Friday, July 20, 2007

Black Fire

I spent about half-an-hour and the Philadelphia Museum of Art today just staring at this painting. It's called Black Fire and was painted by Barnett Newman. Trust me, it's much better and much bigger (8+ feet tall) in person.
Before I went, I had put a tour of the Modern and Contemporary Gallery on my iPod so that I could understand some of the works a bit better. The curator of the M&C Gallery had this to say about Black Fire:
Is that picture just half black and half just plain canvas? Is there more black area? His signature motif is the thing that came to be known as a “zip” … it’s that vertical band that goes down the painting. And where does the zip divide the area of blank canvas? Is there any black paint that’s accidentally (or not) dripped on to the blank canvas?

The going back and forth between just these two very minimal variables, black paint and raw canvas, can keep you thinking quite a long time about Newman’s work. Newman’s idea of his art was that it was about the highest mysteries, the most profound questions of life and death. For many people, understanding how an almost blank canvas could represent those questions is very disturbing and I think Newman’s point was that there is no way that anything you represent could begin to address those questions. It’s a painting that in refusing to show the things of this world that we know is saying, “OK. I’m about what else there is.”

Whatever that may be.
Imedietly after listening to her, I thought of something Andrei Tarkovsky said in Sculpting In Time:
Art is the soul shaping it's spiritual structure.
In the most abstract way, Newman found a way to express his spiritual journey. If you look closely at the painting, there are very small dots of black (along with a smudge or two) on the blank canvas. Maybe the "zip" and these small touches serve to say that even the best parts of life can sometimes become contaminated by darkness. Not fully, but who knows? The canvas was all white to begin with.

I used to think modern art was the dumbest thing ever, but I'm starting to find it extremely rewarding. It's tough thing to understand, but if you're around people who know their stuff, it can be very enjoyable. I enjoyed my time in the modern gallery today much more than in the European (although the Cezzane paintings were gorgeous). It's amazing how things that you once thought to be pointless and idiotic can come to life and take on meaning through new understanding.

Praise God for maturity.

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