Black Fire I is a sublime Abstract Expressionist masterpiece that perfectly captures Barnett Newman's radically reductive and uncompromising aesthetic. It represents a significant group of works painted in black pigment on exposed canvas that Newman created between 1958-1966, of which only three remain in private collections. The other paintings are currently housed in major international museum collections; they are: White Fire II (1960, Kunstmuseum Basel); Noon-Light (1961, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA); Shining Forth (To George) (1961, Centre Pompidou, Paris); The Station (1963, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and Newman's monumental, fourteen-part series The Stations of the Cross (1958-66, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C). The Zen-like simplicity of Black Fire I embodies the spirituality, grandeur and solemnity that define all of Newman's greatest works. The stark black palette, luminous raw canvas and austere structure emerged with The Stations of the Cross, which slowly came to fruition over nine years. Painted in 1961, Black Fire I was created during a period of refrain from this project while Newman came to terms with the sudden death of his much-loved younger brother, George. Coaxed out of depression by a close friend who encouraged him to keep working, Newman negotiated his emotions through the language of abstraction. In doing so, he chose to continue the theme of dynamic tension between light and dark that was first established in the Stations.
Newman's black and white paintings constitute an important chapter within his art and his life. From the late 1940s onwards, he had largely occupied himself with the creation of vast, immersive fields of sumptuous color divided by his signature stripes, or 'zips,' in contrasting hues. Yet in late 1957, the artist suffered a heart attack that hospitalized him for six weeks. The incident was, he said, "like instant psychoanalysis" and prompted a radical change in his already pared-back mode of abstraction. His first painting after this enforced break was a long, narrow canvas filled with a ragged green and dark blue vertical line that he named Outcry (1958, private collection). This was a presentiment of what was to come. The enigma and agonies of life and mortality must have been present in Newman's mind at this time, as it was during his recuperation that he also initiated the series of stark achromatic canvases that he would likewise identify with a plaintive cry--the all-too-human cry that Jesus made to God from the cross--"Why did you forsake me?" For Newman, this cry represented "the unanswerable question of human suffering" that he was not only forced to confront on a personal level, but that he also felt compelled to evoke in his art (B. Newman, quoted in Barnett Newman: The Stations of the Cross, lema sabachthani, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, p. 9).
Newman painted the first two canvases that began the sequence for The Stations of the Cross shortly after Outcry, and then took his time contemplating what they might signify for his practice. With these works, Newman sought a new method that would help him find a way out of the restrictions of his old paintings and into a process of discovery and renewal. He chose to reject the allegorical distractions of color to create a pure, distilled emotional statement through the subtle nuances of spatial relationships and expressive brushwork alone. Black pigment on raw canvas was his way forward. "When an artist wants to change, when he wants to invent, Newman once said (discussing the 1948 and 1950 pictures of de Kooning and Kline), he goes to black; it is a way of clearing the table-of getting to new ideas," Thomas Hess recalled shortly after Newman's death (T. B. Hess, quoted in B. Richardson, Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969, Baltimore, 1979, p. 13-14). Newman was essentially an intuitive artist who never premeditated a course of action but, rather like Jackson Pollock, would respond to developing possibilities and cues within the work itself. So it was not until after he had made a fourth variation of these new black paintings that Newman recognized in them an intensity that he felt related to the cry in the Passion of Christ. Each of these canvases revolved around the interaction between the white ground and black vertical shafts that cut down the canvas. Together they play upon one another like various musical chords, as well as conveying the notion of the stages of the spiritual trial alluded to in the title.
Newman painted the Fourth Station in 1960, but it would be another two years before he picked up the thread of the cycle again. In February 1961, his brother George died suddenly, bringing the artist face-to-face with the tragic inevitability of mortality once more. Newman's approach to his work naturally assumed an air of somber intensity and he continued to generate ideas for compositions using only black and white tones. Black Fire I uses the same raw canvas and black palette that Newman was employing for the Stations and for the contemporaneous painting Shining Forth (To George)-a tribute to his brother, whose Hebrew name Zerach means "to shine." Like these paintings, Black Fire I revolves around the interaction between the untreated white ground and black vertical shafts, though the composition is decidedly different. Instead of the predominantly widely spaced, tripartite arrangements in the former works, this painting features a large, black mass encroaching over more than half the canvas. This mass is seemingly held in check by a slender 'zip' that pushes up close to it, creating a teetering asymmetry that one senses could sway in either direction. The predominance of black in this composition--a tone that Newman had once associated with the "chaos that is death"--presages the overwhelming darkness of the Twelfth Station and Thirteenth Station that Newman would paint in 1965-66, which relate to the death of Christ and the Deposition respectively.
The simple geometry of this structure is brought alive by the presence of Newman's active brushwork throughout the inky-black left side. The oil paint that creates this passage, and the 'zip' to its right, has also been allowed to bleed out from under the tape that formerly masked them off, causing craggy edges and an irregular thickness of line that adds to the painting's sense of brooding vitality. The remainder of the canvas is untouched save for the application of a transparent size. The balance of proportions together with the imposing scale of Black Fire I imbue it with a classical stateliness, while the subtle differences between line and texture in each of the vertical elements lends it a sense of energy. This extremely restricted mode of painting was part of Newman's test to himself to create "the living quality of color without the use of color;" that is, a tonal relationship between the black oil paint and exposed canvas that would cause the ground to appear as if it possessed its own sense of light (B. Newman, quoted in "A Conversation: Barnett Newman and Thomas B. Hess," 1966, in J.P. O'Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writing and Interviews, Los Angeles, 1992, p. 277). Black Fire I is certainly a triumphant realization of this aim as the contrast of the raw canvas against the receding depths of black pigment cause it to emanate a glorious soft, flaxen glow that appears to intensify in brightness between the compressed central band.
