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Barnett Newman and the Slashed Paintings

Barnett Newman, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV. In the permanent collection of the New National Gallery of Berlin. (Photo: Jorg P. Anders ©, courtesy of New National Gallery)

by Annabelle Clippinger

American abstract painter Barnett Newman wrote in 1943, “The painter is concerned . . . with the presentation into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent, his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life.”

Newman’s work has been thrust into the spotlight through a strange and unfortunate sequence of events, episodes of vandalism, which are the risk of the public presentation of art. And that is why it is very important, when analyzing works, to also consider the context, namely, what time the author lived, what political/artistic/cultural trends dominated, etc., advanced writers will help you with this. The principle of museum exhibition begs the question of what is “the public’s art.” Museums serve the public interest by collecting and preserving works, and then presenting them for all who pass through their doors. The work of Barnett Newman offers a case study in the idea of art preserved for public interest, in a rather troubling way because of the attacks on his work.

Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV. In the permanent collection of the New National Gallery of Berlin. (Photo: Jorg P. Anders ©, courtesy of New National Gallery)

Given his exploration into the mysteries and spirituality of artistic expression, it is especially ironic that three of Newman’s definitive “zip” paintings were vandalized by knives as they hung on museum walls.  Perhaps inspired by the 1972 hammer attack upon Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the first attack upon a Barnett Newman painting took place in 1982 in Berlin’s National Gallery, when a veterinary medical student attacked Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV. The student claimed to have been frightened by it.

The Stedelijk Museum (Photo: Stedelijk Museum / Hogers & Versluys)

Then in 1986, Gerard Jan van Balderen slashed with a box-cutter Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. The same man returned to further vandalize Newman’s paintings and in 1997, he attacked and slashed Newman’s masterpiece, Cathedra, at the time valued at $12 million. The repair and restoration of Barnett Newman’s paintings were especially sensitive due to the monochromatic nature of the pieces, as there is little imagery to cover over any scars. In addition, Newman’s output of paintings was not significant, so all of his paintings have the quality of being rare.

The reasons given for these attacks have to do with the offensive or disturbing nature of the art to the vandals.  When one looks at the paintings, it is incomprehensible that they could have that effect.  One possibility is that the art is difficult to understand.  Considered one of the most significant art movements anywhere in the world, and what happened to be a uniquely American idiom growing out of New York in the 40’s and 50’s, Abstract Expressionism has made an enormous contribution to the art of the 20th century.  Consider the painting of Jackson Pollack.  The critic Clement Greenberg was a necessary mouthpiece for both the public and the art world to help them understand the nature and intensity of Pollack’s painting. Since then, a great deal of criticism has surfaced about these abstract works.

The anger necessary to attack these works of art may arise from a feeling of inadequacy viewing them.   They require an intellectual apparatus to begin to understand where they fit in the history of modern art; they require a context that may not be readily available to the museum-goer.  Then they may even taunt the viewer by challenging their expectations about art, or through provoking them via the sanctity given to art through its value or the very act of being hung on a museum wall.

Vija Celmins, Night Sky #12. In the permanent collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. (Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art)

In 2008, a security guard at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh slashed a painting repeatedly with a key that was worth $1.2 million, Vija Celmins’ Night Sky #2. He reportedly did not like this painting.

Perhaps the learning about visual art is in the hands of too few and it should be in the hands of the many, and in the hands of the average museum art viewer, too.  Or being utterly confounded by the art, those hands might hold a box-cutter, knife, or key.

Annabelle Clippinger is Director of Pitt ARTS.

For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Vol. 1, No. 1: Street art and Public Art Table of Contents

Public Art, Further Resources

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Rachel #

    Or, you know, maybe some people are just deranged. The normal reaction to not understanding something isn’t to slash it up because it’s just too confounding. The examples of art vandalism cited here simply show that some people have profoundly disordered mental processes, not that the vandalized artwork is especially mystic or complex (it well may be — I happen to get quite a lot out of looking at the Pieta, myself — but that really has nothing to do with being attacked by someone who is mentally ill).

    Expanding visual arts education is great, but it’s a real stretch to imply that it will somehow cut down on arts vandalism.


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