The spectacular East Wing of the National Gallery opened to the delight and praise of professional artists, critics, and thousands of visitors. The various exhibitions that accompanied the inaugural of the East Wing represented a stimulating mixture of various styles and directions in Western art from the Renaissance through contemporary American painting and sculpture.

Of special interest to me, both as an artist and a Christian, was the American exhibition entitled American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist, in which you encounter a number of major works by artists of the abstract-expressionist movement that flourished in the decade of the 1950s. Inasmuch as art reflects the overall intellectual, emotional, and spiritual milieu in which it is created, these works witness to the character of modern life.

Significantly, the most pronounced feeling of the exhibition was a pervasive sense of shock, suffering, and death. Willem de Kooning’s mighty Women series, with its slashed and leering figures, was joined by Jackson Pollack’s violent “drip” paintings and Robert Motherwell’s impressive, tragic series of Elegies on the Spanish Republic, which was inspired by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. As the exhibition catalog stated, Motherwell’s works are grounded in “a mood of anguish and a sense of doom.” This assessment could be applied to the exhibition as a whole.

With the exception of the more colorful and joyful abstractions of Arshile Gorky, there was indeed a dark and forboding mood to this exhibition that, for me, was typified in the smaller, more intimate galleries containing the works of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. In Rothko, I confronted a series of brown and gray paintings suggesting stark, desolate, lifeless landscapes. Newman’s paintings, however, are particularly interesting because they purport to contain a Christian theme, suggested by the title to his series Stations of the Cross. Although you might be led to expect from this title some statement of hope and redemption, you are disappointed.

The Newman exhibition comprised fifteen paintings, composed of vertical rectangular movements and stripes of varying severity and softness of edge, executed with black paint on a white field. Although the works have a religious title, there is nothing about the paintings in themselves to suggest a Christian content. We learn why from the printed statements that accompanied the works. The commentary on the gallery wall informed the visitor that the “individual paintings are not meant to be seen as illustrations of the traditional steps in the Stations of Christ’s last journey.” What, then, is the significance of the series? Only that it contains “a sense of a processional experience.”

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This exhibition interestingly parallels certain trends in modern theology whereby theologians use Christian language in statements that are empty of all commonly understood definitions. This is apparent in the title given to the fifteenth and final painting of the series. This work shows a red stripe and a black stripe separated by a large field of white. Newman’s friend, Tony Smith, titled this work “Resurrection.” However, Newman himself chose a vague title, empty of any concrete tie to Christian history: “Be II.”

The gallery printed Newman’s own comments, and they clearly explain that the works have little to do with the actual story of the Christian faith. Newman’s statement centers on Christ’s cry of dereliction “Lema Sabachthani,” which is “the question that has no answer”:

“This overwhelming question that does not complain, makes today’s talk of alienation, as if alienation were a modern invention, an embarrassment. This question that has no answer has been with us so long—since Jesus—since Abraham—since Adam—the original question.

“Lema? To what purpose—is the unanswerable question of human suffering.

“The first pilgrims walked the Via Dolorosa to identify with the original moment, not to reduce it to a pious legend; not even to worship the story of one man and his agony, but to stand witness to the story of each man’s agony; the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed—world without end.

The ones who are born are to die.

Against thy will art thou formed.

Against thy will art thou born.

Against thy will dost thou live.

Against thy will die.”

Whereas Christians affirm Christ’s identity without suffering, I doubt that any person with even a rudimentary acquaintance with the Gospel would recognize the “Christ” of Barnett Newman. His paintings and commentary show a tendency in modern thought—Christian concepts used as attention-getters emptied of their true meaning. Newman illegitimately employs the recollection of the central Christian event to state a world view of despair. Newman would give us Jesus as the paradigm of alienated man, faced with questions of existence for which there are no answers. The story of Jesus Christ is used to punctuate a philosophic outlook stating that existence is ultimately meaningless. Just as the paintings have no discernible theological content in their own right, so is the artist’s statement void of all contact with history and Christian theological truth. This massive distortion ignores all the controlling contexts of Scripture within which the suffering and death of Christ is understood. In the process, gospel good news is turned into bad news indeed, and our Lord is blasphemed.

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What seemed more tragic and incredible about this exhibition was that it was taken seriously by the art world. As symbols of suffering, the paintings seemed trivial, diminishing to frivolous decoration in comparison to other works on this theme. However, what is of more concern theologically was that a major artist could execute such a gross distortion of the Christian faith and have his statement given legitimacy by one of the major cultural institutions in the world, our own National Gallery of Art. The tacit assumption underlying the Newman series, as well as its selection by the gallery, is that theology has no objectivity and that its truths may be freely manipulated according to the peculiarities of an individual’s private world view.

In its own way, the Newman exhibition witnessed to what John Warwick Montgomery has identified as “the suicide of Christian theology.” So long as an authoritative biblical context for theology is eschewed, it is vulnerable to a chaotic subjectivism in which no judgments of truth are possible. Given the historic relationship between art and the Christian faith, I would naturally expect to see sloppy theology expressed aesthetically. In the National Gallery’s Newman exhibition, we saw our Lord’s Gospel given over to a prophet of despair.

There is a challenge, here, for the Christian faith. That challenge is to face the gradual segregation of the aesthetic from the life of faith, which has been taking place over the past few centuries, and to seek a renewed contact with it. We know from the cathedrals of the past, the art of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Dürer, Grunewald, Rouault, and the music of Handel and Bach that profound and fine art can accompany the truth of the Gospel. Modern art forms and concepts need not be given over to a godless and despairing secularism, while the aesthetic sensibilities of Christians remain enslaved to the typical sentimentalities of various “pictures of Jesus.” I long for a Christian statement in the fine arts, equally bold and contemporary in its forms as that which comes from heralds of nihilism and despair.

Might not the art of the nation yet be redeemed for the glory of God?

Richard Terrell is associate professor of art, Doane College, Crete, Nebraska.

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