In Focus

Immanent Iconography

Michael Schreyach

Barnett Newman, Adam 1951, 1952

Fig.1
Barnett Newman
Adam 1951, 1952
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2429 x 2029 mm
Tate T01091
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

In late 1947 – not long after the atrocities of the Second World War and just four years before he began painting Adam 1951, 1952 (Tate T01091; fig.1) – Barnett Newman proposed a rather idiosyncratic interpretation of the narrative of Adam’s creation in the short-lived journal Tiger’s Eye. Like much of his writing, ‘The First Man was an Artist’ thematises his dissatisfaction with what he took to be a violent, retrograde historical and social situation. In the essay, Newman employs the imagery of an atomic blast to figure the destructive tendencies of recent science: ‘In the last sixty years, we have seen mushroom a vast cloud of “sciences” in the fields of culture, history, philosophy, psychology, economics, politics, aesthetics, in an ambitious attempt to claim the nonmaterial world.’1 Newman railed against the dominion of a positivist mentality that quantified all human experience but was incapable of addressing the central metaphysical issues of human existence. Contemporary science had abdicated its responsibilities by forgetting the proper nature of scientific inquiry, which was to discover not just facts, but the truth of human being. His culture’s relentless pursuit of materialist premises prevented it from confronting its tragic state in the proper terms. But poetry and art, Newman thought, could both respond to the historical moment and hold meaning for the future. Perhaps that is why, in Newman’s account, Adam emerges as an agent of metaphysical truth:

It was inconceivable to the archaic writer [of the first chapter of Genesis] that original man, that Adam, was put on earth to be a toiler, to be a social animal. The writer’s creative impulses told him that man’s origin was that of an artist, and he set [Adam] up in a Garden of Eden close to the Tree of Knowledge, of right and wrong, in the highest sense of divine revelation. The fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as a fall from Utopia to struggle, as the sociologicians would have it, nor, as the religionists would have us believe, as a fall from Grace to Sin, but rather that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life to be, like God, ‘a creator of worlds’.2

By common knowledge, Adam is an archetypal figure of creation. But what is most important about him is not his status as having been created by God, but of instituting the ‘meaning of the world’ through his own creative act. In short, Adam institutes a world. But how might an abstract painter render such creative agency pictorially?

Agency

Barnett Newman, Onement I 1948

Fig.2
Barnett Newman
Onement I 1948
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2018 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Newman’s attempts to grasp the implications of creation – and particularly, of his having created something – played a central role in his self-presentation as an artist. Especially in his later career, he often repeated, with modest variations, the story of his making Onement I at the beginning of 1948 (fig.2), just months after he published his analysis of Adam in ‘The First Man was an Artist’. Although this small oil painting measures only 692 by 412 millimetres, it is difficult to overestimate its critical status in Newman’s body of work. The canvas comprises a single cadmium red band that bisects a shaded, almost brown, modulated cadmium red ground. The central vertical was applied over a strip of masking tape with what looks to have been a stiff-bristled brush (perhaps a dry one) or a palette knife. Initially, Newman meant only to test the colour with the application; pleased with the result, he decided not to remove the tape.3 The tape’s continued presence – its survival – embeds into the formal structure of the painting a sense of its ‘contingency and fragility’, to quote Michael Leja’s description elsewhere in this In Focus.4 The chromatic scheme of red and brown helps establish a family resemblance between Onement I and Adam and Eve 1950 (Tate T03081), as does the mythology Newman developed regarding the earlier painting’s originary status. He told critic David Sylvester:

What [Onement I] made me realize is that I was confronted for the first time with the thing that I did, whereas up until that moment I was able to remove myself from the act of painting, or from the painting itself. [Before], the painting was something that I was making, whereas somehow for the first time with this painting the painting itself had a life of its own.5

‘It was full’, he explained at another time.6 It was also a rebirth, the ‘beginning of [his] present life’, fittingly completed on an anniversary of his own origin, his forty-third birthday (29 January).7 So significant was this occasion that Newman claims to have stopped working in order to contemplate what he had achieved for eight or nine months. That interval, of course, corresponds to the duration of human gestation and birth. It would be fair to agree with curator Ann Temkin that Newman ‘equated the creation of this painting [with] the creation of [his] self’.8

