Who is Barnett Newman?

May 14 2014

Image of Who is Barnett Newman?

Picture: Christie's

I know I'm a reactionary stick-in-the-mud, but when even I haven't heard of the top-selling artist at Christie's contemporary art evening sale, you have to wonder what's going on in that market. The above Black Fire I fetched $84,165,000 (inc. premium), which made the sale's Francis Bacon triptych look almost reasonable at $80,805,000.

The sale total was $744.9m, which, as Christie's website says (in bold, just in case we missed the significance), "represents the highest total for a single auction in art market history". Add on the total from their 'curated sale' of the day before, and they're on $879.5m for the week so far. Sotheby's will doubtless add to the fun with their sale tonight. 

So what's going on? Well, as in any rapidly inflating market, we're now in a situation where buyers can set their own rules when it comes to value. As Andrew Renton, director of Marlborough Contemporary, said yesterday on CNN:

"We've got an economic model which is slightly contradictory [...] Prices seem to set the value. Overpaying is almost the best thing you can do, because you start to define your own market."

The only question, of course, is when will it all end. 

Here, for your pleasure, is some of the guff from the catalogue for Black Fire I:

The simple geometry of this structure is brought alive by the presence of Newman's active brushwork throughout the inky-black left side. The oil paint that creates this passage, and the 'zip' to its right, has also been allowed to bleed out from under the tape that formerly masked them off, causing craggy edges and an irregular thickness of line that adds to the painting's sense of brooding vitality. The remainder of the canvas is untouched save for the application of a transparent size. The balance of proportions together with the imposing scale of Black Fire I imbue it with a classical stateliness, while the subtle differences between line and texture in each of the vertical elements lends it a sense of energy. This extremely restricted mode of painting was part of Newman's test to himself to create "the living quality of color without the use of color;" that is, a tonal relationship between the black oil paint and exposed canvas that would cause the ground to appear as if it possessed its own sense of light (B. Newman, quoted in "A Conversation: Barnett Newman and Thomas B. Hess," 1966, in J.P. O'Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writing and Interviews, Los Angeles, 1992, p. 277). Black Fire I is certainly a triumphant realization of this aim as the contrast of the raw canvas against the receding depths of black pigment cause it to emanate a glorious soft, flaxen glow that appears to intensify in brightness between the compressed central band. 

If in 40 years time and Black Fire I is still worth whatever $84m in today's prices equates too (and if I'm still alive) I will publicly eat my trousers. Hold me to it.

Update - a reader writes:

For any American history of art undergraduate or post-graduate who takes a survey course in 20C art, Barnett Newman is right up there with Jackson Pollock (and features as such in the Museum of Modern Art, for example).  In other words, a leading figure in the heroic age of abstract painting as defined and created in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  This is a very American-oriented perspective on the history of art, of course.  His reputation has lasted this long--your trousers may be in jeopardy.

Yikes! That said, I think even Pollock prices will be hard to sustain at their current rate.

Update II - another reader is shocked at my art historical lacuna:

Am in despair that you claim not to have heard of Newman, but also think you are safe from future trouser-eating.

I'm going to ask everyone I meet to day if they've heard of Barnett Newman. I'll let you know what the score is.

Update III - another reader adds:

I have heard of Barnett Newman from when I was about 17 on foundation. As your reader says, he’s pretty big in US centric art history terms. You’re going to need the Rennie’s I’m afraid.

But here's a glimpse of hope that I may not need them:

What a Barnett Newman or Jeff Koons will be worth in forty years has mostly to do with what is in fashion then and who is buying.  Currently its a runaway train and some of the smart money has jumped off it recently. 

Van Gogh peaked in constant dollar terms about twenty years ago based on Wikipedia  art record data.  The new museums and their contributors are filling collections with contemporary art.  And there is a lot of liquidity around supporting this.  If the liquidity goes or the fashion changes then there go the self defining values.  

Do you prefer your trousers served sweet or savory.

I'd bet on Francis Bacon keeping value over Koons.

Update IV - so far (three hours in) it's six who haven't heard of him versus one who has.

Update V - another reader thinks me and the trousers'll be ok:

I have no opinion on the edibility of your trousers, but don't let the art-guff put you off abstract art such as Barnett Newman's: his work is vastly superior to Jeff Koons's, in my view at least, and art guff is spouted about even about great representative art, possibly even from time to time about van Dyck's!  Although more by academics concerned with "heuristics" and "contextualizing" and "agency" than by dealers including auctioneers, I expect.

Update VI - a reader adds:

Sounds like you missed the Barnett Newman Exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It was in their main exhibition rooms. (2002-3)

Yes, so I don't go to Tate Modern enough. By a strange coincidence, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, when discussing the recent Rothko re-hang, helps explain why:

What – seriously – would he make of Tate Modern?

At the old Tate, the one that is now Tate Britain, his paintings had their own room until the end of the 1990s, as quiet as a chapel. You can still contemplate them mystically at Tate Modern, but never as purely. Like everything else they must fit into this museum's nervously unpredictable displays and banal "juxtapositions" of past and present.

