Abraham by Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman

Abraham, 1949, Oil on canvas, 210.2 x 87.7 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 651.1959, © Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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Darkness and Nascent Light

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Vittorio Montemaggi

In recalling his painting of Abraham, the American abstract artist Barnett Newman (d. 1970) said that ‘The terror of it was intense’.

The process of artistic creation confronted Newman with radical inner exploration. The name of the work is both that of the biblical patriarch and of Newman’s father, who had died a couple of years earlier. The overwhelmingly dark tones of the painting could perhaps reflect Newman’s perception of a darkness in the life of both men.

In his oeuvre Newman engages with his Jewish roots, and some of his later work—notably Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani (1958–66)—also explicitly engages with notions of darkness and abandonment at the heart of the Christian story. There is no evidence of the latter in Abraham. Yet contemplation of this painting—in which a thick, black vertical ‘zip’ struggles to stand out against an only mildly lighter background—can generate fruitful insight into John 16:16–24.

What does it mean to ‘go back to the Father’? The disciples’ question is a question about life beyond death. Yet it has little spiritual purchase if it is not recognized, first of all, as an earthly question. Christ indicates that the journey to the Father is first a journey towards suffering and death, so it is understandable that the disciples are confused and afraid at the thought of what will become of them on their own journey to the Father.

Newman’s Abraham speaks of and to the terror of a journeying that is inextricably tied to suffering and death. But it also speaks of and to the potential for discovery such journeying entails.

If we look closely, we can discern amidst the various levels of darkness unexpected, nascent light. Are we encouraged by this light to discern life as well as death; even life through death? In such light, we might also recognize Abraham as a metaphor for artistic creation. The painting challenges us to face darkness in our own journeying. Whether or not we think of our journeying as being towards the Father, refusing to avoid darkness might bring us to nascent light.