Perhaps Onement I acquired significance for the artist because as it assumed a ‘life of its own’ – a result not only of Newman’s practical or technical activity but also his creative act – the status of his act (painting) in relation to its consequences (work of art) became increasingly evident to him. Newman’s act instituted a meaning that seemed self-governing, at once originated by, yet independent of, himself. From this perspective, a creation of the self – creating something out of the self – follows the structure of parentage. The child is ‘of’ the parents not in some proprietary sense, but is autonomously himself or herself. Newman’s act as an originator – and the new relationship to the painting he originated by his act – was metaphysical in the sense that it disclosed an openness, an immanence that was embodied in and through Onement I. Of his decision not to pull the tape upon which he had applied his test colour to make the picture’s central band, Newman said in a 1970 interview with film director Emile de Antonio: ‘That stroke made the thing come to life for me.’9 That recognition was grounded by Newman’s practice as an artist, which taught him that just as no technical plan was necessary to make a painting (‘I don’t paint in terms of preconceived systems’, he also told Sylvester), no template necessarily controlled the course of human action nor predetermined its consequences.10 Onement I made visible the imbrication of expression and implication.

When interpreting artists’ interview statements, one must guard against ascribing to isolated phrases a deeper significance than would normally be implied in conversational dialogue. But in Newman’s case, attributing philosophical heft to even his minor pronouncements seems at times warranted: a notoriously obsessive wordsmith, not only did he repeatedly revise his writing for publication until each phrase carried the weight he intended, he also amended interviews after the fact.11 In Newman’s remarks to de Antonio, one locution resonates particularly strongly with the analogy of creation that the artist’s account of Onement I inaugurated: ‘That stroke made the thing come to life for me.’ He was referring, as I said above, to the central band of orange-red that bisects the field. Although the variable density of paint along the line’s length and its relatively irregular edges suggest that it was laid on the surface with multiple touches, Newman seems to have considered its final appearance singular, one ‘stroke’. Given his testimony that Onement I suddenly confronted him with consequences he could not avoid, we might hear in that word connotations both of a forceful blow (being struck physically or psychically) as well as of a temporal moment (the striking of a clock). The conjunction helps draw our attention to the difference in Onement I between Newman’s sequential and thus protracted technique of marking his canvas surface as a ‘thing’, and the completed painting’s immanent pictorial order, its ‘life’.

There is an ontological difference, we might say, between the stroke that simply is the result of a formal or technical procedure and the stroke that is a pictorially animating force. The second kind is what transforms the actual canvas – material covered in pigment – into Onement I. Nevertheless, even though Newman is the agent of transformation, the consequences of his act surpass his expectations. His act creates a work of art that confronts him with the power of its autonomy. Newman’s discovery of his metaphysical truth, we might infer, hinges on his acting without assurance of effects: ‘One is constantly making choices … You make a stroke, then you have to decide whether you want it there. You then change the stroke, or you leave the stroke. It’s a choice.’12 As art historian Richard Shiff put the conundrum: ‘Before anyone else encounters the work, the artist will have had to face its novel presence, deciding, with no guide other than intuition, whether to proceed, whether the existence of this thing has validity.’13 Clearly, that choice is fraught with considerably more than practical concerns. It assumes the complexity of a moral, even existential, decision. From this perspective, the stroke that made Onement I come to life for Newman is implicated not just in the drama of creation he understood each of his paintings to express, but in a drama of uncertainty and action, of acting in the face of doubt.14 And that, in turn, allows us to see that Onement I – which he decided not to change – is more than simply a mirror reflection of Adam – which he decided to change.15 Said again: the decision not to remove the band in Onement I is the inverse of the decision to add the one in Adam. Rather than opposites, however, this reveals them to be bound together ever more securely in a structure of implication. It is as if the autonomy of each painting – its self-determination – were paradoxically dependent on Newman’s choices, but that once instituted (within, or as, a pictorial effect) each painting enjoys an uncompromised independence from its creator. The work of art, like progeny, is the recipient of a free gift and can exercise its own free will.16