The mood of this museum is the antithesis of everything Rothko stood for. It's noisy, riotous, and pop-cultural. Teens in the toilets, art lovers crying in the corner. Interactive art was being stressed at the museum at the time the Rothko was attacked. Did the idiotic vandal, who claims to be an artist, somehow gain courage from that?

Update VII - the Grumpy Art Historian takes me to task, and refers me to his latest post on relative art values from 1959:

Really? Surely you're winding us up? Even I've heard of Newman, and I take great pride in my ignorance of modern art. I seem to recall Robert Hughes speaking highly of Vir Heroicus Sublimis in The Shock of the New (though I might be misremembering). I even quite like Newman. Well worth it, if you move the decimal point five or six places.

I think he will continue to be valued as one of the iconic representatives of an iconic movement. But your bet hinges as much on the fate of the super-rich as on the critical fate of Newman. I just read Sotheby's review of the season 1959-60, when a decent Rembrandt sold for the equivalent of £780k.

Thomas Piketty's much-discussed book Capital speculates that without political action the richest of the rich will continue to move further ahead of everyone else, which would imply further forward march of top prices. I'm not convinced by Piketty, but if the richest get richer you might be eating those trousers!

In my travels amongst non-art world folk (and people who don't read this blog) I still haven't found anyone who has heard of Barnet Newman. I'm surprised some readers don't realise quite how closeted the worlds of modern and contemporary art really are.

Update VIII - another reader stands up for Barnet:

I saw a mention of your blog and thought I'd have a read, but on seeing the Barnett Newman discussion, I'm quite shocked – enough so to feel I should stand up for him.

In response to another commenter, I would have thought Newman would be well know to anyone who had studied Art History, whether in the US or the UK or elsewhere (I was at Edinburgh around the same time you were studying). I sympathise with those who don't find him particularly interesting but you can't claim he doesn't have a place in modern art history. It seems to me very misleading to suggest that he's an unknown, rather like writing off Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin, so I'm hoping to redress the balance a little in your polling.

Another reader adds:

99.9% of people couldn't begin to reproduce a Van Dyck and even many seemingly simple 20thc abstracts would be impossible to copy perfectly. 

But give any vaguely sane adult a brush and two pots of paint (beige and black) and they would be able to accurately reproduce the Newman maybe half an hour at the most.

Is there any point even saying this and isn't that the point - it is just MAD!!!!

Update IX - just back from a meeting of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council, which I'm a member of. Nobody there I asked had heard of him either.

Update X - a reader writes:

Oh dear.  Predictably, I hadn't heard of him, but Mrs W is absolutely SHOCKED that you hadn't.

Another reader adds, in reference to the GAH's point above:

If I may have a second comment.  We have two discussions here. One regarding Barnett Newman and one discussing art prices.  At the intersection of these Newman achieves remarkable prices based on his name, his position in current art,  two very affluent bidders, and price expectations rather than any refinement of style.  Prices in general depend on the ability and desire of buyers.  If you are buying a Jeff Koons to put in your casino [Steve Wynn bought Koons' Popeye at auction yesterday for $28m] it has an advertising value which is greater if you paid more for it.  

The 1960 Rembrandt price mentioned is consistent with current Rembrandt prices if US inflation is applied and well above current prices if UK inflation is applied especially as compared with other prime assets like London or NYC residential property.

Update XI - more admonition:

[...] actually I think you are not likely to have to eat your trousers but I am fascinated that Tate Modern's  retrospective of the paintings, sculpture and works on paper of Barnett Newman's works never crossed your radar screen because it made as much of an impression on me as the exhibitions there of Warhol or Lucien Freud and is therefore one of my all time favourite Tate Modern exhibitions; unlike for example the over-hyped Matisse cut-outs. Looking back I am surprised to see that the exhibition was as long ago as 2002.

Back in those days I was still busy being a historian.

Update XII - the GAH responds:

Not sure where your correspondent is getting his/her data, but £40k in 1960 = $112k USD at exchange rates then prevalent. That's equivalent to $871k applying US inflation rates.

I'd say the 1960 Rembrandt must be worth comfortably seven figures in sterling today. Best comparison is probably the Otterloo portrait (same period/size/format), which I think went for about £20m. The Norton Simon one isn't as attractive, but I can't believe it would make less than half that today. 

Incidentally the comparison with other trophy assets is precisely my point - that today wealth is more unequally distributed and the very rich have more liquid wealth that they're willing to spend on trophy assets, so scarce things that they desire are worth relatively more.

Another reader looks at a far wider question:

Isn't it funny how misunderstood  and neglected Duchamp was/is especially in the US.

His cynical and witty observations of a declining interest in what Andre Malraux called : La Promesse de Bonheur of the pictorial arts, were succinctly expressed in his en  prevision du bras casse, the snow shovel whose objet trouve title was translated correctly as 'In Advance of a  Broken Arm', i.e. an ABC for new pathways towards future  artforms. 

Instead  this was taken as full license to Anything Goes as Cole Porter wrote,  because artists mistakenly adopted  his wry comment that their  authority determined what is art and what it is not. The elitist character  of much of what is produced today is in direct opposition to Duchamp's  intentions and by its deliberate exclusivity hopes to obtain  significance.

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