Thinking about Colin McCahon and Barnett Newman


McCahon's Stations of the Cross, 1966, invite inevitable comparison with the more famous series of the same name by Barnett Newman begun in 1958. Newman executed his series after a heart attack the year before. His subtitle to the series 'Lema Sabacthani' ('Why do you forsake me?') reveals the anguished state of Newman at the time of painting. Yet Newman conveys his message in purely painterly terms without resorting to figuration. The placing of paint on canvas, edges which drag and tear, paint which trembles, bleeds, these are Newman's means. Of his Stations McCahon writes, 'I am saying what I want to say. . . I am still too abstract'. In Newman's terms he is not abstract enough. McCahon speaks as usual through the landscape, conceived in shades of grey. Dark hills plunged in shadow evoke despair, light breaking these masses suggests hope, the possibility of salvation. Nothing could illustrate more accurately the gulf between McCahon and the American painters like Newman than this disparity of means. McCahon rejects the purity of a non-figurative idiom retreating from the 'aesthetic exercise' in search of some quality 'more human '. But humanity comes from the artist. The distillation of experience, its resolution into paint, this is the painter's task; the choice of abstraction or other means a personal decision. Whether one responds more to Newman's Stations than McCahon's depends ultimately on one's sensibility.(1)

Since Michael Dunn had his say, McCahon's Stations series have proliferated and got more abstract, so complicating his comparison. He is a well-tempered critic. Good for him. Not so good for me, but. Not so good - and this is the point for McCahon either, or Newman. I'd like to start something here. To take this position: Abstract painting is no stick to beat McCahon with, nor is McCahon a stick with which to beat abstraction.

It strikes me the knowledges McCahon has use for - Christian and Maori myth - are eccentric, incongruous. We can do without them. We do put them in their place: elsewhere, in time or space. Come to think of it, of what use Tomioka Tessa, nineteenth century Japanese painter to whom a Jump is dedicated?

COLIN McCAHON The Green Plain 1948
oil on canvas 375 x 918 mm. (Collection the Artist)

Newman had it that: 'Aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds.' Put aesthetics aside, for the time being. And note the knowledges acquired by some major painters of the century. Mondrian and Kandinsky - their Theosophy. Reinhardt's Orientalism. And Newman's absorption in the Kabbalah. Take poets. Yeats visited Madame Blavatsky. Confucius and Dante are the heroes of the Cantos, says Pound. To Judaism Ginsberg adds Hinduism. I'm talking about knowledges - bundles of myths, or fictions, which serve to explain what we are doing here, which artists have found of use. I'm not talking about subject matter. Coincidence is out of the question - the case is there to be made: modern artists often as not seek out knowledges which are plainly disreputable, outlandish or both. McCahon is no exception.

Newman organised exhibitions of 'primitive' art.(2) Pollock alluded to Indian sand painters of the American West, for the same reason McCahon goes to Maori myth - for a lever to lift dead weight of their supposed 'civilisations'. McCahon paints the Stations of the Cross for the same reason Newman and Rothko painted them. Christianity has grown disreputable. McCahon put the crucifixion in a real life New Zealand landscape and shocked its inhabitants. The 'event' had grown that remote. (Why, she asked, do you paint Christ as a Jew?) Nobody has use for Christianity anymore; paid lip service Sundays in the suburbs, in the universities it is disreputable. It seems that any knowledge we think we can do without is assumed to hold some use after all.

The search for eccentric knowledges has a history. Its beginnings are there in the figure of the Romantic wanderer, Ishmael - Moby Dick sighted once more - Childe Harold on the road, Easy Rider. McCahon proposes to share this role with the viewer in paintings like Walk With Me and On the Road. Morse Peckham sees this search as one of a number of strategies adopted by artists to meet a crisis of failed meta-explanations, as he calls them, or knowledges, as I call them:
One strand in the Romantic tradition is the search for new general explanations of the world from outside the European tradition or - as with the regressive Blake and in such phenomena as Catholic revivalism and Satanism - for explanations once current but long since abandoned by high culture. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have experienced a culturally minor but continuous experimentation with explanations taken from Oriental culture.(3)

The meta-explanations which failed a few men and women at the end of the eighteenth century were those called Christianity and the Enlightenment. For most Westerners these meta-explanations still serve, although as Western knowledges rapidly become world knowledges, it is Enlightenment explanations which prevail. Alternative native knowledges grow scarcer year by year and artists become historians, anthropologists, archaeologists.