Stroke

Newman’s statement – ‘That stroke made the thing come to life for me’ – succinctly verbalises the complexity of a three-fold experience: of being impacted by the sudden recognition of the result, if not yet implications, of one’s act; of being confronted with a sense of vital autonomy or agency that now stands counterpoised to oneself and thus constitutes the painting as another entity; and of being riveted by the seemingly instantaneous temporal moment (the ‘one-ment’) at which the transformation occurs.17 The first aspect of the trio – unexpected self-awareness – evokes metaphors commonly used to describe it: we have a flash of insight, or feel as if struck by lightning, or experience illumination (inspired ideation is a ‘stroke of genius’). The imagery associated with those turns of phrase complements Newman’s testimony that he considered his vertical strokes or zips to be something like concentrated shafts of light. Immediately before the remark that I have been amplifying, he confessed to de Antonio: ‘Now, I suppose I thought of [my lines] as streaks of light.’18 That analogy preoccupied the painter in the late 1960s, when favourable circumstances – the admiration of younger artists, inclusion in major shows, sales – inspired him to assess retrospectively his body of work.19 In 1968, not long before the 1970 interview with de Antonio, Newman toured the Musée du Louvre in Paris with the French critic Pierre Schneider. As the winter sky darkened the galleries, the artist conjured up paintings by Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.: ‘All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle of them – as [in] my own painting.’20 Various critics agreed. In 1971 Thomas Hess suggested that the central vertical of Onement I should be understood as a ‘beam of light’.21 Later, philosopher and literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard remarked on the manner in which Newman’s line, ‘like a flash of lightning in the darkness … inaugurates a sensible world’, as if its radiance were the fundamental condition of visual perception itself.22

The connotations of the word ‘stroke’ extend in many directions, as do the metaphorical associations raised by its multipart definition. It can refer to a blow, to a discharge of lightning, to an incidence of light, to the sound of a clock, to the metrical beating of time, to a pulsation such as a heartbeat, or to a linear movement of some instrument of inscription, such as a painter’s brush. To stroke also describes a particular manner of caressing someone or something, usually with suggestions of tenderness and intimacy. To stroke is to touch. Of course, within the discourse of modern painting that constituted Newman’s immediate artistic heritage, a stroke or series of strokes – like those comprised by the central band in Onement I – were taken to index the artist’s touch in a special sense. From impressionism onwards, critics and painters alike understood conspicuous brushstrokes to register not just the technical manufacture of a picture and the maker’s unique handling of tools and medium, but more importantly understood them to operate as signs of originality, spontaneity and authenticity.23

Clearly, the impressionist model of adjusting physical touch to the canvas surface – and requiring this touch to signify, not just in terms of its palpable suggestion of actual contact but also as a virtual component of the projected image – is unsuited to capturing the dynamic of stroke and touch that is emerging as a theme in my account of Onement I (and, by implication, Adam). Still less does it seem pertinent to approaching Newman’s surfaces generally, with their broad planes of adamantly flat colour and their intuitively but precisely placed bands. So, consider the issue of Onement I’s stroke from a figurative point of view. As a visible touch, a brushstroke bears a special kind of relationship to the hand of an artist, and particularly to his fingers. It would naturally have occurred to Newman that his brush was a kind of prosthesis for his digits, as it no doubt does to all contemplative painters. The instrument is an extension of the artist’s appendages, but also their replacement. A chain of substitutions based on a principle of contiguity presents itself. Since the stroke he paints is a proxy for the brush that was used to apply it, and the brush is a surrogate for Newman’s hand, then the stroke can be understood to indicate the painter-maker’s finger, the sensing means of touch itself. These figurative operations follow the logic of metonymy: the rhetorical trope that functions by exchange or substitution.24

