October 17, 2014
The apprenticeships of Eugene Newmann: An artist ponders living and learning
News

Pasatiempo
October 17, 2014
Michael Abatemarco

Eugene Newmann’s paintings seem to straddle a line between figuration and abstraction. If there ever was a clear distinction between those genres in his work, it has disappeared — after all, most contemporary art seems to blur those lines by definition. Newmann, who received a 2008 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, is self-taught. Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now the capital of Slovakia), in 1936, he grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia (Spanish is his first language), and New York City. In the 1950s he attended the University of Chicago, getting his bachelor’s degree in business in 1957. He was also introduced to philosophy during his time as a student. “There was no art making,” he told Pasatiempo. “They had an art history program, but they left the art making to the Art Institute of Chicago. The college was a snobbish place. We had to study Socrates. He thought that painting was a strange business. He thought the world was an illusion, and why would you want to make an illusion of an illusion? The position was logical. The world was unreal, so what are you doing faking what’s unreal to begin with?”

Newmann’s current exhibit, Selections: Then and Now, on view at David Richard Gallery, is an assortment of works spanning more than 40 years. The show includes paintings in oils, watercolors, and acrylics, as well as monotypes. The pieces from the 1970s were made soon after his 1972 move to Northern New Mexico from the Monterey Peninsula, where he met his wife, Dana. Though Newmann has been engaged with art from a young age, he received little encouragement from his orthodox Jewish family, which considered artistic representations to be idolatrous. But in the 1960s, when Newmann was in Monterey, cities along the California coast were alive with the spirit of the counterculture movement. In the arts, it was a time of experimentation and challenges to the status quo. “I lived [on] the Monterey Peninsula from ’62 to ’72,” Newmann said. “Dana was good friends with Joan Baez. I was not as much. At that time, I was not very sociable. For about a year and a half I was a bartender at one of the bohemian bars. It was called the Palace, and it was built into the old Cannery Row. Before it became gentrified or upscale, it was mostly derelict canneries. There were two or three of these joints where you could occupy the cannery space, and there were artists living in the cracks. A group of us got together and got some old cannery equipment, including these wonderful maple boards we used to make the bar. A photorealist painter did a fool-the-eye continuation of the room into the cannery. It was a place where drug dealers, musicians, and writers hung out. Down the coast, in Big Sur, there was the beginning of Esalen Institute. It was a hippie place — I mean, it was hip.”

Several works on exhibit are from the collection of David Hill, who founded, along with David Douglas, Santa Fe’s Collected Works Bookstore, now co-owned by Dorothy Massey and her daughter Mary Wolf. “In the early years, David supported a lot of us by buying work. He bought Sam Scott’s work, Julie Sullivan’s, mine, Frank Ettenberg’s. He used to put up paintings in the bookstore. Over the years he accumulated a lot of my work.” The pieces from Hill’s collection come primarily from a group called Small Bodies, in which figures are suggested but are largely abstract. “They all referred to the tradition of the reclining nude,” said Newmann. Other selections include works from the artist’s more recent series, Riff, which draws its title from improvisational jazz; Fragments/Figments; and Falling, Falling, Fallen, which evolved out of Newmann’s interest in artistic representations of Christ’s deposition from the cross. For those works, the artist appropriated and adapted gestures and forms directly from the masters of that genre, including El Greco, Édouard Manet, and Francisco de Goya. “I did all these depositions a few years ago based on Caravaggio’s and other artist’s depositions, because of my interest in the imaging of death. I got to be sixty-five or seventy years old, and I thought, it’s time to take account of that fact in some way. In the Western tradition, it’s been taken account of by the religious painters. The deposition is an interesting moment, because Christ is neither quite dead nor quite alive. In my kind of metaphorical thinking, painting is not quite dead and not quite alive. It’s sort of in some limbo between being vital and being just material, dead stuff.”

It’s almost impossible to discuss Newmann’s work without referring to the figure, because it’s there, time and again — just not always in an explicit or even recognizable way. Sometimes the gesture of a body in motion becomes a linear brushstroke in a painting that reads as more purely abstract than figurative. Somewhat reluctantly, Newmann is giving a talk, “Figuration and Abstraction in Contemporary Painting,” along with Gregory Botts at the David Richard Gallery on Saturday, Oct. 18. He wonders what, if anything, is left to say on the matter. “I don’t know that there’s a useful distinction to make,” he explained. “At one time, it was a stance that one took; you were asked to be a hero either for abstraction or figuration. It’s not that the distinction has disappeared, but it’s been superseded by other issues. I don’t know if there’s much point in beating around about it anymore. I’ve heard about that distinction in my life, and I’ve said a lot about it. I’m not sure exactly what it is that I said, but it counted at the time.”

However, reluctance from a man who once told Pasatiempo that he “had gone from being totally unknown to being celebrated in New Mexico without ever passing through success” comes across more as humble than reluctant — and, it turns out, the artist does have a lot to say on the matter. “I started painting in the mid-1950s. At that point, you had to declare. How were you going to approach making an image? There were just a ton of propositions, and it was something to develop. I can’t figure that some kind of ideological position is going to be the ticket to a new image for me. If you’re young, that’s a different story. Plant your flagpole and say, ‘Here I stand.’ I’ve never been loyal to either one of those things. Because of that — I know people don’t accept this — I kind of think of myself as a dilettante, an amateur painter. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t belong to any faction. I never showed with groups who had a position or point to make. I still don’t. What you see is an image. The world is an image. It has incredible amount[s] of relevance to different parts of one’s life and sight. It’s a recognition thing. It’s an alert. It’s an alarm. It’s beautiful. It’s a report on reality. The way people think about it is: What are the recognitions involved? You can recognize a clearly specified world component, and, if not, it’s appealing to you on some other level where you don’t quite know what the reference might be. In that sense, every image is both abstraction and figuration. People will try to find that horse in there no matter what.”

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