White Fire I is the first of four paintings with the title White Fire which Newman painted at different points in his career. Although these four works share the same title this does not presuppose any formal similarity. Each is very different from the other. The title White Fire is a mystical term that relates directly to the Torah. As such it clearly invokes a profound sense of the spiritual that Newman sought to instill in the viewers of his paintings. This is not to say that Newman's was a religious art. Despite his study of and frequent invocation of Jewish mysticism in both his art and aesthetics, Newman remained at heart an atheist whose essential existentialist view of life was permeated with a deeply spiritual sense of the uniqueness of man. For Newman, the role of the artist was the highest to which a man could aspire. As a consequence he sought an art that invoked a sense of the sublime miracle of existence. As he had co-written with fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in a letter to the New York Times in 1943, "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless."
Through the precise and exact painterly science that Newman mastered in which the flat color of the surface of his paintings is formed in direct proportion to the impressive scale of his works, Newman forged a visual language that aimed to provoke an existential sense of awe and wonderment in the viewer. Because of the exact nature of this science, a Newman painting can never be understood in reproduction. Its scale in relation to the viewer is crucial and the work has to be experienced at first hand. It was Newman's intention, as he famously pointed out in 1970, that "the visual experience of the painting (should be) a single experience as single as the encounter that one has with a person, a living being" (Quoted in Barnett Newman, exh. cat. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002, p. 78).
Despite their imposing scale Newman wished the viewers of his paintings to view his work from close--to immerse themselves in the field of his color so that their vertical physical presence found an echo in the formal properties of the painting. Towards this end the "zip" - the vertical strip of color that divides and yet at the same time makes sense of the work's field of color, was all-important. The "zip" is a singular vertical form that permeates the void suggested by the color field and asserts a striking dynamic presence that the viewer is unable to ignore. Essentially a line of vitality and energy that seems to assert the mystery of existence and the dynamism of life, its unassailable verticality in the midst of vast field of color often sparks a mystical connection with the verticality of viewer standing in front of the painting. As Thomas Hess has written Newman's "zips" are "an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void. The artist, Newman pointed out, must start, like God, with chaos, the void: with blank color, no forms, textures or details. Newman's first move is an act of division, straight down creating an image. The image not only re-enacts God's primal gesture, it also presents the gesture itself, the zip, as and independent shape--man--the only animal who walks upright, Adam, virile, erect" (T. Hess, op cit.,, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, p. 56).
Onement, the title Newman gave to his great breakthrough painting of 1948 where the "zip" finally asserted itself in its true form, refers to this sense of communion, of oneness between, God, the act of creation and existence, as well as to the sense of communion between the viewer and the "zip". "I try in my titles," Newman once said, "to evoke the meaning that the painting had when I was painting it." In White Fire I the title refers to the mystical fire out of which the Torah (the five books of Moses handed down by God) was originally made. In a book on Jewish mysticism by Gershom G. Scholem which Newman owned, Scholem paraphrases the ancient description of the Torah in the Book Bahir (one of the earliest books of the Kaballists) as follows: "the fiery organism of the Torah, which is burned before God in black fire on white fire is as follows: the white fire is the written Torah, in which the form of the letters is not yet explicit, for the form of the consonants and the vowel points was first conferred by the power of the black fire , which is the oral Torah. This black fire is like the ink on the parchment. And so the written Torah can take on the corporal form only through the power of the oral Torah, that is to say without the oral Torah it cannot be understood. Essentially only Moses, master of all the Prophets, penetrated in unbroken contemplation to that mystical written Torah, which in reality is still hidden in the invisible form of white light. The form of the written Torah is that of the colors of white fire, and the form of the oral Torah has colored forms as of black fire." (G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York, 1954).
Newman employed the both the terms "white fire" and "black fire" as titles of his paintings. White Fire I was painted after a long period of painting dark pictures, chiefly characterised by a series of deep blue paintings between 1951 and 1953. In White Fire I Newman manages to attain a transluscent sense of brightness. The pale field of colour is made bright - almost a radiant white - by the effects of the two "zips" which also, through their contrasting colors suggest a constantly shifting sense of space against the seemingly infinite expanse of brightness. The overall effect, is one of a mystical light, a light that presumably inspired the works distinctly mystical title.
Fig. 1 White Fire III and White Fire I in the home of E.J. and Rene Power, London, 1964
c 2002 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Fig. 2 Newman double-exposed with Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1951
Photograph by Hans Namuth
c 1991 Hans Namuth Estate/Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona
Fig. 3 Hebrew Pentateuch and 'Five Scrolls', Codex manuscript on vellum, France, mid-13th century