If we pursue Newman’s exclamation that his stroke made Onement I ‘come to life’, we might take the metonymic substitutions sponsored by the stroke-brush-finger triad to evoke a specific art historical association. In what has become perhaps the most famous image of creating human life in the Western canon – Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam c.1508–12, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome – God reaches out with his index finger poised to touch (to stroke?) Adam’s finger. Upon contact, Adam’s life will begin (and allegorically, all life, all opportunity for human content to become manifest in the world). It would be unwise to insist that Newman was specifically responding, either in Onement I or in Adam, to this premier Renaissance precedent – at least, not on any customary level. Still, the ambition to confront the major achievements through which artists in the past had given form and expression to their historical experience and its creative horizons was fundamental for Newman and his peers. In his tour of the Louvre with Schneider he confessed: ‘I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am talking to Michelangelo. The great [artists] are concerned with the same problems … Saying something about life and about [humanity] and about himself: that’s what a painter is about.’25 Because he had committed himself to abstraction, another way to put Newman’s self-imposed task would be to say that, at least in the case of Adam, expressing ‘creation’ under contemporary conditions required the elimination of iconography, but the preservation of an image that could convey its significance as powerfully as it traditionally had been conveyed by representational and symbolic means. Onement I points to something.

Reflection

For someone who claimed that he and his fellow artists desired to ‘free [themselves] from the weight of European culture’ and who rejected the ‘obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend’, choosing Adam and Eve as titles – if not subjects – of paintings does not seem like an auspicious way to start. Describing the work of his peer group, Newman famously insisted:

We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone.26

It is difficult to assess, in the face of Newman’s reticent paintings, how to take his claim that they can be ‘understood by anyone’ – as if considerable interpretative effort were not involved. Is Adam’s ‘revelation’, as a painting or a motif, ‘self-evident’? It is doubtful. To think so would imply that the labour of interpreting Newman’s artistic statement is unnecessary, since what is self-evident or revealed is comprehended immediately. But while Newman and his colleagues clearly prized the notion of a powerfully intimate relationship between the viewer and a painting, between the self and another, they recognised that the metaphysical moment of contact between the two parties was on the order of communication, not identity.27 It would be a mistake, too, to misread Newman’s bold mandate for a ‘real and concrete’ image as a blanket assertion for the ‘actual’ over the ‘pictorial’. That would be to convert the painting that is a virtual medium for the artist’s feelings into a literal object that is nothing more than stimulus for an automatic response. It would also transform the act of beholding the painting with an eye towards understanding another’s feelings (‘seeing’, as he put it) into an occasion for experiencing one’s own feelings (merely ‘looking’). On the contrary, Adam’s ‘revelation’, as yet unknown to us, is expressed within a medium that is constrained by certain historical conventions, and to understand what that revelation is – what Newman’s meaning is – requires us to maintain a distinction between the metaphysical implications of the work of art and the viewer’s basic experience of the thing.28 It also calls for an interpretive approach flexible enough to align a painting’s pictorial effects and the mode of address to which they give rise with other dimensions of Newman’s thinking, writing and practice – chiefly, his often retrospective assessment of what constituted the essence of his art.

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis 1950, 1951

Fig.3
Barnett Newman
Vir Heroicus Sublimis 1950, 1951
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2422 x 5417 mm
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2018 Barnet Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the published record, Newman specifically discussed Adam only once; it happened to be during the 1965 interview with Sylvester in which the artist had narrated the story of Onement I. The critic asked him: ‘Why do you give some of your paintings titles such as Adam?’29 Newman’s deceptively straightforward answer was that in titles, he tried ‘to evoke the emotional complex that [he] was under’ when making the painting.30 Given the fact that many of the titles he attached to his works were formulated a considerable amount of time after their making (Adam may not have been named until 1957, six years after it was exhibited in its first state), Newman’s perception of his own bearing towards the work in question necessarily would have taken the form of retrospection: a present-day evaluation of a previous feeling, mood or attitude.31 Lamentably, Sylvester’s query failed to prompt Newman to say explicitly what those embodied states were when he painted Adam, either in 1951 or when adding to it in 1952. Instead, the painter redirected the conversation to discuss another work, Vir Heroicus Sublimis 1950, 1951 (fig.3):

