A Poem for Barnett Newman
Posted by Leslie on June 19, 2012 - 9:43am
Categories: On the Walls

Barnett Newman's Untitled Etching #1, First Version, 1969, was recently installed in the first-floor galleries. The print features a thick, black vertical stripe down the center of a broad white field, stretching from the top of the paper to the bottom. This white field is framed on either side by a thinner black band down the left and four very thin lines down the right, creating a symmetrical balance. Newman referred to these stripes as "zips;" their verticality relating to our bodies in front of the work and injecting the composition with energy.

In his 1948 essay "The Sublime is Now," Newman discussed his interest in the sublime, a state beyond beauty that incorporates an overpowering feeling of transcendental awe. Rather than depict landscapes that illustrate the sublime, such as eighteenth-century images of infinite seascapes or turbulent storms, Newman wanted to create paintings that would evoke a sublime response through abstract fields of color and zips.

Newman inaugurated the New Gallery at Vermont’s Bennington College with a retrospective in 1958. Howard Nemerov was the poet-in-residence there at the time and wrote this two-stanza poem in response to criticism of the show on campus. Curator Ann Temkin asserts, "Newman loved the poem, a transparent defense of his work's apparent simplicity as a vehicle for miracles and an identification of the artist with the Prophets."1

who amused themselves over the simplicity of Barnett Newman’s 
paintings shown at Bennington College in May of 1958.

When Moses in Horeb struck the rock,
And water came forth out of the rock,
Some of the people were annoyed with Moses
And said he should have used a fancier stick.

And when Elijah on Mount Carmel brought the rain,
Where the prophets of Baal could not bring rain,
Some of the people said that the rituals of the prophets of Baal
Were aesthetically significant, while Elijah’s were very plain.


1 Ann Temkin, “Barnett Newman on Exhibition,” in Barnett Newman, ed. Ann Temkin (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2002), 55.
2 Howard Nemerov, “On Certain Wits who amused themselves over the simplicity of Barnett Newman’s paintings shown at Bennington College in May of 1958,” The Nation, volume 187 (September 6, 1958): 119.