Newman Aside: Introduction
By Adam D. Weinberg

In one of his few attempts at being an art historian, Edward Hopper wrote about fellow painter Charles Burchfield: “It is difficult to disentangle the threads of influence that go on to make an art. Even an artist’s own testimony is not always sure evidence, so confused is the trail usually.” Perhaps this is why Hopper himself was so taciturn, not wanting his words to be confused with his deeds.

John Newman is a teacher by inclination and also by profession. Accordingly, he not only delights in discussing the origins, meaning, and production of his work, but he also is compelled to share his thoughts and investigations with his students. One has only to talk with Newman a short while to discover that his ideas obsessively spiral through his brain like twists and turns of the helices that haunt his images. Newman is also a remarkable polymath. He can knowledgably discuss concepts in fields ranging from mathematics and philosophy to linguistics and, of course, art history. His avalanche of ideas and words, however, can be taken only as partial explanations of his works, for ultimate revelation resides in the experience of the art itself – in this case, a suite of six linocuts, Second Thoughts I-VI, and six sculpture multiples, On the Other Hand, each individually titled, produced in collaboration with Tyler Graphics.

One sees in these prints – produced after the completion of the sculpture multiples – as an extraordinary variety of forms reflecting a wealth of sources: Second Thoughts III ambiguously suggests Celtic manuscripts, German Expressionist prints, and classical architectural decoration; Second Thought IV variously recalls Tibetan mandalas, Surrealist automatic writing, and topological diagrams. Similarly, a sculpture such as Tautological in Blues relates simultaneously to a skeletal structure and high-tech forms, while Starting from Scratch implies a laboratory trial and, seen head on, a de Chirico-like mannequin. Lest one think that all of Newman’s sources are so erudite, the collapsible pumplike form in Second Thoughts I appears to be a shape borrowed from the fantastic inventions of Rube Goldberg, while Hanging in Air, with its monstrous mutant eyeball forms, is pure science fiction. What one sees – or, more to the point, experiences – is the layering of system upon system and structure upon structure. Newman grafts one type of knowledge into another. He creates a conceptual and visual segues between forms so that the subjects cannot easily be defined.

The loaded character of these works is made pointedly clear by many of the titles, which are precisely and intricately engineered as the works they identify. Starting from Scratch (Das FIngerspitzengefühl) which, literally translates as “fingertip sensitivity,” consists of two identical red=orange spoutlike forms adjoined by a stainless steel laboratory armature. On one side they tightly sandwich a square of industrial felt, while on the other, two Japanese bamboo tea whisks delicately touch. The title is a metaphor for the process of making sculpture, a characterization of the interplay between the bamboo forms and an obvious reference to the tactility of the materials themselves. The work’s twofold, bilingual title reveals the artist’s infatuation with language and the relation of linguistic metaphors and structures to the elusive forms he constructs in three dimensions.

Shapesphere’s Aside is equally laden. This sculpture involves three ambiguous shapes: a burnished black, pneumatic looking “O” shape appears to haplessly constrict an unsuspecting, contorted, plasterlike form – which in turn, unwittingly compresses a coral-colored, segmented trumpet shape. All are caught in an inescapable chain reaction. The black form hints, perhaps, at the sphere. Together the black and white elements predominate, while the delicate pastel paper structure seems to have been parenthetically introduced. Similarly, the work’s title yields a multiplicity of readings. It is simultaneously a pun, a literary allusion, and a metaphor. Newman’s somewhat sardonic wit is exposed in this title, as it is in so many others, such as Fit to be Tied and Hanging in Air (at the end of the rope.)

The materials that Newman draws upon to produce the sculptures (most definitely aided by Tyler and his brain trust) further confirm the artist’s penchant for layering sources. Each material has specific cultural, scientific, or art historical references: the Kozo washi paper suggests the hollow semi-translucent forms of Japanese lanterns; the coils of hemp rope imply a connection to the madcap assemblages of H.C. Westermann; and the black nylon stocking relates Newman’s art to the gender and sexual concerns in works by artists of his own generation.

Like Newman’s explanations of his own work, detailed analyses of his subjects, titles, and materials remain inadequate. The complexity and often contradictory character of his inspirations are often so incongruous that, in effect, they cancel each other out and force viewers back on their own visual and visceral experience of the art itself. In trying to unravel his sources, one realizes that they are too plentiful and ambiguous to pin down, and that knowledge of them isn’t crucial to the ultimate success of the work. Despite all the clues provided, art such as Newman’s is about losing track of origins.

The artist and architect Frederick Kiesler, whose hybrid creations upset traditional distinctions between sculpture, design, and architecture, once wrote: “The artist creator has always been in search of the basic laws of the world he lives in. He tries to express the unknown with the known, contrary to the scientist, who tries to find the unknown in the known.” Like Kiesler, Newman uses the vocabularies of many disciplines and combines them in original ways. In reaching for a new paradigm, he pushes the limits of what a work can contain.

Nevertheless, Newman’s art does not address modernist, formal concerns. Unlike Kiesler, his search is not for universal forms of expression per se. The prominence and importance of subject matter, no matter how convoluted, is as significant as the pictorial construction itself. The density of Newman’s sources connects his work more to the art of his contemporaries than to the art of the past. Paradoxically, however, it is in formal terms that the disparate sources of Newman’s art are reconciled. We, both the artist and the viewer, can discuss and analyze the “known”, that is, the sources and the formal elements of the work. It is what Kiesler terms the “unknown” that is indescribable. This inexplicable gestalt, for lack of a better term, casts Newman’s work into a visually and experientially coherent whole and causes his prints and multiples to appear deceptively and disarmingly simple.

Despite their intellectual heterogeneity, the six linocuts are relatively uncomplicated in their technique, and have an effortless and childlike honesty about them. Newman has, in fact, related their rawness to linocuts he has printed himself and refers to as “potato prints”. These linocuts are modest in scale, predominantly black-and-white; each has a single-colored form and all are printed on natural Okawara paper. They have the intimacy and unpretentiousness of bookplates. They are simultaneously explosive and self-contained. The images seem to reveal various stages in the evolution of forms, from the structured to the amorphous. As Newman has said, “Such images suggest states of coherence. Some elements are in formation, others are already formed.”

The sculpture multiples, on the other hand, are technically complex, and required extensive engineering and testing of materials. They took nearly three years to complete (the prints took roughly three months). Moreover, the range of shapes, textures, and colors that Newman has achieved is vast. Yet the overall effect is remarkably direct. Like the central element of each print, each multiple is a variation of a simple form which loops, twists, turns, bends, and holds. And each form has a single, unifying axis, sometimes made literal through the use of a pole. The delicate balance of these axes is an appropriate visual metaphor for the balancing act Newman tries to achieve between the complex and the basic, the formal and the conceptual. Unlike the scientist, who is searching for the unknown in the known makes things increasingly complex, Newman expressing the unknown with the known, makes things appear unavoidably simple.