National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Lama Sabachthani

Alienation and communion in monochrome.

Barnett Newman’s zips and fields have never moved me beyond a chilly appreciation for their role in pushing painting towards the vanishing point. Walking into The Stations of the Cross, however, felt almost spiritual. Newman’s choice of title does most of the lifting here, juxtaposing the mythic weight of violence and supernatural suffering against fifteen canvases of brittle monochrome. My eyes tried to map their stern lines and rectangles against the familiar scenes of bloodshed, weeping, and trembling on that day at Golgotha. But I could find no correlation, and I was left alone with that heavy title, those dispassionate shapes, and a woman sitting on a bench with her pencil paused in the air, hanging somewhere between contemplation and frustration. A security guard rocked on his heels at the edge of the room, emitting an occasional rubber squeak that emphasized the hush of the gallery, a place with the secret air of an empty gymnasium after hours. I walked towards the explanatory placard on the wall and, as is the case with most modern art, this moved me most of all.

When the series was first displayed in 1966, Newman said these images were based not on the flagellation and martyrdom of the crucifixion but Jesus’s cry of lema sabachthani: Why hast thou forsaken me? “This is the passion,” he said. “Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” And for a moment I felt it, a sense of utter vacancy, an emptying and hollowing of thought that left space for…something. In my notebook, I quickly scribbled this sentence: Aesthetic alienation leads to a desperation which leaves one greedy for any thread of hope, no matter how brittle. This felt like a profound insight at the time, one of those camera-flash thoughts that comes on bright and quick before fading away forever. Artists like Newman and Mark Rothko insisted their blank fields of color were not academic exercises but spiritual statements. Although I feel lucky to have caught a brief sense of this, I also left the room wondering if you can nail any damned thing to the wall as long as you attach it to the bloodshed and drama of myth.

Further reading: Barnett Newman; Valerie Hellstein, “Barnett Newman, The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani,” Object Narrative, in Conversations: An Online Journal of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (2014); the Stations of the Cross; Barnett Newman’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ draws pilgrims to the National Gallery

Leave a Reply

Further Reading