No one does without knowledge. What can, or ought, to be done with it - that's the question. Along with the search for new explanations goes another strategy. Peckham again:
In this tradition meta-explanations are subsumed under the general notion of explanation, and explanation itself is rejected. It is for this reason that Kant is often considered to be the beginning of Romantic thinking, and Hegel his great continuator. For Kant, since we cannot know the thing-in-itself, we cannot know the world, and consequently any explanation of the world cannot correspond to the world... To Hegel, we must explain the world in order to maintain a transactional relation with it, but freedom is knowing this, and knowing also that any explanations can only be a means to accomplish such transaction.(4)

For Peckham, this, the anti-explanatory strategy is Romanticism's most radical and significant innovation. It affects, and crucially, Romantic search activity. This way the attraction of new knowledges is that they increase the possibilities for maintaining transactional relations with the world. They are not true knowledge but knowledges of, for, use. McCahon: 'I could never call myself a Christian.' He calls one series 'Practical Religion'. The religiosity which pervades modern art is of this kind.

Newman had it that 'The artist's intention is what gives a specific thing form'. So I'll propose this distinction between McCahon and Newman: while both artists belong to both traditions, McCahon belongs more to that of Romantic search activity, Newman more to that of opposition to all explanation.


If there is any absolute, it is never more than this one, you, this instant; in action.

Both the use of objects and the manipulation of areas for the sake of the areas themselves must end up being anecdotal. My subject is anti-anecdotal. Anecdote can be subjective and internal as well as of the external world so that the expression of the biography of self or the intoxicated moment of glowing ecstasy must in the end also become anecdotal. All such painting is essentially episodic which means it calls for a sequel. This must happen if a painting does not give a sensation of wholeness or fulfillment. This is why I have no interest in the episodic or ecstatic, however abstract.(5)

The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be towards clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct, and, at all points, an energy discharge.

Newman has a painting he calls Not There-Here.' There' equals 'anecdote' equals 'explanation'. Like any Newman, it represents nothing; it presents itself, without excuse or explanation. His aim was never to abstract, minimalise, reduce - these words imply some sort of evolution of, modification to, what was there in the first place. No, the idea was to shift - and so replace - the whole shebang over here, before. Here, in the rear first place, Thus, like any Newman, it occasions a transaction with the world of a kind painting - painting being the kind of thing-in-the-world that it is - of a kind painting can occasion. Interpretation is, in the first instance, description. (Reproductions are worse than useless.) Newman puts the viewer on the spot, expects him to be here attentive to the relation of his dimensions to those of the painting, to inflections of brushwork, to the highly specific colour relationships and to how scale bears upon them, and so on.(6) Because there's nothing else to attend to.

Except for titles, that is. Newman never painted a work called Not Then - Now; but he might have. He did paint Achilles, Dionysus, and The Stations - all of which imply then (not now), there (not here), anecdotes and explanation. As Alloway says 'Levels of reference and display, present in all art, are presented not in easy partnership but almost antagonistically'. Newman's titles in these instances are less names than dedications with which the artist claims as collaborators men who were/are, like him, half in, half out, of history. Through them Newman evokes history only to express his will to defeat it. As with McCahon's absorption of past anecdote into autobiography, so with Newman's dedications - the intention is to use the past for all it's worth to the present.

The present comes and goes. Newman offers no absolutes, not even 'this one, you, this instant, in action'. He painted Oneness; and then, later, he painted Oneness II - you can't paint oneness once. Hereness; nowness, it slips away. Under your very eyes it slips away. So Newman is also a painter of sequences: open series, like Oneness, closed series, like the 18 Cantos or the 14 Stations. As with McCahon, sequence acknowledges submission to explanation. Unlike McCahon, however, Newman resists, almost successfully, by denying narrative sequence to his closed series. With both painters, open 'series acknowledge biography as the final anecdote but, again, Newman resists by holding to a single image.

The recurrent image is subject to continuous transformation, destruction, and reconstruction; it requires to be read in time as well as in space. In style analysis we look for unity in variety; in One-image art we look for variety within conspicuous unity. The run of the image constitutes a system, with limits set up by the artist himself, which we learn empirically by seeing enough of the work. Thus system is the means by which we approach the work of art. When a work of art is defined as an object we clearly stress its materiality and factualness, but its repetition, on this basis, returns meaning to the syntax. (7)

Every Newman refers us to every other Newman; as all Newmans are alike the entire oeuvre has a hereness and nowness to it. As all Newmans are different each painting has that much thereness and thenness about it.

