Changing methods of Interpretation: Barnett Newman’s ‘The Wild’

This article examines in what ways and for what reasons have established approaches to the interpretation of works of art been challenged since the 1970s? The article will focus on Barnett Newman’s 1950 work, The wild, and will compare two essays, firstly by Lisa Frye Ashe, and then by Michael Schreyach.

The ‘beholders involvement’ is the name Alois Riegl gave to the belief that ‘art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer’[1]Riegl understood that the viewer interprets the art work in personal terms, adding to the image a subjective understanding particular to the viewer. Moreover, Ernst Gombrich and Ernst Kris suggested that art is ambiguous and each spectator interprets a work differently.[2]This essay will discuss some of the issues relating to reception by firstly comparing two journal articles that approach Barnett Newman’s The Wild. Secondly, it will focus on the circumstances around the change in approaches to interpretation. Lastly, the essay will apply and evaluate the usefulness of Wolfgang Kemp’s theories around Reception Aesthetics. 

In her 2014 essay, On Barnett Newman’s “The Wild”, Lisa Frye Ash argues that new impulses in Newman’s work: scale; proximity; non-frontality, represent a reimagining of how art can engage viewers in gallery spaces.[3]In particular Ashe discusses Newman’s 8-foot-tall zip painting which is 1.5 inches wide, The Wild (1951) and its placement in the Betty Parsons gallery for a Newman show in 1951. Parsons positions Newman’s painting alongside works by Rothko and Pollock, and quotes Newman as saying that The Wild is a work about painting and its possibilities in the 1950s.[4]Ashe claims that The Wild ‘comes with a long-standing narrative about its place in Newman’s body of work’[5]and repeatedly relies on quotations form Newman to draw an understanding and interpretation of the work based on scale. This anachronistic approach to the paintings meaning, relying on the artist for interpretation, distances Ashe from the details of the work. She constructs the beholder as someone ‘overwhelmed’ by the scale of Newman’s works, validated by his interest in the sublime, reflected in his 1948 essay, The Sublime is Now. Ashe finds connection between the artists words, his biography, and her reception of the work, which is reminiscent of a history prior to the critique of the great male creative genius – ideas and values, narratives and traditions based on monographs and symbol hunting identified by T. J. Clark.[6]When Ashe comments that Newman remarked ‘size doesn’t count. It’s scale that counts. It’s human scale that counts”,[7]she assumes that the interpretation of the work must match the artists own. Moreover, Newman’s interpretation of the work – ‘I don’t manipulate or play with space. I declare it’ [8]– does not automatically constitute the correct interpretation of the work,[9]and validates Newman positioning himself as having ‘exceptional special individuality, his genius.’[10]Additionally, she fails to acknowledge that expressions of intention by the artist, do not necessarily match interpretation.[11]

            The reliance on Newman for interpretation does not stand up to critical scrutiny of the type that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, where political disturbances erupted across the world. Some critics, notably T. J. Clark, argued that the relation of art to ideology must be a central part to the analysis of a work of art.[12]For many academics the methods and principles of art history have remained largely unexamined. ‘Art history as a discipline had been in long need of a more rigorous theoretical base’[13]to challenge the traditional, positivist ‘notion of the history of art  as a value free discipline.’[14]Riegl and Wolfflin asserted a rigorous analysis to artworks (in 1893 and 1915 respectively), moving art history closer to a scientific study, and Panofsky declared artworks are anything but air tight, arguing that artworks contain clues to cultural and historical context. For the emerging generation of academics in the last quarter of the c20th could not remain untouched by political power. Social change, and an interrogation of value and knowledge, and their relationship with culture and history changed art-historical knowledge to include ideas drawn from class and gender politics, as well as a rightful critique of capitalism and imperialism.[15]Later in the 1980s issues relating to ethnicity, identity and representation continued to ‘complicate both politics and art history.’[16]When Ashe discusses the viewer explicitly, it is as a passive, neutral experience claiming that The Wild beckons and measures the observer, seemingly disembodied from the plurality of potential viewings. She claims again that the work is about the possibility of painting the 1950s seemingly ignoring what the work could mean, rather than what the painting does mean in virtue of the artists intention. Ashe constructs The Wild as simply a ‘harbinger of things to come’, concentrating on ‘form’, celebrated by the abstract expressionist generation.[17]

