John Newman
By Klaus Kertess

John Newman is first and foremost a constructor of forms, and his forms envelop metaphor. For him the words “form,” “formal,” “metaphor,” and “metamorphosis” might well be interchangeable. For him, intellectual rigor and emotional power are congruent, not contradictory. Newman’s interest in mathematical and scientific thought, from fractals to topology to recent theories of physics, where order is seen arise spontaneously out of chaos, are seamlessly spliced or braided into the resonant mysteries of his imagined organisms.

“Imagined” is a key word here. Newman arrived in New York City in the early 1970s, at a time when most vanguard artists continued to imagine away the imagination. Most of the Minimalists, such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, who had come to the fore in 1960s, continued in their pursuit of simple, non-hierarchical geometric structures that often have the blunt inscrutability of industrial appliances. The younger Earthworkers, like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, an the so-called “Process” artists, like Barry Le Va and Richard Serra, had literally atomized sculpture’s discrete objecthood and dispersed it into the actual landscape or else into gravity-dependent configurations that activated the horizontal floor plane of art gallery or museum space. Mass, form, and volume were purged from sculpture; and a variety of malleable materials, ranging from melted lead to felt to flour, were flung, rolled, or spread in order to imprint space with a choreography derived from their physical properties. This clear revelation of process was, if not everything, nearly all.

Newman’s early work relied upon the simple, self-evident, neutral geometries that had been so critical to much painting and sculpture since the beginning of the previous decade. By the end of the 1970s, Newman began to feel visually and emotionally deprived – to the point of feeling a certain anger. He began to look elsewhere for inspiration, focusing on a realm he refers to as “alien” to his previous experience. The ritual stylization of the human body found in Japanese suits of armor, as well as the exaggerated fearsomeness infused into the hybrid organic forms of the accompanying helmets; the eerie spiky symmetry and openness of dinosaur skeletons; and the primal sophistication of African tribal artifacts, as well as the ceremonial visual and aural cadences of Akira Kurosawa’s thundering Samurai epics, were all absorbed by Newman in his thirst for drama. Drama not melodrama, expressiveness not expressionism were being sought. The various aspects of the awesome and the fantastic that he was investigating are all ruled by a clearly visible measure – a kind of sensuous protocol.

The curve and arabesque are not only automatically fraught with references to the organic forms of nature, but also trace the path of the movements ingrained in the drawing hand. And it was to the curvilinearity to which hand and nature incline to that Newman now turned, rejecting the self-contained and self-referential, gridded rectangularity that had so ruled preceding art. The first fully realized and fully successful piece of Newman’s new mode was composed of a polyphony of ovals and arcs from which he literally and figuratively extruded a facial structure.

CHARACTER ARMOR, 1983, is an at once ominous and humorous over-sized mask that clearly acknowledges Newman’s interest in Japanese armorial splendor. Monstrous, swollen and puckered, blue-green, copper lips emerge from the bulbous,, steel blinds meant to shade the eyes; both are surrounded and protected by threateningly pointed arcs. We see a clashing and clanking hybrid of some aberrant, pop-eyed angel fish and a masked, sadomasochistic celebrant that is quite uncomfortably hilarious. Like much of Newman’s work, it is at once sexually attractive and repellant.

With the creation of CHARACTER ARMOR, the lessons of the “alien” realms Newman had been exploring were now fully assimilated. The sexually charged organics and mythopoetic intonations of his work look back to the Surrealist and Surrealist-inspired work made in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. Newman’s forms have much in common with the works of those earlier sculptors such as David Hare, Theodore Roszak, and especially Seymour Lipton; but his forming has nothing in common with theirs. The prehistorically inclined abstract growths and creatures of these previous sculptors tend to ramble and churn in idiosyncratic, free from asymmetries. Newman’s sculptures, on the other hand, are prone to symmetry and manifest a clearly visible geometric structuring. His forms are most like those of that class of invertebrates (including insects and crustaceans) known as arthropods whose segmented bodies and jointed limbs reveal their symmetrical structure. The surface of their often armor-like bodies and their skeletons are one and the same. Like the structure of arthropods, Newman’s is exoskeletal.

