Twenty four years ago a painting by Barnett Newman ignited a firestorm in Canada.
“In titles I try to evoke the emotional complex that I was under.” – Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
Which leads me to ask…what qualifies as art, especially in the increasingly bizarre world of modern art?
From Malevich’s Black Square, a pure black canvas, to DuChamp’s Fountain, a urinal turned upside down, modern art can take on forms from the bizarre to the mundane. This leaves many people wondering, how can these seemingly simple pieces become famous works of art?
In 1990, The National Gallery of Canada made a controversial purchase of a well-known contemporary painting by Newman entitled “Voice of Fire” referred to as “the biggest art scandal in the country.” The painting is almost 18 feet tall and features a simple red stripe on a blue background. Although Voice of Fire hung peacefully on loan in the gallery for two years, it was the subject of public outcry when, in the spring of 1990, the gallery decided to purchase the painting for $1.76 million. More than two decades later, the almost $1.8-million price might sound modest, but it seemed extravagant then.
As Capital News reported, the purchase was so highly contested by the public and the media that it was taken all the way to the House of Commons and sparked a fad of T-shirts and ties patterned after the painting.
If the fuss over the price seems quaint in hindsight, the deeper question is: Can three stripes, no matter how monumentally presented, be considered an important creation?—is not so easily dismissed.
The popular sentiment was that nearly 1.8 million of the tax payer’s dollars was a colossal waste of money for a painting widely dismissed as three stripes of colour. “My kid could have painted that” about sums it up (ignorantly if I may say so), with a fair sprinkling of “He’s not even Canadian!”
But supporters of the acquisition held that fine art shouldn’t have to be accessible; it’s there to challenge, and to push the boundaries. Newman’s work did that, especially when on display in the Gallery, where its enormous size and bold colours really were quite startling to behold. Plus, it was a work of some relevance to Canadians, even if Newman was an American painter: it had hung in the geodesic dome American Pavillion at Expo67 in Montreal.
Limiting his colours to red and blue, he created this powerful vertical canvas to be suspended from the dome’s ceiling. While it appears simple in form, Voice of Fire conveys a range of meanings. Newman intended the work to be studied from a short distance; its enormous scale transforms the space and tests our sensory experience.
If the painting was sold today it would be worth in the area of $70 million.
Newman was born in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. He was known to be an articulate writer and spokesman for modern art. Newman was also very spiritual and saw his work as such. The Voices of Fire title comes from the biblical voice from the burning bush.
Taken from QueensJournal.ca & Maclean’s.ca