Sarah Hegenbart, curator, on Barnett Newman’s Midnight Blue
GB Tell me why you’ve chosen this painting.
SH I chose a painting that really matters to me and that struck me very deeply. I’ll never forget the moment when I encountered Midnight Blue for the very first time. Among all the works, it just stood out for me and affected me very strongly. I literally couldn’t move. I was mesmerized and amazed that an artist had succeeded in finding a visual expression for an abstract thought in a painting and how powerful that could be. It was just me there with the painting and it drew me inside. The way the dark blue vibrates between the two zips evokes a feeling of indefinity – like being surrounded by a sky full of stars feeling the indefinity of the universe. Being captivated by ‘Midnight Blue’ made me think about art in a philosophical way. I remember that I started reading Plato quite intensively at this time. I wanted to find out whether the beauty that we can find in artworks entails a certain truthfulness. Maybe it is this truthfulness that explains why beauty appeals to you so strongly that you can’t move away from it.
GB Would you describe it as sublime?
SH Well I’m very critical of the way in which the Abstract Expressionists reject beauty and replace it with the sublime, which led to a dismissal of beauty in contemporary art. Replacing beauty with the sublime is problematic because the sublime implies a separation between subject and object. If something is sublime, we are in awe of it. It feels as if it surpasses us. Encountering beauty, however, often involves the experience of feeling at one with something. I feel the Abstract Expressionists did injustice to the term beauty. Abstract expressionist art is beautiful. It’s a different form of beauty.
GB So for you the painting succeeds on the exact terms that Barnett Newman would have hoped it would succeed, only he described that as sublime while you describe it as beautiful?
SH Yes, I think it’s also crucial for contemporary art that we look at how beauty can be re-interpreted. Beauty is always connected to the values of a period and manages to find new expressions. I agree with the painter Agnes Martin who stated that all art is about beauty. While all positive art celebrates it, negative art criticises the lack of beauty in our lives. The word ‘beauty’ might have become unfashionable. In my understanding, beauty has a lot to do with indicating something meaningful to us. Beauty makes us aware of a value that can enrich our lives.
GB Barnett Newman said that the impulse of the modern artist was to kill beauty. Do you think that modern artists were actually killing something else?
SH My suspicion is that Newman is not generally opposed to beauty, but to a traditional understanding of beauty and arts, which is coined by certain overcome norms and restrictive value systems. Newman was interested in expressing the absolute. He craved to find an expression for genuine human existence. He rejected all figurative elements that could distract one from this existential feeling. It was a very serious issue. A matter of life and death. The beauty of many abstract expressionist works is rooted in their truthfulness. They are expressions of a quest for creating meaning.
GB You’ve chosen the last painting he ever painted. But you didn’t know that the first time you saw it and it had such an effect on you.
SH This is correct. I did not know anything about Abstract Expressionism when I saw it for the very first time during a school trip. I was more used to seeing Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Encountering ‘Midnight Blue’ led to my passion for Abstract Expressionism. I started reading everything I could find about Barnett Newman in order to understand how one can be so incredibly successful in creating a visual expression of an abstract thought. I get very upset about people claiming that one can only perceive this art as beautiful if one is indoctrinated by theoretical writings about the abstract expressionist movement. I think that it is rather the other way round. Being attracted by the beauty of an abstract work makes us want to know more about it.
GB Barnett Newman saw a religious element to his work and compared the way he pulled this art together from chaos to the Creation.
SH I suppose what’s religious about it for me is that it’s an expression of giving life meaning. But I think it was an attempt at creating a feeling of oneness outside religion. Newman emphasised that ‘instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life”, we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
SH There are two ways of describing something as beautiful. You can love something as beautiful or you can understand that it’s beautiful without loving it. For me it has to be something that affects me sensually as well as intellectually. It has to appeal to my mind but also engage my senses.