Exhibitions: Searching for the sublime

Arts: The `funerary' lithographs of the revered Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman make for a moving show at Camden Arts Centre
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The Independent Culture
In a show that appears modest but gains in significance the more it is considered, Barnett Newman's prints fill the main gallery of the Camden Arts Centre. They don't occupy the space in the sense that they are crammed on the walls; rather the opposite - the prints are hung in a sparing manner. The display seems ample because the prints are so resonant. These lithographs and etchings are made in the same spirit as his large, majestic paintings. They are not merely tokens of his imagination, as often happens with prints by abstract artists. And Newman's imagination seems even to have been extended by work on the lithographic stone.

A pity, therefore, that the Camden Arts Centre hasn't produced a catalogue to relate Newman's print-making to his art as a whole. A book by Gabriele Schor is available, but at pounds 22 is expensive for most visitors. Schor's account immediately becomes the standard text on its subject, but this reminds us that there is no fine general book on Newman and his times. Odd, for he is a revered artist and was a much-loved man. I think his appeal has a generalised nature. People like the thought of Newman. They admire his epic humanity and constant desire for the sublime. In truth his paintings fail far too often. Their conception exceeds the results, especially since Newman was not a colourist of the first rank. No matter: it is for conception that we honour him.

The prints help us to understand such problems. They have an heroic air. With all due respect to printmaking as an activity, it doesn't often produce heroism. I know what happens. Artists start to make prints for a variety of reasons, they get absorbed in the technical processes and then they produce good prints because (a simple point, often overlooked) artists like being good at what they do and are not happy with hack work, unlike writers. Newman isn't of this sort. He began printmaking as though he were determined to scale an aesthetic mountain, with glorious knowledge at its peak. Significantly, he began to print at a time of personal crisis. He was in his late forties, mature as a painter and man, but sensitive and vulnerable. His brother George died, Newman went into a depression and couldn't enter his studio. Then a kind friend suggested that he might try his hand at printing, just as "a way of getting him to work again, since he hadn't been able to paint for several months".

This was in 1961. The results were three black- and-white lithographs, all untitled, then the painting Shining Forth (to George). I haven't seen the painting for many years, but suspect that I might like the lithographs more. Because they are in black and white (which means black and grey with the faintest of buff colours), they avoid the uncertainties of Newman's palette. They are calm and concentrated, while the rubbed, ancient-looking surfaces tell us much about Newman's huge desire for expressiveness. That's like his art in general. Newman was a grand romantic whose romanticism could only be conveyed by reduced and "classical" means. He's rather a strict Abstract Expressionist, in a movement not noted for moderation.

It's remarkable how Newman can make a single line so eloquent, especially since it's a straight line going from top to bottom. Remarkable and mysterious. How does he get so much stirring life into a line? It cannot be through draughtsmanship in the usual sense. There's hardly anything here that one could call proper, conventional drawing. The secret must lie in pressure, a special way of eliciting art from wrist and hand. Schor mentions that Newman was using "a flat tool like a razor" to scrape at his surfaces. No doubt there were other procedures that belong to the new medium. In any case, the results are highly sophisticated, in the way that some modern "primitive" art has sophistication.

The three 1961 lithographs can of course be related to Newman's work on canvas, but they feel as if they belong to a deep and separate pool of experience. Even if one didn't know about Newman's grief for George it would be apparent that they concern life and death. Little wonder that Newman decided not to title these sheets. To name them would have been to blunder into a private spiritual world. As sometimes happens with art, they make words seem obtuse. I think we should regard them as a contemporary triumph of funerary art.

Only three decades have passed, but Newman's idealism seems to belong to a completely different age. In 1963-64 he returned to lithography in the sequence of 18 prints he called "Cantos". They are more exploratory than the "Untitled" sheets, mainly because Newman was using colour, but also because he had to experiment with the nature of the white paper margin that, inevitably, surrounds the printed image. The size and nature of the margin becomes an integral part of the work. Some people say that these prints belong to 1960s Colour Field painting. I prefer to compare them with Mondrian, whose example meant a lot to Newman. Both men were other-worldly, spiritualists of the straight line, and they belong to a marvellous and distant time in modern art.

! `Barnett Newman: Prints from the 1960s': Camden Arts Centre, NW3 (0171 435 2643), to 10 Nov.