For example, with one of the paintings, which I call Vir Heroicus Sublimis, [I tried to evoke] that man can be or is sublime in his relation to his sense of being aware … I try in the title to create a metaphor that will in some way correspond to what I think is the feeling in [the paintings] and the meaning of it.32

Attend closely to the phrasing that Newman, with the precision characteristic of his oratory, chooses to employ. His titles are intended to correspond not to a feeling stimulated in us by the object of our perception (that is, to an affective reaction to the physical canvas before which we stand), but rather to the meaning of Newman’s feeling that the painting is meant to express.

To what human content or feeling, then, does the title ‘Adam’ metaphorically correspond? My attempt at an answer requires a rather protracted detour. Newman’s segue from Adam to Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I would like to suggest, indicates less a redirection than a significant association (going forward, keep this shift in mind, as it will figure largely in a claim I will soon make). It is as if the two works were coupled in the artist’s mind. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that these were the only two works he modified after their original completion.33 Additionally, the economy of his body of work – just 118 works on canvas – facilitates cross-references and connections. Art historian Yve-Alain Bois has gone so far as to suggest that Newman’s works are so intentionally restrained, non-redundant and internally related that as a set they are a ‘structural totality’, like a deck of cards, within which ‘each card has a distinct role to play while forming specific links with various other cards’.34 Finally, Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Adam featured together in Newman’s second solo exhibition at Parsons in 1951, neither yet being named. But there is another reason why Newman may conceptually have paired them by the time of his interview with Sylvester in 1965.

Four years earlier, in 1961, Newman took Erwin Panofsky to task in Art News for comments the art historian had made regarding the Latin title of Vir Heroicus Sublimis. The issue concerned a misspelling in an article by another art historian (and curator), Robert Rosenblum: the typesetter had rendered the work’s title Vir Heroicus Sublimus (with a ‘u’ instead of an ‘i’) in the caption to its illustration. The mistake ignited a fiery exchange. In round one, Panofsky questioned Newman’s knowledge of classical languages and deprecated the artist by suggesting that he must think of himself, like God, to be ‘above grammar’ (a characteristic attributed to the deity by Aelfric, a medieval monk).35 Newman marshalled his artillery. In a letter to the editor, he pointed out that had Panofsky read more closely, the scholar would have concluded that the misprint was a typesetting mistake (since the main text of the article included the work’s correct spelling). But the artist did not stop there. In a manoeuvre typical of his propensity for brinksmanship, he raised the stakes of the debate. He advanced into his enemy’s territory, arguing against the renowned Panofsky – whose far-reaching scholarship and comprehensive training in classical languages was seemingly beyond challenge – that the misspelling, Sublimus, was also correct. How so?

Citing various sources of Latin etymology to make his case, Newman deflected Panofsky’s provocation about his putatively being ‘above grammar’:

As for the matter of Aelfric, the tenth-century monk had a greater sensitivity for the meaning of the act of creation than does Panofsky. One would think that by now Professor Panofsky would know the basic fact about a work of art, that for a work of art to be a work of art, it must rise above grammar and syntax – pro gloria Dei.36

Grammar and syntax are subordinate to original, creative language: secondary, that is, to what Newman, in his account of Adam as the first artist and creator, had described as aesthetic speech, humankind’s ‘poetic outcry … of power and solemn weakness’.37 Without proscriptions, the poet and the artist give life to mud. Against Newman’s blitz, Panofsky fell back. In a subsequent letter, he conceded that the choice of Sublimus could indeed be justified as a stylistic preference, yet still needled Newman by maintaining that it was not properly grammatical. Newman would have none of it: he persisted in routing his antagonist on new grounds:

I could … show that sublimus can have a connection with ‘man’. If Dr. Panofsky knew more Latin, he would know that the word vertex has ‘evoluted’ to mean the skull. A modern biologist could translate the phrase sublimus vertex to mean the lofty crown of a man’s skull. What could be more sublime! But this is not the issue … What is at stake is [Panofsky’s] attempt to deny the artist’s right to create poetic language, the right of potestas audendi.38

