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Matthew Baigell Barnett Newman, Onemest 1948, Gila canvas, 24 41.3 (274 164 int The Mucam of ‘Anmlce Noenaa Barnett Newman's Stripe Paintings and Kabbalah A Jewish Take Barnett Nowman’s (1905-1970) famous swipe paintings are based on the esoteric teachings of mystical Judaism known 2s Kabbalah. We know this from Thomas Hess's account of Newman's career published in 1971. Since then, this startling piece of information has barely been mentioned and, equally staring, never been explored further.' I want to ask here one question: Just how Jewish ‘was Newman’ use of Jewish sources? My conclusions will suggest that neither the artist nor his biographer used Kabbalah from s normative Jewish poiae of view, (0%, t0 say it differently, neither used Jewish sources in a way acceptable to nal Jewish thoughe. use the term normative Judaiom to imply acceptance of Jewish interpretations of one’s relationship with Ged. Equally important in my analysis are esoteric Kabbalistic intespretations ofthe creation ‘of the universe, Most professing Jews, however, rarely study and know little of the mystical Jewish writings collected under the rubric of Kabbalah, and if they did, they might not accept very much of it But, at the same time, normative Judaism and kabbalietie writings share ‘certain assumptions about one’s relation ship with God. Uni I read Hess monograph on Newsman in the late 1970s, I like many 33. Anerson Are American Jews taised within nonorthodox families, knew virally nothing about Kabbalah. Hess's assertions about ‘Newman's source in Kabbalah, as well as iy knowledge of other artists who used kabbalstic imagery, made me especially intent to know more about this somewhat obscure subject. Frurned to the lieeranure of Martin Buber, Gershon Scholem, and other Jewish historians. My father-in-law, a Hasidic scholar also helped enrich my understanding of Kabbalah, Thomas Hess, no doubt with Newmar’s fll cooperation, based his analysis ofthe vertical stripe on Gershon Scholem's Major Frends in Jewish Mysi- cm, particulely Scholem’s discussions of Rabbi Isaac Luria, a siateenth-century mystic ftom Safad, a community now part of modecn-diy Israel. Aecording to Scholem (and Hess), Rabbi Lunia ex- plained how che world was created from nothing by postulating the concept of Tsirasum. To create a primordial space for the universe, God contracted into himself. Tsimtsum isthe contraction, the withdrawal, the shrinkage of God. Next, God sent outa ray of light in which he revealed hinvelf as God the Creator. This act set the “cosmic process in motion.” Subsequently, “the first being which emanated from this light was Adam Kadmon, the man, ... He isthe first and erg an by cerprise ae” in is ve of rf. cedly had ue, But in ized though and asa c himself an and salt his of his ligious an be- favorably co Buber. Justas Rosenberg misread Buber in 1847, Newman misread Scholem the following year. For Newman, the mis- reading was in assuming a God-lke pose of ereaivity, a pose foreign to normative Judaism. In addition, in his stripe paine- ings Newman distegarded one of the most important parts of Rabbi Luria's cos -mogony—the concept of Tikan, which completes the process of creation, of Tiimasum, by reworing the harmony that existed before the creation of the universe According to Rabbi Luria, in the creation juve after the great contraction, some divine sparks were lost. Mankind was responsible for their restitution, ‘That is, every Jew shared responsibility to Prepare the way forthe final restoration of all she rattered and exiled lights and sparks The Jew who is in clo: contact with the divine life trough the Torah, the fulill- ment ofthe sommandsnens, and through prayer, bas it in his power to accelerate or 0 hinder this proces. ... The individuals prayers as ella thes of the commurity. ‘but particularly the latter, are wader certain conditions the vehicle of the souls mystical ascent wo Gad ‘This responsibilty ofthe Jew was not a part of Newman's vision, Newman. secular person, happened upon a concep ‘of creation in a book by Gershon Scholem that allowed him to visualize the moment nent heart he has gone up in smoke or been starved to death, after being castrated by sociery.”