            The New Historicists reject the distortion of the ‘ism-ists’. Before, homogenous accounts of art history are rolled out as part of the power of cultural practice, and Ashe seems to take this approach too, failing to articulate the principles of New Art History. It is with contemporary scholarship as a background, that Ashe continues to debate the interpretation of Newman’s The Wild in rather narrow terms. She remarks that Newman’s works can be read as ‘absorbing a single contemplative viewer.’[18]However, she does begin to offer some consideration of the viewer when she later discusses the scale of Newman’s work as human, remarking the works demanded ‘a new kind of engagement with the space of the gallery and the viewer’.[19]In his 2013 essay, Michael Schreyach asks if Newman’s sense of space, and his paintings human scale, is what mattered most to him.[20]  Unlike Ashe, Schreyach refers to the painting-viewer relationship. Although Schreyach also relies on information gathered from interviews and written testimony from Newman, he also reflects on the role of the viewer in discussing pictorial address. He claims the paintings embody the vision of the artist, and also have a way of looking which is the responsibility of the viewer claiming ‘the painting is consummated by a viewer’s acknowledgement of it.’[21]Such a view can be ideologically driven, which from a Marxist perspective, art can be used and explained by dominant social class groups, and used to perpetuate class division.[22]Ashe and Schreyach’s  reliance on Newman’s testimony demonstrates a level of expertise and therefore power which Gramsci calls cultural Hegemony – ‘influence or authority gained via cultural practices, rather than the rule of law.’[23]

Wolfgang Kemp is likely the major proponent of visual reception theory[24]and can help to widen Scheryach’s assertions. Kemp believes, ‘empirical spectators are the actual, living, breathing viewers’.[25]‘The ideal spectator refers to the various roles ascribed to viewers by the painting they see; the set of positions or functions proposed and assumed by each of the images on display’.[26]Bringing empirical spectatorship into focus encourages a way of seeing the art work as a relationship between the object and all the ways it has been seen through its history to the present day, not just a single ‘consummating’ relationship as Schreyach suggests. This demands that today’s empirical view is both part of its history and also dependent on the viewers accumulated lived experiences under the direction of social groupings.[27]Roland Barthes argues that there is little clear connection between the painting as signifier and that which is signified.[28]A post-structuralist approach supplants the author for the reader, where meaning and intention depend upon the viewer’s own cultural baggage. Importantly, the possession of decoding skills is a variable, depending on many factors including ‘levels of access to the groups codes’ which can be determined by culture, competence and expertise.[29]Kemp (1998) goes further and claims the implicit beholder is ‘prescribed’ in the artwork.[30]Each artwork solicits an ideal beholder where the art work divulges its effects on society, where the artist and viewer are disconnected, where the only dialogue is a historical construction, dependent on social ideals.[31]Schreyach does engage with this idea. He firstly states that Newman wanted The Wildto have a coherence and integrity that prevented its being merely a stimulus for a beholders subjective projection. However in his notes, Schreyach concedes that this proposal proceeds from a decontextualised position, and does little to ‘facilitate context-orientated, art historical scholarship’.[32]Kemp insists that the relationship between the viewer and the art work is context specific, where space and surrounding alter the viewers reception of the work. Surprisingly, Schreyach draws attention to this ‘pervasive’ field in art history only to refute it when he claims that the ‘tendancy to focus on the viewer has come at the expense of the author’.[33]

