John Newman
John Newman: Recent Sculpture
By Dr. Konrad Oberhuber

John Newman’s works Fit to be Tied, 1992-94 (cat. no. 2), At First Blush, 1993-94 (cat. no. 1) and Shapeshifter, 1994-95 (cat. no. 6) are amongst the most classical and harmonious works he has created, yet they confront us with a strange paradox. At first sight they seem to fit all criteria of traditional sculpture. They stand on a solid base in the center of a room or space. They are highly articulated and reminiscent of organic forms even with some analogies to the human body. They are monumental in their dimensions and attract the attention of the spectator like the statues of the past. Yet there are many disturbing elements that do not fit the image of traditional sculpture. Based on the human body, sculpture deals with problems of balance and weight, and with the articulation of mass. From their base the figures or figural groups reach out into space or focus spatial forces from the surroundings upon themselves. Many of the greatest sculptors of our century like Henry Moore struggle with the problem of weight and lightness and give their pieces the solidity of stone, even when they are cast in bronze and thus are actually hollow inside. The problem of the articulated body has become so important in recent centuries that colour, once a central part of sculpture, became unimportant. Only the light articulates the changing convexities and concavities of the finely modeled form.

In contrast to this tradition, John Newman’s works just named seem totally weightless and self-contained. They hardly touch the base. It as if the forms are just hovering above their supports or have just settled above them for a temporary rest. They also seem to be completely hollow and display this hollowness openly by spilling out things from inside. Some show the cables and rings with which their framework is constructed so clearly that nobody can have any doubt about the thinness of the materials from which they are made. Only the things inside them display a semblance of solidity. All materials, aluminum, steel, plastic, leather or hospital gauze, are clearly lightweight or thin and give the works an aspect of fragility and lightness. They do seem filled with air. While being highly articulated and seemingly organic, they do not have anything to do with the organic quality of the human muscular and bone system which keeps the body in balance and maintains its position in space. It is rather the organic quality of the outer armour of primitive animals or insects or the light shells of fruits or plants that will once dry and mature, spill out their seeds to the ground, or give them to the air. They can also remind one of the exhaust pipes of machines formed to conduct hot gas and to modify noise. Newman’s sculptures seem to have been formed by air or gas and relate to brass or other wind instruments and thus have a sound of their own. Their articulation is also not one that relates to the body. The individual parts are too strongly separate for that.

Moreover, there is a clear separation in two almost equal voluminous parts which are connected by elements of completely different nature that hold the two in a mobile an unstable relationship without disturbing their inner balance. This element of sounding or blowing is highly important for our experience, yet the sculptures’ greatest feature is colour and inner texture. They have a dull yet profound glow as they seemingly float in front of our eyes. The differences in colour and texture of the separate parts which are usually also made of different materials accompany the functions of these elements as most clearly shown in the leather bellows of At First Blush and give them a kind of individuality and independence within the whole. Yet all parts are united in a common task. There is an action performed by each piece and one has the feeling that these sculptures are actually independent creatures from another world happily afloat in ours, but so fully occupied with themselves and their own activities, that it is unimportant for tem whether one looked at them or not. Thus, they exude a kind of blissful state of being that becomes humorous insofar as they seem to know that we humans cannot truly understand what they are doing and remain baffled at their freedom from regular earthly concerns.

Modern artists have changed the traditions of sculpture and introduced new concepts ever since the cubist painters, the constructivists and the surrealists began looking for new experiences of space and form in this field. The antecedents for the half geometric, half organic forms of John Newman in surrealist or constructivist sculpture have been recognized. Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Archipenko, Jean Arp or Anton Pevsner can be named for works that are self-contained and not solidly based on their support. Yet the works of these artists are massive and have weight in spite of gestures reaching to the heights or into space. Weightlessness and colour was introduced by Alexander Calder, whose mobile sculptures float from the ceiling and have their own life. Yet these sculptural configurations in turn have no body. Sculptures by Joan Miró or Niki de Saint-Phalle have assumed a strange and humorous presence but they do not float like Newman’s and remain sensuous and analogous in form to the human body. John Newman’s roots lie in all those antecedents and yet he provides us with a new and unusual experience of sculpture that is fully contemporary and seems to lead into the new century. His path before 1990 can help us explain how he arrived at this new state. One of his earliest major pieces, Character Armour of 1983, betrays, as has been observed, his affinity to Japanese and Medieval armour which Newman intensively studied in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Armour can be experienced as sculpture even though few people do so. Newman saw its potential and with it that of Far Eastern sculptures often formed of thin layers of lacquer or bronze and portraying a feeling of lightness and inner glow in spite of large bulging size.