® Newman's stripes, then, might be understood as an act of resistance as well as a celebration of renewal and rebirth, an affirmation of life during a time of Jewish trauma and national revival. Nourished by his cultural rather than his religious identifica tionas a Jew, Newman created the stripes as one person's single and solitary gesture, a aw assertion of the self against a society and a god that did noe merit his fll respect. His desire to make “cathedrals... out of ourselves” isa reproach as well as 2 uuniversalzing gesture that reaches beyond his Jewish identity to all humanity. icis an affirmation of individual strength and spirit in a ‘world he wanted metaphorically Notes 1 Thomas Hess, Bametr Newnan (New Yorke Museum of Moder Ar, 1971) see also Robert Rosenblum, Modem Painting and he North Romantic. 8 Tradizom (New York: Harper and Row, 1975),p. 209; Amete Cox, rra- Pols’s The Abact Expres Avani Garde and Sociery(Ann Abr, Mich UM Research Press, 1977), p-6%:and ‘Avram Kamof, Jewish Espercnce it she ‘tof he Toentiah Century South Hadley, Mas: Bergin and Garvey, 1984p. 197 2. Gershon G.Scholem, gor Trends in _Jeaith Mypci (New York Schocken, 1946), pp. 263,255; se, gezeraly. pp. 260-75. 3) Hess, pp. 56,71:see ako pp. 52-61, 88 4 Barnett Newman, “Memoria Leer for Howatd Puvel” (1943), in Berne ewan: Selected Writmg and Ine riewy ed, John Oeil (Bere Univesity ef Calfornis Pres, 1990), p.97-98. 5 Bamew Newman, “Stamos” 1947), in ibid, p. 108, 6 Barnet Newman, “Ferber” (1947), in ibid, p11 7 Baroes Newman, “The Sublime Ie Now" (1948), in id. 170; Thomas Cole, "Thoughts and Gecurences (a, 1942), quote in Barbars Novak ‘ature and Calta n American a Lande and Painting 1825-1875 (New You: Oaford Univesity Press, 1989), p10 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circe” (1861), in Ralph Watde Emenon (New Yor: Library of America, 1983), p. 412; and ‘War Whcman,prefice 10 the 1855, edison of Laws of Gras, Wale ‘Whimen (New Yorke Libary of America, 1982), pp. 24-25. See also ‘Marhew Buigel "The Emersonian Preence in Abstract Expressionism,” Propet: (1990) 91-108; and Baigel, “The Infience of Whitman on Early Twendiedh-Ceneury American Punting, Wa Whitman and the Vinal Ars, ed Gectfey M, Sis and Roberta Tarbell (Now Brunswick: Rutgers University Pres, 1992) pp. 12-41 Joho Paul Sante, Eestntaim, ans Beraard Frechtman ‘New York: Phile- sopaical Libra, 1947); Narin Buber, Tales of the Hasiione The Early Maser, teas, Olga Max (New Yerk Schocken, 1947}; and Seholem, cited inn. 2. Sar, pp, 37-38. Se also the following articles peblished inthe New Yer Time ‘Magaztne(secton 6) Johe L. Brown, “Chief Prophet of the Exixenilists," 2 February 1947, pp, 20-21, 50-52; ‘Simone de Beauvoir, “An Existentialist Locks a¢ Amercans, 25 May 1347, pp. 19, 51-55; an Paul F,Jeanings, “Thingnes of Thing,” 13 June 1948, pp 18-7 Harold Rosenberg, “Mysexs ofthe Wer” (1947), reprinted in Rosenberg, 2%» scouring the Praen(Chleag: Univenity of Chicago Press, 1973), pp 259, 200, quoting Bobet p23 Bid, p 240, quodng Buber, pp. 107, 24. Rosenberg, “Is There Jewish Aro” (0960) repented in Rosenberg, Discouring te Proc 9.230 For tis reading of Buber, see Gershon CG. Scholem, “Martin Buber’ lacerpreca tion of Hasiism,”in Schoen, The ‘Mesias Iden of dato and Other say en Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 240-45. Scholem, Major Trends pp. 274,276, Sarnest Newman, Recent American Spmagopue Arcitecur (1963), in ‘Newnan eo O'Nel p. 181-82 ‘Newman quotes baiah 6: Hes, p52, quoting Scholem, Mpr Trends p. 38 Ibid, p61, quoting Gershon G. Scholes, Ox oe abbaleh and lr ‘Simbokim (New York Sehocken, 1965), pp. 159-204. Seealso Scholem, Hgjor Trends pp. ©, 7, 9,127, 138, 15, Scholem, Ox he Kabbalah, p 173 Donald Kuspit, “The Abandened Nude: 1Naran Nuc’ Paintings,” in Kus ‘asam Nuch (New York: Klatild Peery Gallery, 1992), unpaginated,