Tag Archives: Barnett Newman

The Ghost of Human Past: An Origin Story

“The purpose of man’s speech was an address to the unknowable….  [His] hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned how to throw the stick as a javelin.”
-Barnett Newman

In the woods.  Walking.  A wide, open path.  Autumn.  Time unknown.  Origin story.

His movement was ceaseless, frenzied; its purpose in the scattered leaves.  Unfurled at that very ground was the instrument of his breaking through, a master-skein, continuously unraveling.  The sudden, frantic energy of a collector was taking hold of him.  It put aside his hunger.  To follow this trail, niagara! of leaves, to follow it as he would hunting food.

Such paradox: art of awareness in no awareness.  Here in not here.  Such was God that God was before we were aware of that Presence.  A change was happening in our ancestor, and it grabbed his arm with the demand of a scolding, to pull him along.

It perhaps began when he lifted a leaf close to his face.  A berry, which was resting on it, fell away.  He looked closer at the leaf.  Or it began here: when he looked back down, when he saw them—the leaves there together as a gestalt.

See how the problem rises in difficulty.  How does one measure beginning, or true cause?  It is not singular.  How unfeasible to give an account of origin to recount later in a meeting with friends!  Because I think I’ve seen so many beginnings, I wonder anew at them: How does the wind blow?  How am I getting on?  With beginnings?  With ends?  Am I, with you now, in a constant state of beginningless beginning?  What can we with confidence say is meant by this confounded word?  I hope it doesn’t seem gloomy, for all its impossible challenges, to try to locate the moment the artist was born.  And was it the Other that became Artist, first, or was it our ancestor who was the first?      

As he followed the trail of leaves on the ground, which seemed put there by someone on purpose, his vision was dramatically changed.  He picked up a second leaf to his face and sensed a great force.  He put it in his hide pouch, not really understanding why, and rushed on.  What he saw were ever-blooming lines of them, which formed a distinct trail that seemed to grow out of itself (almost as though it was alive).  Every step invigorated him, and slowly his Eyes felt like they were awaking from sleep.  It gave him a feeling of having somewhere to go, somewhere he almost needed to be.  But not like needing to find shelter during a storm.  A new movement which he must follow, swift-paced; a stretching to get hold of something he could not see.  Everything now seemed charged with the energy of speed and purpose.  What posture the world had!  It was as though his eyes had become hungry.  He did not question his feeling that it was necessary to follow the trail.  The fact fit perfectly around him; he was somehow native to it—the pattern and the intensity with which he followed it—and thereby simply fell into its sway, uninterrupted.  We do not question them, these native facts, why they are around us, for we are of their world.  We do not quite know that with that fall we are in a state of grace.    

It reminded him of the river; and this point I propose might also be the crux of the story; the closest we may get to a moment we were born.

His attention did not break the line.  It felt embalming, yet it was consuming; it was assuaging, yet felt gruesome.  By and by, the path seemed so elegant; as pretty, suddenly, as the running river to look at.  It must have been a strange realization for our first human—seeing the river while he was looking at those leaves and feeling captivation for the irretrievable mystery therein.  It was implausible, its being, but now he intuited in himself an impression of the river. He took another leaf to his pouch and pursued into a state of agnosia.  The unthinking flow of the river was his mounting vivacity.  His feet hastened over the moving trail.  To where was it leading?  How could a trail such as it be?  Hundreds of feet long.  And at that moment he looked up at the trees and realized that all the leaves on the ground were not pointing him anywhere.  The trees were the leaf-bearers; there was no foreseeable endpoint.  Only pattern.

Barnett Newman on the Aesthetic Roots of Humanity

“Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.”

Mandalic Compass, for Matt, ink and pencil, 2015, by Bonsai Ramey

“Undoubtedly the first man was an artist,” begins a remarkable little speculative essay written in 1947 by Barnett Newman.  It proposes that the aesthetic act of wonder precedes the social and utilitarian acts of animal survival.  The aesthetic experience requires a mind capable of connecting disparate dots, that can render the non-local local, the concealed revealed, that can ask whether “to be or not to be.”  Although historically Newman is remembered as a modernist painter who challenged, and continues to challenge, with his large, minimalist color field paintings, I will always, probably, think of him as the one who wrote “The First Man Was an Artist.”

