the chaste and heady Greenbergian romance of pure form.
Subsequently, to a mind leaving adolescence, the 3mb jpeg of Cathedra, sandwiched between PowerPoint slides on Rothko’s hallowed fields and Pollock‘s varicose canvases, was a masterclass on how colour alone can amount to experience. It loomed bluely.
The incantatory connotations of its title suggested some summoning was taking place. It turned the term poetics into practical criteria instead of another prop for the performance of sophistry.
The layers writhing quietly were a lesson in subtlety’s capacity for devastation. It was through the imperfection of the zips, dissolved and overwhelmed by the pelagic currents taking up most of the sightline, that this work communicated precision. With that canvas as the context, articulating the act of looking was similar to trying to fathom the infinite; comprehension was an expanding room.
The painting was 68 years old when I finally stood in front of it at the Stedelijik Museum. It had yellowed with age, and it was scarred by acts of violence and attempts at restoration. The magnetic sheen was replaced by a tender patina attesting to time - not unlike the slowly slackening neck on an ageing parent.
When Peter Schjeldahl writes - in an oblique obituary for Greenburg in particular, and that era in general - ‘His best work is to criticism what Barnett Newman’s is to painting: a breathtaking reduction of complex ideas, in command of what it omits,’ he is speaking truthfully of the dead. The omissions of that time live loudly now because reduction has its other half in accretion.
An illusory centre could not have been expected to hold; only death is ever really in command of what it omits.
The representative image, displayed via an outdated projector, to a room of students slowly filling the air with the smell of Carling Black Label in their pores, outlived the preserved object. The symbol and its myth remain breathtaking, while actuality has been rendered pathetic.
Musing now, what’s most interesting is how sometimes a lie told in a ‘majestic tone’ can turn an idea into a revenant.
Sometimes the real is a matter of preference.
Sometimes propaganda is an introduction to the uses of magical thinking. Sometimes the myopic conceptual utopias made by and for men with access to most if not all are a practice-ground for jadedless dreaming.
In this strange milieu, it becomes apparent that sometimes a false idol is useful if it can provide a lesson in the posture of devotion, and all the stretching required to maintain this posture affords the flexibility needed to remain receptive to an aesthetic experience.
Not always, but sometimes.