The final Latin phrase stems from Horace, and refers to the privilege of poets and painters to risk everything in the realisation of their art, a project that – as the prefix aud, signifying hearing and listening, suggests – can assume the form of oral address to an audience. Thus, in his exchange with Panofsky, Newman establishes the grounds according to which even the putative misspelling of his painting’s title can be understood to denote a dimension of its human content – a meaning captured by the inspired and significant link Newman draws between Vir Heroicus Sublimis and the head or skull of ‘man’.

Typology

That connection returns us, at last, to Sylvester’s question about the naming of Adam during his interview with Newman, and assumes particular resonance when considered in light of the artist’s redirection of the discussion to Vir Heroicus Sublimis. For in the typology of sacrifice that governs the western tradition of representing Christ’s Crucifixion, Adam’s skull is frequently depicted at the base of the cross. Indeed, at an early date, Christian theologians explicated the connection-in-opposition between the ‘first’ Adam and Christ, personified as the ‘second’ Adam who redeems the sins of the original one.39 Apocryphal sources identified the earthen mound upon which Jesus was crucified as Adam’s burial place. Significantly, the name of that small rounded knoll – Golgotha – derives from the Hebrew word for skull, and is designated as the place of a skull in each of the four Gospels.40 In western visual representations of the Crucifixion from the ninth century onwards, either the body of Adam in a sarcophagus, his skeleton or his skull alone is depicted at the base of the cross (sometimes Eve’s remains are present too). The dome of Golgotha plays an almost literally central role in the cosmological interpretation of the Crucifixion, as the grave of Adam has also been identified since medieval times as the centre of the world. That association, interestingly enough, is reinforced by the interpretation in the non-canonical Jewish Book of Enoch (and afterwards by St Augustine) of Adam’s name, each letter of which was understood to indicate, in Greek, a cardinal direction: A = arctos (north), D = dysis (west), A = Anatole (east), M = mesembria (south).41 The ubiquity of space suggested by Adam’s name when it is taken as an acronym is related, by analogy, to the ‘totality’ Newman achieved in his art generally, and to the fullness and frontality of Adam in particular. As he put it: ‘The feeling of space involves all four horizons. That is why I have described my idea of space by calling it the “space dome”.’42 Newman’s felicitous use of the word ‘dome’ helps to motivate the connection I am making, at least rhetorically. It also seems pertinent to recall here that in my initial description of the anthropomorphism harboured within Adam’s counterbalanced third strut, I compared its breadth to that of a human skull.43

Barnett Newman, Untitled 1, 1950 1950

Fig.4
Barnett Newman
Untitled 1, 1950 1950
Oil paint on canvas
914 x 152 mm
Private collection
© 2018 Barnet Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In depictions of the Crucifixion, the skull is a synecdoche – a part that represents a whole. The skull stands for the entire body, and in doing so visualises the structural relationship between the fall of the old Adam and his salvation by the new. Jesus Christ, as the art historian Gertrud Schiller explains, ‘atones on the Cross for the state of sin against God in which mankind has persisted since Adam. The new Adam dies above the grave of the old Adam, [so] that the old may live.’44 Such associations are deeply embedded within the eschatological account of sin and salvation, personified by doubled figures of the ‘first man’ (Adam) and the ‘second Adam’ (Christ). Although for the Jewish faith Adam is not understood to prefigure Christ, did Newman – through his Jewish upbringing and certain knowledge of Christian iconography – ponder such connections during long periods of reflecting on the implications of his art? It is possible, even likely. At the very least, they could have served as a kind of tacit background against which his reflections, and perhaps some of his actions, unfolded. They also could have affected the naming of previously untitled paintings after religious figures, for instance Abraham 1949 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Joshua 1950 (private collection), or events of a religious nature, such as Covenant 1949 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.) and Concord 1949 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the latter of which hints at the state of harmony enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall.45 Still, attributing a specific reference to Adamic typology to the finer points of Newman’s account of Vir Heroicus Sublimis remains speculative. Yet before abandoning the line of inquiry, consider another piece of evidence that might help confirm something like the structure of implication I have been tracing. Surprisingly, there is in Newman’s body of work a second ‘Adam’. The painting is now designated as Untitled 1, 1950, but has also been referred to as Adam #2 (fig.4).