Kemp believes that ‘the work of art and the beholder come together under mutually imbricated spatial and temporal conditions’.[34]Art historians who engage in this type of analysis shift the focus away from iconography to the experience of the work itself, and a belief that viewer may complete the work.[35] Both Schreyach and Ashe comment significantly on the spatial and temporal placement of The Wild in the 1951 Betty Parsons Show, commenting that it was installed opposite Vir Heroicus Sublimis purposefully, as some kind of face off – the larger painting 144 square feet large, with The Wild a mere 144 square inches. Both writers agree this was a curatorial choice by Newman, meant to guide the beholder; evidence for ‘the contention of the mode of pictorial address’.[36]It fixes for the viewer visual and kinesthetic dynamics of stretch. The claim is that this interpretation was single, and deliberate, demanding that the viewer honours this address.[37]Where reception aesthetics is employed, its job is to reveal signs and conceptual operations the artwork uses to reveal a subjective, contextualized understanding based on mutual involvement. Ashe and Schreyach, therefore do not pretend to be neutral in the interpretation of The Wild. For them the work is not socially produced; value is not ascribed to the work by way of certain social contexts by certain social groups. Instead the work is restricted to an institutional reading by those in the know, and is opposed to mass reception and understanding. Ashe and Screyach deny that everything we do ‘is located in, and therefore affected by, social structures’,[38]and that beholders are complex biographical, existential and motivational agents. In other words, both writers deny that the way The Wild’s message is read, depends on the readers own cultural codes.[39]

Although not specifically mentioned in either of the journal articles, the ‘extrinsic conditions of access’ form the main focus of both writers. They each reflect on the human scale of Newman’s works in the Betty Parsons show, and the spatial relationship each work had in the apartment sized space, but especially reflect on the effect the long vertical, The Wild, had on its viewers. Ashe quotes the architect Tony Smith as saying, ‘We would talk a lot about the wall and separateness but relationship to the painting.[40]Kemp believes the interpreter must establish how the spatial context of the work contributes to its interpretation.

’Viewers of the Wild are asked to ‘abandon their conventional notions of a pictorial field’.[41]The extreme cropping of The Wild may communicate to the viewer an absence of something that could bring the painting to completion where the painting can be conceived in the imagination of the viewer as a fragment.[42]In this case Schreyach concurred with Kemp stating the work can be a ‘fictional … space oriented to the viewer as a horizontal expanse and imaginatively accessible to a penetrating view.[43]‘Every painting is contained within a border, and defines itself by what is excluded.’[44]According to Kemp, viewers are invited to complete the painting, mentally continuing a path that is cut off from the frame.[45]Ashe too understands this invitation when she quotes Thomas Hess as calling the painting a, ‘red line surrounded by nothing at all’[46]suggesting the painting has a power to provoke. 

Kemp’s structures for communicating with the beholder includes the use of perspective. Perspective connects the painting to the beholder, but also governs the position of the viewer to the painting, demanding how it should be viewed.[47]However Kemp goes on to reveal that perspective is useful only if the painting is both a view, and a staged view. The Wild ‘is as deep as it is wide’[48]and uses perspective, not as a view, but simultaneously extrinsic and intrinsic to its nature.  Indeed, Ashe argues that the work is someplace between sculpture and painting, and demands to be approached and walked around by the beholder; ‘they lean in to look, then sidle up alarmingly close.’[49]This therefore refutes Kemp’s assertion that the viewer should be ’brought into position.’[50]Indeed, he disputes any flexibility the beholder might have and demands that perspective dictates how it should be viewed. In this respect, Ashe, Schreyach and Kemp seem surprisingly similar; they each dictate a correct way to approach the a work where the beholder’s interpretation is imposed from institutional norms, where social status, the ability to decode, keeps the cultural turn at bay. 

In conclusion, Newman was a prolific writer so it is unsurprising that some academics rely heavily on his testimony for interpretations, but this approach seems at odds with the social upheaval of art history in the 1970s. Ashe and Schreyach seem to have, unsurprisingly given the title of Schreyach essay, completely ignored any other socio-cultural interpretation in line with the turn to New History in the last quarter of the c20th. By broadening the structures and tools for looking at The Wild to include some ideas drawn from Kemp, it can be shown that the beholders interpretation is variable, but dependent on social grouping. Kemp’s tools are particularly good for understanding the image as a whole system where cropping, position, scale, placement and context can contribute to understanding. This system-based approach builds upon older methods drawn from the study of individual icons, or elements of a work.  However, Kemps system for interpretation was initially considered for figurative art, and as such, the application of his ideas around diegesis and personal perspective might not be suitable for analyzing works of the Abstract Expressionists. Although Kemp, like Gombrich encourages active engagement, he still demands the viewer have some social apparatus for viewing the work, and therefore upholds the construction of the institution as authority.


