Newman, Barnett. “Ohio, 1949” in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Ed. Joseph Philip O’Neil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Contributor: Timothy Anderson
After visiting his wife’s family in Akron in August 1949, he drove all the way across Ohio to finally see the ancient earthworks at Miamisburg, Oregonia, and Newark that had long allured him. There, in places named for other locations, he found a new and profound sense of here.
Barnett Newman might not recognize the mound at Miamisburg today, denuded and enclosed. Would the barren hillock still inspire him to acknowledge there, “a work of art that cannot even be seen, so it is something that must be experienced on the spot?” (Its current presentation might further embolden affinities with subsequent minimalist works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, and Agnes Martin. Now, the fabricated hill clearly appears as “the self-evident nature of the artistic act, its utter simplicity,” embodying the metaphysical insinuations of Newman’s shrouded reading.) Even more evidently it might inspire his assertion, “that here are the greatest works of art on the American continent, before which the Mexican and Northwest Coast totem poles are hysterical, overemphasized monsters; that here in the seductive Ohio Valley are perhaps the greatest art monuments in the world.” (Those words, of course, endeared him to the post-minimalist land artists who followed his innovations in paint. In his description, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson understood not only extraordinary achievement, but also but also saw exemplary models for further invention.)
Despite those changes, the most beguiling aspects of the ancient landscapes remain; Fort Ancient’s walls meander through the forest near Oregonia; the raised barriers at Newark form a circle and an octagon only when viewed from the sky above; and the knoll at Miamisburg still directs one’s gaze heavenward. As features of, and vistas upon, their settings, these structures reoriented Newman’s attention: “The sensation is the sensation of time—and all other multiple feelings vanish like the outside landscape.” With scathing precision and anachronic aplomb, the painter then dismissed historical and contemporary emphases of space as the essence of art: “They insist upon having it because, being outside, it includes them, it makes the artist ‘concrete’ and real because he represents or invokes sensations in the material objects that exist in space and can be understood.” Such critical insistence upon fixed, capacious space over dynamic, insular time “bores” him. Newman preferred the difficulties of capturing implacable vectors. So he reveled in art like that which he he found in Ohio, which proffered perspective upon such uncanny material. These points of encounter indulge no singular universality; instead, simply, continuously, and absolutely, they acknowledge the spectral proliferation of individuality. And there is the enduring specificity that minimalism and post-minimalism derive from Newman’s genius: “I insist on my experiences of sensations in time—not the sense of time but the physical sensation of time.” In the right place, one actually feels the moments that otherwise just zip by. As temporal horizons dissolve into the unknowns of pasts beyond memory and futures beyond imagination, anamorphic phenomena fix evanescently corporeal appreciations of now. How appropriate, then, that Newman’s seminal treatise on aesthetic production and reception, “The Sublime Is Now,” immediately precedes these previously unpublished notes in Selected Writings and Interviews. After disposing others’ pursuit of some abstract notion of beauty, that essay concludes:
The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.
Soon after those words appeared in the short-lived art magazine Tiger’s Eye, Barnett Newman went to Ohio and saw time, “real and concrete.”