The essay was published in a periodical called Tiger’s Eye at that time when the home of modern art was shifting from Paris to America. Its power reminds me of that poetic power typical of essays of the past, from writers like Emerson, Stevenson, Montaigne, and Chesterton, which subtly illuminates the limits of analysis.  Chopping things up into little bits may lead one to understand a system and to a kind of wonder, but the analytical process of sizing something up, of measurement by separating something into its constituent elements, cannot grasp meaning.  “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” as the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka wrote.  Other is the operative word, commonly misquoted as “greater.”  The whole (whether we’re talking about life or an artwork) has a reality of its own; no cataloguing of parts can ever indicate that reality, and that reality is what I mean by “meaning.”  Nevertheless, it is possible to court this connectivity, to glimpse the whole within one of its parts.  William Irwin Thompson writes that this glimpse is precisely what the sacred is.  In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Thompson writes:

To begin to understand what is going on in the…art of the Upper Paleolithic, we have to escape not only the ethnocentricity of academic male subcultures, but also the limited epistemology of social science.  We have to use the “Imagination” to recover a sense of the sacred. The sacred is the emotional force which connects the part to the whole; the profane or the secular is that which has been broken off from, or has fallen off, its emotional bond to the universe.” (102).

Matt's Mandala Compass

We could replace Thompson’s “Imagination” with “aesthetic sense.” The aesthetic is a connected, sacred, imaginal, intuitive, emotional force.  The modern scientific-material mindset has not done well to encourage the fostering of creative self-reliance and the health of whole systems, tending more toward bottom-linism and banal profit motives.  While it should be no surprise when intuitions are written off as airy ethereal “fluff,” it should be a deep concern that we are in the middle of an aesthetic crisis.

Even with an experience of the sacred, the question is likely to remain for one who thinks in material terms and seeks material proof: what sustains the underlying Celtic knotwork of things on Earth?  It is as unknown today as it has ever been, despite our becoming conscious of ecology and despite our looking to nature for models of how to live, build, and organize, as in the field of biomimetics.  We know it isn’t a substance, but the hard sciences only can deal with experimentally viable phenomena.  This rules out the possibility of science reasoning out the connection between human dreams and termite mounds.  Still, for our own lives, we don’t need to look far into the analogous ways of the wild to be thrown into reverie: why is it you never see a line of ants on a log in gridlock for an accident ahead?  Can the Department of Transportation take its next cue from the ants?  Questions like this are fantastic, practical endeavors for scientific research, and they may be the best hope for restoring a healthy balance between our species and the rest of the world.  This is the gift rationality offers us. But notice that the connectivity is understood by category (how is human infrastructure connected to insect infrastructure)?  How is a part related to another part?  Not, How is a part related to the whole of Nature?  The latter is the question we are all forced to ask today. Rationality reaches its limit.  To get at this question, other means are necessary.  Perhaps we are in the present ecological crisis because we have ceased to make decisions for aesthetic reasons, insisting always on the utilitarian angle.  We must learn to employ that ancient inherited aspect of us which is creative, for the aesthetic act is a byproduct of an intuition of wholes and the urgent desire to express them.

In its earliest flowering, according to Newman, “speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.”  It is human to feel deeply, not just to communicate, and the need to express what is uniquely human in us is deep-seated.  It is even more human to become aware that however loudly one may cry out, the source of that expression and the purpose of that expression are one and the same.

“It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need.  In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown.”

Matt's Mandala Compass Detail

How in control can a creature be?  We are in control in much the same way as a man who builds a bridge as he walks out in space across it.  He floats in the air and is free to hammer in the next board.  He extends the bridge, and he may choose to begin curving its path, but he is confined to build forward, standing on a small walkway.  Therefore, he is far from complete control.  His destiny is determined by the section of the bridge he has just created.