Beholding Barnett Newman's Adam, Part 2: Immanent Iconography

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In late 1947 – not long after the atrocities of the Second World War and just four years before he began painting Adam 1951, 1952 (Tate T01091; fig.1) – Barnett Newman proposed a rather idiosyncratic interpretation of the narrative of Adam’s creation in the short-lived journal Tiger’s Eye. Like much of his writing, ‘The First Man was an Artist’ thematises his dissatisfaction with what he took to be a violent, retrograde historical and social situation. In the essay, Newman employs the imagery of an atomic blast to figure the destructive tendencies of recent science: ‘In the last sixty years, we have seen mushroom a vast cloud of “sciences” in the fields of culture, history, philosophy, psychology, economics, politics, aesthetics, in an ambitious attempt to claim the nonmaterial world.’ Newman railed against the dominion of a positivist mentality that quantified all human experience but was incapable of addressing the central metaphysical issues of human existence. Contemporary science had abdicated its responsibilities by forgetting the proper nature of scientific inquiry, which was to discover not just facts, but the truth of human being. His culture’s relentless pursuit of materialist premises prevented it from confronting its tragic state in the proper terms. But poetry and art, Newman thought, could both respond to the historical moment and hold meaning for the future.

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