Lisa Frye Ash, ‘On Barnett Newman’s ”The Wild”’,Art Journal, 73 (2014), 30-43 <; [accessed 6 March 2019]

Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, ‘Semiotics and Art History’, The Art Bulletin, 73 (1991), 174-208 <; [accessed 6 March 2019]

Barthes, Roland, The Death Of The Author, 2018 <; [Accessed 10 November 2018]

Yves-Alain Bois, ‘Two perspectives on Branett Newman’s “The Wild”: An Introduction’, October, 143 (2013), 69-70, <; [accessed 4 March 2019]

Anne D’Alleva, Methods and Theories of Art History, (London, Laurence King Publishing, 2005)

Jonathan Harris, The New Art History: A critical Introduction, (New York, Routledge, 2001) 

Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, ‘Reception Theory’, (2003),  <; [accessed 7 March 2019]

Eric R. Kandel, ‘What the Brain Cam Tell Us About Art’, The New York Times, (2013) 

<; [accessed on 10 March 2019]

Wolfgang Kemp, ‘The Work of Art and its Beholder’, The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives,(1998) 180-196 <; [accessed 1 March 2019]

Griselda Pollock, ‘Artists, Mythologies and Media – Genius, Madness and Art History, Screen, 21 (1980), 57-96 <; [accessed 12 March 2019]

Michael Schreyach, ‘Barnett Newman’s “Sense of Space”: A Noncontextualist Account of Its Perception and Meaning’, Common Knowledge, 19 (2013), 351-379. <; [accessed 4 March 2019]

Calvin Seerveld, ‘The New Art History by A. L. Rees and F. Borzello’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 45 (1987) 313-314, <; [accessed 11 March 2019] 

Robert Stecker, ‘Interpretation’ in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. By Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 321 – 334

Barnett Newman, ‘interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler’ (1962), in Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, ed. By Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), pp. 764 – 766

Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art, (London, Palgrave MacMillan, 1981)

[1]Kandel, 2013

[2]Kandel, 2013

[3] Ashe, 2014: p31

[4] Ashe, 2014: p34

[5]  Ashe, 2014: p34

[6]  Harris, 2001: p8

[7] Ashe, 2014: p38

[8]  Newman, 1999: p764

[9]  Stecker, 2005: p231

[10]  Pollock, 1980

[11]  Stecker, 2005: p321

[12]  Wolff, 1981: p28

[13]Pointon in Seerveld, 1987: p313

[14]Gormally and Nunn, in Seerveld, 1987: p313

[15] Harris, 2001: p3

[16]  Harris, 2001: p4

[17]  Bois, 2013,:p70

[18]  Ashe, 2014: p39

[19] Ashe, 2014: p38

[20]  Schreyach, 2013: p372

[21]  Schreyach, 2013: p372

[22]D’Alleva, 2005: p129

[23]D’Alleva, 2005: p50

[24]  Kaufmann, 2003: p3

[25] Bal and Bryson, 1991: p186

[26] Bal and Bryson, 1991: p185

[27]Bal and Bryson, 1991: p186

[28]Roland Barthes, 1998: p46

[29]Bal and Bryson, 1991: p186

[30]Kemp, 1998: p183

[31]Kemp, 1998: p183

[32]  Schreyach, 2013: p363

[33]  Schreyach, 2013: p353

[34]Kemp, 2013: p181

[35]D’Alleva, 2012: p127

[36]Schreyach, 2013: p363

[37]Schreyach, 2013: p364

[38]Wolf, 1981: p9

[39]Wolff, 1981: p109

[40]Smith, in Ashe, 2014: p35

[41]Schreyach, 2103: p356

[42]Kemp, 2013: p188

[43]Schreyach, 2013: p356

[44]Kemp, 2013: p188

[45]Kemp, 2104: p188

[46]Hess, in Ashe, 2014: p31

[47]Kemp, 2013: p187

[48]Ashe, 2014: p31

[49]Ashe, 2014: p31

[50]Kemp, 2013: p187

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