Newman’s clearly visible structuring can, in part, be related to his emerging out of the geometric self-evidence of much of the art of the 1960s and 1970s. But he has rejected the landscape-like, gravity-dependent horizontality of that work in favor of a return to a figurative uprightness. He has also rejected the striving for a non-referential self-containment. Newman intends his geometries to be animate – and they are.

The unfurling of line into volumetric dimensionality generates Newman’s sculpture and is embedded in his acute awareness of an edge’s ability to torque into and out of spatiality. Drawing shares an almost equal billing with his sculpture. Indeed, Newman’s sculpture can be seen as giving body to line’s propensity for illusion, as the sculpture seems to frequently make physical the meandering path of a continuous single line turning into and around itself in the formation of a volumetric image. At other times, as the many drawings for CHARACTER ARMOR make clear, the sculptural volume grows naturally out of a series of overlapping, related, two-dimensional geometric forms (layers of ovals, fragments of ovals, and pointed fragments of arcs, all contained within an implied oval). The forms often remain constant but appear to change as they are bent, stretched or braided. This mathematical and structural complexity, which simultaneously forms and deforms, yields a kind of topology of the enigmatic, knowable and unknowable, formal and emotional.

As in his drawings, Newman’s sculptural construction is based on an additive linearity. He has mostly worked with flat strips of a flexible material (a blend of leather and cardboard customarily employed for hat brims), twisting and bending them into dimensionality. The resultant structure is coated with a mixture of gesso and modeling paste, and from this model, the casting process is begun. Like the structure of Pablo Picasso’s seminal Cubist sculpture GUITAR, 1912, which he has long admired, Newman’s additive is subsumed into the organic – the additive geometry and the invented organic, the fabricated and the handmade are inextricable parts of the same unity.

Initially, Newman’s forms remained on the wall, emphasizing their frontal aspect and hovering in the space conventionally occupied by a painting. And, indeed, the polymorphous referentiality of his swelling forms and their structural clarity are more closely related to the paintings by his friends and peers, Carroll Dunham and Terry Winters, than to most contemporary sculpture (the heroically humorous and awkwardly shaped canvases of the somewhat older Elizabeth Murray are correlative, too). Dunham had turned to the tuberous psychedelia of Matta’s and Yves Tanguy’s pictorial Surrealism for inspiration; and Winters had cultivated the monochrome fields of past abstraction with disjunctive arrays of observed and invented botanical forms, scaled to the nature of his painted planes. All three artists bring a cool, analytical rigor to their organic reveries.

By 1987, Newman’s sculptures have come down from the wall and have more confrontationally entered the viewer’s space. They flow in a sinuous and seamless continuity of open and closed volumes, positive and negative shapes and spaces, vulval and phallic reference. Their sexuality and referentiality are multivalent and, in part, dependent upon the gender and experiences of the individual viewer. The drawings, like the sculptures, have grown in complexity, size, and scale; they are completely self-sufficient, even when they rehearse the construction of a sculpture. Newman transforms the precisely rational calculations of Renaissance perspective into a vivid delirium.

The more recent sculptures mystify the simple acts of twisting, turning, and braiding; the generally incorporate two identical interconnected forms (e.g., TURNING THE TIDE, 1990) that have been transformed by the turning movements of their placement. The resolution of form and the movement of form are independent. IT is the knotting and pulling of their connecting linear ligament that seems to bring about the pointed tapering of the two cone-like forms of TURNING THE TIDE. The making now more visibly and dynamically activates the form and it reflected by it.

The increasingly visible dynamics of the form making have been accompanied by a growing desire for a greater flexibility than sculptural fabrication is likely to permit. Newman has begun to eschew the relative immutability of cast metals in favor of more malleable materials. Transparent gauze soaked in epoxy (TOURNIQUET, 1991-92), rope, wood, and metallic foil (all employed in SPINOFF, 1992) have brought a new and more visceral directness that is accompanied by a heightened structural clarity and transparency. Their precarious buoyancy seems to be verging on the brink of metamorphosis – the metamorphosis of mathematics into votive object that is the aim of Newman’s making.