Character Armour also is a relief and can therefore float free in space like much northern Medieval and Baroque sculpture. It shows affinities to cubist reliefs or to the painted and sculptured work of his contemporary and colleague Elizabeth Murray or the older Frank Stella who gave the cubist tradition of relieve sculpture new weight, color and monumentality. In other free-standing works, Newman found inspiration from the glowing surfaces of David Smith’s sculptures which, although traditional in their search of balance, give one very clearly the impression of lightweight, hollowness and surface glow. Other works by Newman in the eighties allude to the shapes of bells, trumpets, to organic things like flowers but also to the mechanical structures of fans and heaters. Sound and air are absorbed into Newman’s experience. All the while one can see from his drawings the occupation with mathematical problems of curves and curving planes, symmetries and transformations, in which the organic and the inorganic are subtly related to each other.

Up to 1990, Newman’s sculptures either related to the wall or to the ground, just as the forms in his drawings were tied to the plane. Then a major break took place. In a series of drawings his forms were presented free floating in front of neutral colored grounds. In that year the artist was in Vienna for an exhibition of American drawings in which he participated. There he was shown by the author of these lines drawings by Raphael. The self-contained and centered universe of the Italian Renaissance artist’s bodily forms struck Newman so deeply that he created the series of coloured pencil works just mentioned. He never thought of them as preparations for sculptures, because the objects in them floated weightlessly and free in their environment without any possible base. Yet by 1991-92, one of these drawings had miraculously become a sculpture made of gauze, steel cable, steel plate and epoxy: Tourniquet, also called Bone of Contention. It did not have a base and just supported itself by leaning against the wall. The tapering forms of the large tubular shapes were then still determined by the pictorial illusion of spatial depth developed from the Renaissance inspired drawings. By now in the works just described, however, forms are standing freely in space and have liberated themselves from illusionistic devices appropriate for a relief.

It is interesting to note, that the Raphael phase in Newman’s work is now over. The three most recent sculptures, Hanging Judge, 1995 (cat. no. 7), Gone Awry, 1995 (cat. no. 4) and Possible in Principle, 1995 (cat. no. 3) show already by their titles that the harmonious period of blissful self-contained independence is over for Newman’s other worldly creatures. In Hanging Judge gallows have been erected for a spiky being that while continuing its activity of letting glistening materials flow from one of its half to the other is more aware of its surroundings than its older friends whose smooth surface protected them against it. The rounded form here is actually shinier, but the strange handle-like elements struck into it make it susceptible to space and gaze. Gone Awry barely seems to hold itself up by the help of a stick, even though one of its gestures is still proud and upright. Each end is now open and self-containment is no longer there. The inners spill out as if after an explosion and open themselves to the air and the forms have lost their convexity and geometric certainty. In Possible in Principle, the bubbly forms that provide a transparent liquid flow to each other as they undergo themselves a transformation of size have become rough in their surface and a pole firmly anchored in the stone base provides the form with a support around which it can wind itself to stay upright. Earthly weight has thus returned as an experience to Newman’s sculptural being s even though they continue to be hollow and self-occupied. By providing these forms with supports which are part of the sculptures themselves, Newman continues the humorous and paradoxical relationship to the sculptural tradition in yet another way.

Now at the end of the century, art reflects upon its own achievement in the past hundred years. Newman has taken up recently unexplored ideas of modern sculpture and of the ancient traditions of the world as well as from our contemporary science, technology, and mathematics and gives them with humour and imagination an entirely new twist that promises much further development in the future.