National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
March 10, 2020

Denial

The coronavirus continues to spread. Classes have been canceled and events are postponed. One thousand cases in America now and our government doesn’t seem to care. I wash my hands, keep my distance, and show up where I’m supposed to be. The subway seems a little emptier each time I ride it. Taking the train home tonight, I close my eyes and try my best not to imagine worst-case scenarios. I think about art and god.

The zips and color fields of abstract painting have never moved me beyond a chilly appreciation for their role in pushing art towards its vanishing point. Walking into Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross, however, felt almost spiritual. The 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 these stern lines and rectangles against the bloodshed 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, occasionally emitting a rubber squeak that emphasized the hush of the gallery, a place with the secret air of an empty gymnasium after hours.

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 lama 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.” For a moment I caught this sensation, a sense of utter vacancy, a hollowing of thought that left space for something greater. In my notebook, I quickly scribbled this sentence: The denial of beauty leaves one greedy for any thread of hope, no matter how fragile. This felt like a profound insight at the time, one of those camera-flash thoughts that comes on bright and quick before fading 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 the briefest 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

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