Art history, too, is anecdote. Innovation has this value: it wrecks, for the time being, the explanations of art history. With the entry of American-style abstraction, 'the break with Western European traditions is complete', wrote Newman. At the time he was not himself painting, for he'd had to give it away before making his own break. Both McCahon and Newman resist anything resembling an 'aesthetic exercise', and for identical reasons; such exercises rob art of its proper religiosity by allowing the critic, or the artist himself, to explain it away with conventional anecdotes. Their resistance takes different forms, certainly. If McCahon's is the more problematic, that's because it's taken place at a greater remove from art history, in New Zealand rather than New York. There's the irony. Innovation is a response to the present pressure of history and art history is more present in New York than here. Compare Newman's break with Mondrian (the Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue series, 1966-70) with McCahon's (Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian, 1961, and Mondrian's Last Chrysthanthemum of 1908, 1971). Note also, that both painters use titles to add a specific explanatory force to paintings which otherwise lack it. In the end, there's no escape from art history, anecdote is turned upon itself, unavoidably.


To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing. Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation. It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we, too, had been annihilated. It left us feeling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness. At the same time There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the nonparticipant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it-for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms.(8)

The move I want to make now is this: there are ways of using anecdote for one of the purposes Newman opposed it, for the purpose, that is, of reducing explanation to the level of transaction. Cubism was on such way. That the works of Picasso, Braque and Gris are anecdotal is beside my point here. Also beside Leo Steinberg's point picked up in Philadelphia last year at his seminar on Picasso; their paintings, he showed, are made up of incomplete or incompatible anecdotes. There is no meta-explanation, they are about anecdote, are, in his words, representations of representation. Picasso's space is semiotic. Then there's also Duchamp's way, and Jasper Johns'. Those of much post-object art. And, Colin McCahon's; Each eclecticism, even as it continues to represent the world in some shapes or forms, implicitly admits the failure of anecdotes to explain the world.

McCahon's submission to anecdote is remarkably comprehensive. I know of no artist whose works so cross-reference themselves. As if there were no single works, but only sets, series, series within series and, finally, one work, the life work. To this end he dispenses with the frame to open his paintings at the sides to sequence and narrative, deposits motifs whose symbolic resonance transcends their use in anyone painting. Newman has only one symbol. His paintings, by contrast, are usually open top and bottom, his one-image 'zip' a deduction from the vertical edges and thus an assertion of the singleness of the individual canvas. Newman's titles may seem to antagonise the paintings, McCahon's invade them, sometimes taking over completely. The use of language (verbal or numerical) on the canvas is McCahon's most distinctive and blatant submission to anecdote. By means of it he refers us away from the work to other signs systems (Maori and English) and to writers (Hopkins, Kerouac, Brasch, Melville, Caselberg, the authors of the Bible). '. More conventional are the pointers to events, past or present, public symbols, and places.

McCahon's anecdotes are incomplete or incompatible. Necessary Protection, 1972, can be read as either landscape or Tau cross. We are offered alternate takes in which the space is either representative of real space or is purely symbolic space. Words, or numbers, put the eye on a course across the canvas that bears no necessary relation to the paintings' formal qualities. What does the dark ground of the 'blackboard' series - Teaching Aids and Noughts and Crosses - signify? The deep space of night, the Tomb, or the flat plane of the blackboard? These incompatibilities occur because there can be no one anecdote no complete explanation. Like Newman, McCahon can offer no absolutes, no God, but he comes to his conclusion from the opposite direction. McCahon's terms, in the first instance, are those of explanation, whereas Newman's are those of the world. McCahon is a painter with a symbolising mind which is always propositioning the world. His work records this meaning - making process as a flow of hypotheses. As an improviser, he obeys these injunctions: his art must change, it must be direct, it must be sacred - a matter of life and death. And in his obedience to them lies an affirmation that somehow lies outside all his doubts. He, like Newman, makes his home in the human universe.

1. Michael Dunn, 'McCahon's Survey Exhibition', Arts and Community, April 1972, p 2-3.
2. Pre-Columbian Stone Sculpture, Wakefield Gallery, New York 1944: & Northwest Coast Indian Paintings, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York 1946.
3. Morse Peckham, 'Rebellion and Deviance, in Romanticism and Behaviour, Columbia, S.C. 1976, P 80.
4.Ibid., p81.
5. Quoted in Barnett Newman, The Stations of the Cross, catalogue from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966, p 36.
6. There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in his exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance' - Artist's statement accompanying his first one-man show in New York, 1951.
7. Lawrence Alloway, 'Systemic Painting', in Minimal Art, ed. by Gregory Battcock, New York 1968, p 56.
8. Wallace Stevens, 'Two or Three Ideas', in Opus Posthumus, New York 1957, p 206-7.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 8 November/December/January 1977-8