Sunday, December 16, 2012

In the Tower: Barnett Newman

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through February 24, 2013

I've taken to calling the National Gallery's Tower space "the little Hirshhorn in the sky."  Those of you who know my views on the Hirshhorn will know that's not a compliment.  Up the narrow spiral staircase we go, only to have odd things presented to us as our reward at the top.

The name Barnett Newman was not familiar to me, but when I arrived in the Tower, I realized immediately that I had seen his work before.  I noted in my journal, "Haven't I seen this set of lines on canvas already?"  Indeed I had - these are the "Stations of the Cross," a set I'd seen when they were on display in another exhibit space in the building years before.  These offerings had not improved either with age or with the climb to see them.  When I say they're lines on canvas, I'm not exaggerating for comic effect - that's what they are.  Some of the lines are perfectly straight (I found out in the smaller room that he used tape to make the borders clean, somehow that seems less like art, and more like painting the walls and making sure you don't smudge the woodwork), others are blurred - but there's nothing to suggest the Stations of the Cross, or anything else for that matter.  Much as I dislike naming a painting "Untitled," perhaps that would have been a better name for these.

For these Tower shows, you get one set of pieces in the main room and another set in the smaller room that also serves as an elevator lobby.  It's an awkward space, and must be terribly difficult for the curators to use.  There's a video of Newman being interviewed in the smaller space, which, for fans of his work, would be interesting.  An item that caught my eye was "Yellow Painting"; can't disagree with that description - it's a painting and it's plenty yellow.

Verdict: If you like Newman, by all means, run right out and see this (making sure to take care on the stairs).  Otherwise, do an extra 5 minutes on the treadmill and get your exercise that way.

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