Sublime Destruction: Barnett Newman’s Adam and Eve
In his landmark essay ‘The Sublime is Now’ (1948), the American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman announced that ‘the impulse of modern art’ resides in the ‘desire to destroy beauty’. The problem with beauty, according to Newman, is that it prevents the artist from realising ‘man’s desire for the exalted’, in other words, for the sublime. In religious art, for Newman in particular, a preoccupation with the beautiful – with its emphasis on the figurative, the perfection of form, and the ‘reality of sensation’ – has impeded the perception of ‘the Absolute’.1 Newman’s view accords here with that of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) who argued in his ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ (1790), from The Critique of Judgement, that the sublime, unlike the beautiful, ‘cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason’.2 The sublime, that is, is on the side of the mind rather than nature; and since the extent of the mind is unbounded it cannot be adequately represented by an object with determinate bounds.
The sense of the work as a presentation of that which can be ‘said but not shown’ is enhanced by Newman’s insistence that viewers should place themselves close to the surfaces of his canvases so as to become enveloped or overwhelmed by a sense of boundlessness.
How to cite
Philip Shaw, ‘Sublime Destruction: Barnett Newman’s Adam and Eve’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www