This work is one of the six narrow canvases Newman completed in 1950. The set includes the extremely attenuated The Wild 1950 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which hung directly across the room from Vir Heroicus Sublimis at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1951, where Tate’s Adam was exhibited without its third band. Untitled 1, 1950 is around ninety centimetres high, and although only fifteen centimetres wide, it comprises a complex sequence of verticals. A heavy band of bright orange paint, applied at least in part with a palette knife, declares the left edge of a constricted cadmium red field that exhibits subtle variations in shading. The slender area to the right of the orange band is pierced by a pure white line which appears unpainted (that is, it seems to be the sized and primed ground of the canvas surface itself, revealed when Newman removed the tape that masked its length). The brilliant zip wavers slightly along its stretch, but nonetheless tautens the plane, giving the slim field an impression of being tightly pulled together despite the variability of the painting’s composition and internal modulation. At the same time, the white filament helps to make visible by contrast a pair of shaded striations on either side running parallel to it – dusky vertical patterns that are initially hard to see but that come into view, I almost want to say, like shadows cast from some remote source against the zip’s illumination. Upon close viewing, these sooty lines can be seen to bracket another, almost ‘invisible’ zip, whose presence is revealed slowly.

The juxtaposition of an expressively painted band, flush with the left edge of the canvas, with a comparatively slender and precisely demarcated zip is enough to establish Adam #2’s formal correspondence to Tate’s painting (especially in its first state).46 But in addition, the genetic link between the first and second Adam extends to the level of manufacture. To make the second, Newman appears at the start to have used one-and-a-half-inch (3.8 centimetre) tape to mask out two vertical reserves of canvas running from top to bottom: the area of what would become the orange brace at the left edge of the painting, and another band now defined, as if in the negative, by the dark striations perceptible on either side of the white zip. Having masked out the two wide zips, Newman brushed the entire surface with a dark red, then removed both pieces of tape. He then applied a piece of quarter-inch (six millimetre) tape inside the right canvas reserve to mask out what would ultimately appear as the prominent white zip in the final composition. Loosely brushing another dark red over the initial canvas reserve at right (and thus over the previously taped edges of that wide zip) produces, through the layering of transparent colours, the modulated effects of shading along its length that allow the viewer to identify the presence of what, in the final canvas, appears as a hallucinatory ‘zip’ beneath or perhaps around the more emphatic white filament.47 These technical observations help us see that in the second Adam painting – just as in the revised state of Adam – there are three bands producing the total structure of the compositional array. Importantly, since one of those bands is, as it were, ‘unseen’ at first glance, its gradual appearance renders it supplementary to the other two. In other words, it is in a sense added to the field after the fact. That pictorial effect makes the ‘invisible’ band analogous to the one added in the larger Adam, binding the two works into ever closer kinship.48

It would be imprudent for me to insist that, as a pair, Adam and Adam #2 somehow recapitulate the typological doubling of Adam and Christ. Yet as evidence accrues of Newman’s sensitivity to religion as a traditional symbolic form – one that preeminently organises and narrates various metaphysical aspects of human experience – the possibility grows that he considered his abstract paintings to express, however obliquely, certain Judeo-Christian motifs; and moreover to relate, in some heretofore unremarked ways, to the means by which artists in the past had represented those motifs in visual art. (Recall the relationship I proposed between Onement I and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.) Clearly, there appears in Newman’s paintings no traditional iconography or symbolism through which to communicate such themes. However, with reference to other aspects of Newman’s practice as an artist and thinker – namely photography – we may yet discover the means by which he brought the salience of traditional symbolism into alignment with his pictorial goals.