Commentaries - June 2010

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A series of black-and-white paintings

In the new building at the National Gallery in DC, I saw Barnett Newman's series of paintings--done between 1958 and 1966--called "The Stations of the Cross." The Stations of the Cross series of black and white paintings, begun shortly after Newman had recovered from a heart attack, is usually regarded as the peak of his achievement. The series is subtitled "Lema sabachthani" - "why have you forsaken me" - words said to have been spoken by Jesus on the cross. Newman saw these words as having universal significance in his own time. The series has also been seen as a memorial to the victims of the holocaust.

It's some kind of communist plot

"No doubt all of you recall the incident in Madison, Wisconsin, last Fourth of July, when American citizens were afraid to say they believed in the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights. One hundred and twelve people were asked to sign a petition that contained nothing except quotations from these two immortal documents, and one hundred and eleven refused to sign the paper. Most refused because they were afraid it was some kind of subversive document and thought that if they signed it they would be called Communists." - JAZZES H. HALSEY, President, University of Bridgeport, in a speech delivered at the Opening Convocation of the College Year, University of Bridgeport, September 25, 1951. (Republished in Vital Speeches, November 1, 1951.)

The work by John Marin I know is watercolor. And mostly I've seen his early stuff--from the 1920s. But here is a canvas (at the National Gallery) done in oil, and it was made in his last year (1952; he died in '53). The curator at the gallery suggests that Marin's later painting--a flurry of caligraphic brushstrokes--"inspired the younger generation of abstract expressionists." Here Marin thinks of the perpetual movement of the windswept Maine seascape as a kind of writing. "The sea...wants to be horizontal," Marin said, "but then the horizontals begin to play, to move. Sympathetic lines turn up all over the canvas...all related to each other...all living together." The painting is called The Written Sea.

DC yesterday: awful heat but two good PennSound-related meetings, one of them at the Library of Congress. But then, meetings done, to the tower we went. In and then up into the gorgeous new wing of the National Gallery in DC - to see a series of black Rothko paintings. Here's the official description: "The second in a series of Tower exhibitions focusing on contemporary art and its roots offers a rare look at the black-on-black paintings that Rothko made in 1964 in connection with his work on a chapel for the Menil Collection in Houston. A recording of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel (1971), the haunting music originally composed for that space,accompanies the exhibition in the spacious East Building Tower Gallery. A new 10-minute film examines the career of Rothko and his development of a style that fused abstract painting with emotional significance. Produced by the National Gallery of Art, the film will be shown continuously in the Tower Gallery." The show runs until January 2, 2011. See it!