At the beginning of the video on the painting techniques of Barnett Newman that we produced for MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist New York iPad app (and the exhibition’s website), Corey D’Augustine, a conservator and instructor of the on-site and online course Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting tells this story:
Guy walks into a bar. Sees the painter Franz Kline sitting down with a beer and says, “Hey Franz, just came from the new Barnett Newman show.” Kline says, “Oh yeah? What did you think? I haven’t seen it yet.” Guy says, “You know, it seemed pretty simple, just a bunch of paintings with lines.” Kline says, “Huh. These paintings… all the same color?” Guy says “No.” “These paintings, they all the same size?” Guy says “no.” “How about those lines? They all the same color? same size? same placement?” Guy says, “No.” Kline says “sounds pretty damned complicated to me.”
This is an often repeated story told by Irving Sandler in his book A Sweeper Up after Artists: A Memoir. In the video, Corey “visually unwinds” Vir Heroicus Sublimus and demonstrates the complexity of Newman’s lines, or “zips,” as he called them—making it apparent that Newman’s work is more than “just a bunch of paintings with lines.”
This idea of the underlying complexity of the artist’s process and engagement with materials—and the invisibility of that in the galleries—led me to purchase James Elkins‘s book What Painting Is. I’ve always been a fan of Elkins and of alternate ways of talking about and teaching art history. I’m particularly interested in ways of teaching that engage emotion and opinion and move away from empirical art history. So the first book I read by Elkins was Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings.
The other day on the subway on my way to MoMA I read this passage from What Painting Is:
Paint records the most delicate gesture and the most tense. It tells whether the painter sat or stood or crouched in front of the canvas. Paint is a cast made of the painters movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts…. Painting is an unspoken and largely uncognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artist responds in moods. All those meanings are intact in the paintings that hang in museums.
Probably no movement communicates the reality and complexity of the artist’s engagement with materials and gestures more than Abstract Expressionism.
Download the Abstract Expressionist New York iPad app if you haven’t already. Zoom in on the works, have a close look at the brushwork, the way paint is applied, watch the videos and listen to the audios, browse the text. We think you’ll come away with an enhanced understanding not just of Abstract Expressionism, but of painting generally.