Art & Advent’s Intellect: Barnett Newman’s “Black Fire”

barnett-newman-black-fireIf you look at the top of every page on this site, you’ll notice there is a prominent header image. If you’ve paid any sort of repeated attention to the posts on this site, you’ll notice I have different headers for different themes and series. Lent, Easter, Women in Ministry, The Bible, Theology, Art, Personal, Political, Writing, and my upcoming Guatemala posts each have their own distinct headers.

Throughout this year’s Advent series, I’ve used a cropped version of the above piece as the header image. It’s called Black Fire by Barnett Newman. Until recently, it hung for many years in the abstract expressionism room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I’ve spent much time sitting in the presence of this piece, contemplating it’s meaning.

Abstract expressionism, at it’s root, was a response to World War II that tried to remove all form from the art and create piece that were pure expression as opposed to “re-presentation” of something else.

When abstract expressionism came on the scene, there developed two schools within it. One side focused on pure and (seemingly) wild emotional expression (like Jackson Pollack). The other was a school that sought a deeply intellectual expression. These were guys like Rothko (oh, how I love him) and Newman here. You really can (as I have) just sit and stare and think for a lot of time when faced with this piece. I love it.

The piece above, to me, represents the deeply intellectual side of Advent.

The piece has a clear yet “teasing” asymmetry to it, such that you don’t know which side is moving towards the other. Ever since I first saw this, I had a deep sense that it represented the duality of humanity: mostly dark, yet with a deep light trying to encroach upon its territory. The piece so beautiful captures the quiet agony of that tension between light and dark, where you don’t know if things are getting better or worse–they’re just some uncomfortable mixture of both.

This struggle that exists in us also exists at a cosmic level, with darkness having filled the canvas of the earth. And yet, in Advent (and the painting) we see that the Light has not only come towards the Dark, but it has broken through and exists in the midst of the darkness, or, as the title calls it, the “Black Fire”.

In the Incarnation, Christ comes and lets himself be consumed by the “Black Fire” of this world.

Now, other pieces have also captured these same dynamics–and I could have used them instead. But one of the reasons why I love this piece is the intense sheer intellectuality to it.

You see, this time can be filled with such sentimentality. And I don’t just mean the favorite hipster whipping boys of commercialism and trite platitudes. Even in the Christian tradition, there is a deep assumption that, in this season, we are to try and find an emotional reaction to the reality of Christ’s Coming.

And these emotional responses to these deep realities are definitely part of what we do in this time. But they are not the only way we can engage in these weeks and, to be sure, if we were to leave it at that, we’d miss out on a deep well of spiritual sustenance.

This painting reminds me (and us) that there is a deeply intellectual dimension to Advent–much to contemplate and mediate upon; implications to draw and application to make. There are profound ways that Advent is meant to bear on our lives and hearts and relationships, and it can’t do that when our relation to it simply resides at the affective level.

For the Advent certainly impacts our hearts, but He has come also to stir our minds.

And so, as we see this piece at the top of each post, and as we connect it’s power to this Advent season, may we each be reminded to let this time rest not only in our smiles and songs, but also in our quieter moments of solemn contemplation.

Selah: pause and consider.


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5 thoughts on “Art & Advent’s Intellect: Barnett Newman’s “Black Fire”

  1. Pingback: Merry Christmas Season!!! | the long way home

  2. Pingback: Advent and… (the series) | Prodigal Paul | the long way home

  3. The sheer intellectuality of it
    Are you kidding me

    It’s a pinstripe.

    A goddamn line of paint, poorly maintained

    That’s worth more than most artists will make in a lifetime.

    For shame

    You’re all that’s wrong with the art world. Jesus wept the sheer pretentiousness of everything you just vomited injures the mortal coil.


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