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Voices of Fire

Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State

Introduction by John O’Brian
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 211
  • Book Info
    Voices of Fire
    Book Description:

    On 7 March 1990 the National Gallery of Canada issued a press release announcing its purchase of a large abstract painting by the American artist Barnett Newman for $1.8 million. Within 72 hours the gallery was under attack both for its selection ofVoice of Fireand for the price tag attached to it. Objections came from across Canada and from all quarters.

    TheVoice of Firecontroversy was the most extensive and heated debate over visual art ever to have taken place in Canada. This anthology can be seen as a case-study, providing both a historical account of the outcome of the National Gallery's purchase of the painting and an understanding of why the gallery's actions provoked such strong opinions and feelings. In this volume the editors also address the peculiar and paradoxical character of abstract art in general and the problems it consistently poses for viewers. Newman's work is presented as the focus of these concerns.

    The attack on the gallery by the press, the general public, Canadian artists, and politicians is documented in the first section by a broad selection of cartoons satirizing the painting, press photographs, news releases, editorials, letters to the editor, and public exchanges. In the second section three essays offer contrasting accounts of the controversy and its significance. The first considers the social processes by which art becomes art, the second focuses on the role of the media in shaping public opinion about art, and the third compares the reception ofVoice of Firein two distinctive frameworks, first at Expo '67 in Montreal and then in Ottawa in 1990. In the final part four papers given at a symposium onVoice of Fireorganized by the gallery in October 1990 (a combined effort at damage control and art criticism) are presented, as well as a transcription of the public dialogue between speakers and audience which followed.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8316-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    The Editors
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Credits
    (pp. xiii-2)
  6. Introduction

      (pp. 3-22)

      In the spring of 1990, with the Canadian economy heading into a tailspin and the Meech Lake constitutional accord unravelling, one of the longest-running news stories in Canada featured a painting. The painting wasVoice of Fire, a tall abstract canvas measuring 5.4 by 2.4 metres, executed in 1967 by the American artist Barnett Newman – a work which the National Gallery of Canada announced on 7 March that it had purchased for $1.76 million. The merits and demerits of the painting and its acquisition were debated on open-line radio programs, on television news shows like CBC’sThe Journal, in...

  7. Documents

    • Chronology
      (pp. 25-32)
    • Graphic Satires
      (pp. 33-52)
    • Texts
      (pp. 53-78)

      In 1989 the National Gallery of Canada continued its active acquisitions program of works of art for its collections. From January to December 1989, 411 acquisitions were made, including 226 purchases and 185 gifts.

      The gallery’s acquisitions budget, which had been set at $1.5 million a year in 1972, this year was doubled by the Minister of Communications, the Hon. Marcel Masse, to $3 million as of 1 April 1989. Dr Shirley Thomson, director of the gallery, acknowledges this increase gratefully as a vote of confidence in the institution and its curators. ‘It will greatly help the gallery in its...

  8. Essays

    • Vox Ignis Vox Populi
      (pp. 81-95)

      This quotation is from French actor Louis Jouvet. I have modified it by substituting ‘artist’ for his ‘man of the theatre.’ If I have done so, it is because in my heart and soul I don’t believe that it will make Jouvet turn over in his grave; should the artist happen to be a stage actor, he will still perform as best he can. Yet the substitution is not innocent. On the back cover ofAu nom de I'artlwrote: 'One should never cease to be amazed, or concerned, that our era finds it perfectly legitimate for someone to be...

    • Thalia Meets Melpomene: The Higher Meaning of the Voice of Fire and Flesh Dress Controversies
      (pp. 96-120)

      During the past four years, we have been somewhat fortunate to have witnessed a number of extraordinary plays-1 prefer to call them ‘performances’ – involving the plight of the institution art and its public. These performances had bizarre titles, elaborate scenarios, and a cast of disreputable players. In downtown Manhattan, Serra’s ‘The Destruction of Tilted Arc’ played; Washington, D.C., premiered ‘Eros Presumptive’; back in New York, the curtain opened upon ‘The Plastic Crucifix in Urine.’ The latter two performances were dubbed jointly in the popular press the ‘Mapplethorpe, Serrano, Helms Affair.’² In Canada we had Vancouver’s spectacular ‘Sniffy the Rat,’...

    • Who’s Afraid of Barnett Newman?
      (pp. 121-136)

      The question ‘Who’s afraid of Barnett Newman?’ would not normally require a response. It would be understood as rhetorical. The same goes for the fustian query ‘Who’s afraid of Canadian history?’ But the early 1990s were not normal, and more than a few people were gun-shy of Newman, his paintings, and the material evidence of history. During a lecture at the time, I remarked to an American audience that I wanted to speak about a recent instance of fear and loathing provoked by a Newman painting, in the collection of a prominent gallery, in a country noted for its reticence....

  9. Symposium

    • Voicing the Fire of the Fierce Father
      (pp. 139-152)

      It is for sure somewhat funny that the same resentment and attacks launched when Barnett Newman had his first show in New York in 1950 were again directed against his work when the purchase of the paintingVoice of Firewas announced by the National Gallery of Canada in 1990. There is, however, a slight difference. In New York, in 1950, there was a high level of violence directed against the work, surprising as it might seem, by Newman’s own peers. Peyton Boswell, editor ofArt Digest, could not understand why anybody could take such simple works seriously. According to...

    • Tightrope Metaphysics
      (pp. 153-164)

      Barnett Newman’s position in the art of this century seems important to us because it carries to an extreme degree of tension one of the dominant and paradoxical traits of modernism: the conviction that art can communicate ineffable meanings and acquire critical relevance by returning to the limiting conditions of its own existence. That is what is meant here by ‘tightrope metaphysics.’ Stretched between the imperative of making sense and the radical hermeticism of its formal means, the work becomes committed to an aesthetic of vacillation, making it extremely vulnerable to the specific context of its appearance and its reception....

    • The Sculpture of Barnett Newman
      (pp. 165-172)

      Barnett Newman is best known for his large-format paintings. However, he also made prints, designed a synagogue, and built six pieces of sculpture (seven, if you count the two versions ofZim Zum).Here I, his first sculpture, dates from 1950 (fig. 50). It consists of two vertical elements approximately eight feet tall. They are anchored in mounds of plaster which overflow a wood-and-wire milk crate. Small casters were attached to the base of the crate for ease of moving the sculpture. The larger of the two verticals – made from reinforced plaster – is about eight inches wide by...

    • Some Thoughts about the Making and Meaning of Voice of Fire
      (pp. 173-180)

      I will limit my remarks on Barnett Newman’sVoice of Fireto three aspects of its making. First, I will describe the physical characteristics of this very large painting, including the materials and techniques the artist used to make it. Second, I will look at the specific circumstances which broughtVoice of Fireinto being. Third, I will explore how I think Newman was inspired by current events and the opportunity of having this painting seen by millions of people from around the world at Expo 67 in Montreal to create a work of art that would personify his guiding...

    • General Discussion
      (pp. 181-192)

      John o’brian: We have heard four provocative papers that raise issues the panellists probably want to discuss among themselves. But I’m not going to allow them that privilege until we’ve had a chance to hear from the audience. Are there any questions?

      Audience: I’d like to ask Robert Murray to talk to us about Barnett Newman, the teacher. What was he like as a teacher? What were his objectives, methods, and so on.

      Robert murray: As John O’Brian mentioned when introducing me, I met Barnett Newman at the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop in Saskatchewan in 1959. Barney’s reaction to all...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 193-202)
  11. Contributors
    (pp. 203-204)
  12. Index
    (pp. 205-211)