Newman intended to integrate the raw canvas into the totality of the overall painting and connected his use of the textile to a broader art historical framework, writing in a 1966 statement regarding the Stations: "Raw canvas is not a recent invention. Pollock used it. Miró used it. Manet used it. I found that I needed to use it here not as a color among colors, not as if it were paper against which I would make a graphic image, or as colored cloth-batik-but that I had to make the material itself into true color-as white light-yellow light-black light. That was my 'problem'" (B. Newman, "The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, 1958-1966," ibid. p. 190). Out of his successful resolution of these formal issues, Newman found in the composition of Black Fire I a similar weighty sense of the absolute as that which had presented itself in the first Stations. In this painting, the universal dualities of existence take form: light and darkness, creation and destruction, form and formlessness. But the composition is not weighted heavily on the side of tragedy, for the title is intended as a metaphor of genesis and the hope engendered in the act of artistic creation; a subject that had preoccupied Newman since his aesthetic breakthrough in the late 1940s. The title of this painting refers to the black fire out of which the Torah (the law of God revealed to Moses) was originally made. In a book on Jewish mysticism by Gershom G. Scholem that Newman owned, the author paraphrases the ancient description of the Torah in the Bahir (one of the earliest books of the Kabbalists) in this way: '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, quoted in T.B. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1972, p.104).
Newman utilized both the terms "black fire" and "white fire" as titles for his paintings. There are four paintings titled White Fire that he created at different points in his career: White Fire I (1954, private collection), the previously mentioned White Fire II (1960, Kunstmuseum Basel), White Fire III (1964, private collection) and White Fire IV (1968, Kunstmuseum Basel). Although these works share the same name, this does not presuppose any formal similarity. Each is very different from the other. The title of Black Fire I may insinuate the existence of other versions but no other "Black Fire" works exists in Newman's oeuvre, making this vast canvas a unique painterly expression by the artist. The theme of the genesis of the Torah gives a rich context for these titles. It has also been suggested that Newman's white fire/black fire titles and his reference to the Stations were an elegiac reference to the recent tragic history of the European Jews, and a coded message to survivors to accept their responsibility in keeping the culture alive. Indeed, the highly publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann began in April of 1961 (the year Black Fire I was painted), and the event forced the world to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Eichmann even referred to himself at trial as feeling like Pontius Pilate, an analogy that implied his victims were sacrificed like Christ. Yet, while Newman was acutely aware of the political and social events of his age, his art was resolutely abstract, both in its form and its content. He constantly described the necessity for "subject matter" in painting, but he did not mean in the literal sense of illustrating ideas, objects or events. He was instead describing the emotional content of his paintings and expressing his desire to connect with other human beings on a primal, empathetic level though an abstract visual resonance. Yet Newman consistently attributed descriptive titles to each work--typically after they were finished--as a guide for his viewers into the psychic qualities he felt manifested in his pictures. "I try in my titles," Newman once said, "to evoke the meaning that the painting had when I was painting it" (B. Newman quoted in "Interview with Emile de Antonio," 1970, in O'Neill, op. cit., p. 305). In Black Fire I the overall effect is one of a mystical light, a light that presumably inspired the work's distinctly mystical title.
Despite Newman's study of and frequent invocation of Jewish mysticism in his art, he remained at heart an atheist whose view of life centered on the uniqueness of humankind. Art is, after all, inseparable from man and it is through art that we may come to better understand ourselves, as well as the fundamental truths of existence. In 1945, Newman clarified his painterly ambitions and his worldview as such: "The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy..." (B. Newman, "The Plasmic Image," 1945, in O'Neill, op. cit., p. 140). Newman often pointed out that the artist must start out like God, with the chaos of formlessness and with the void of the blank canvas. And from this emptiness he had to form something from nothing, reenacting God's primal gesture--the division of light from dark--so that his abstract forms and symbols would have "the living quality of creation" (B. Newman, ibid.). Black Fire I is a testament, therefore, not just to Newman's technical skill and refined visual sensibility. It is also a powerful realization of his heroic creative will and deeply spiritual intelligence.
Newman is widely regarded one of the most profound and influential artists of the twentieth century and Black Fire I holds an important place within his total body of work. It has resided in several distinguished American collections of Modern art, including that of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Holzer and has been in the possession of the present owners for almost forty years. The painting featured in two important international group exhibitions shortly after it was created and was also included in the last solo exhibition of Newman's work during his lifetime. This important 1969 show at Knoedler & Co, New York, confirmed Newman's status as a figure of historical importance by presenting a decade's worth of painting; almost all of which have been acquired by museums in America, Asia and across Europe. Black Fire I has since been a centerpiece of the landmark Newman retrospective that toured Amsterdam, London and Paris in 1972 and at the more recent definitive show of his life's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2002.