For the past few months I have written about Mark Rothko. I’ve given you a chance to watch me wrestle with Rothko and the reasons I like his work. I’d like to turn now to a painter whose work I need not wrestle with; a painter whose work I just plain love; a painter who’s entire 40 year career has been one of perfect philosophical consistency. His name is Michael Newberry and his painting “Denouement” is both my favorite painting of all time and among the few pieces of art that I can truly say has affected my life at its core. I’ve mentioned his work before but now I simply want to “cut to the chase”. Here is my favorite painting of all time:
You might be inclined to call this “realism”. In fact, Newberry himself would call it “Romantic Realism”. But this painting is orders of magnitude deeper than that. For one thing, yes it’s figurative, but that doesn’t mean it’s simply “realistic”; in fact, there is a lot about this painting that I’d say falls squarely in the domain of abstraction. Let’s pick one rather clear element and consider it more closely: The first question I always ask myself when I see this painting is “Where the hell is the light coming from?” It’s not coming from a window. It’s not coming from a lamp. In fact, it’s neither omnidirectional ambient light nor is it coming from any directional source. It’s coming from INSIDE the painting! That, my friends, is an abstraction. It’s not Rothko’s abstraction or Pollack’s abstraction. What it IS, is a gorgeously nuanced abstraction with the clear purpose of conveying the message of the painting. It is an abstraction WITH PURPOSE!
Let’s say, for the heck of it, that you agree with me. The next question is “what’s the purpose?” I’ve never asked Newberry about that so I’ll tell you what I think. In my humble opinion, the purpose of the painting’s internal light is to unequivocally convey the burst of utter joy that comes from the relationship of the 2 subjects. To me, this is a painting about love. It has a certain eroticism but that is a surface element on top of something deeper. At that deeper level, at the painting’s philosophical core, is the pure joy of love. The inner light represents perfect human joy, It’s not the joy of an external entity like “God” or “Karma” or “universal peace”. It is the joy of two HUMANS experiencing the happiness that comes from human love. I can’t speak for you and I can’t speak for Newberry. But, for me, when I see this painting I not only feel joyful but “I want what he’s got!”. It makes me want to strive to achieve that level of joy in my own life.
This is why I say that Newberry’s work has a 40 year history of philosophical consistency. Over those year, his technique has been honed, his ability to execute has sped up, and his work has matured. But, through all that, he has never once forsaken his fundamental goal of using art to inspire us to strive for joy, to look for and admire greatness, and to want to feel good about our species. THAT is why this is my favorite painting of all time.
I first encountered “Denouement” in the form of a small postcard. I was sitting in my old favorite hangout in LA, “Al’s Bar” on Traction Avenue. In comes my old friend Judith Harding, carrying a postcard. She handed it to me ans asked me what I thought. I was speechless. I had to meet the man who made this painting. Lo and behold, he lived right across the street. From that day, this was my favorite painting and Michael Newberry became a part of my life. Today, I still can’t afford a painting like this. But my collection contains at least 10 of his pastels, lithographs, minor paintings, and even a color study from another painting I’ll never be able to afford.
I have to tell you that Michael is not a big fan of all of my Rothko writings. His philosophy diverges from that of Rothko and other abstract painters to such an extent that he can’t (and I don’t expect him to) agree with my love of Rothko. With a painter like Rothko, I wrestle. Newberry doesn’t have to. As an artist, he is so philosophically consistent and so rigorous in his position that art must inspire us to greatness, that he doesn’t need to find ways to like art that he feels has other goals. I like more art than Newberry likes. Then again, I’m an amateur collector and he is a creator. I think that says it all. Irrespective of all that, my admiration for Newberry’s consistency, commitment to expressing the experience of joy, and sheer painterly beauty is unending. So, while I wrestle, Newberry creates. For that I love him and for “Denouement” more than anything else, I thank him.