Voice of Fire: Are we over this yet?

Twenty years ago a painting by Barnett Newman ignited a firestorm in Canada


Are we over this yet?In the winter of 1967, working in his studio in Lower Manhattan, Barnett Newman covered a huge canvas, 5.4 m by 2.4 m, with just two colours of acrylic paint—twin vertical stripes of ultramarine blue flanking a middle one of cadmium red. Come spring, the American artist shipped the painting, which he called Voice of Fire, to Montreal for the International and Universal Exhibition, better known as Expo 67. It hung in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the hugely popular U.S. pavilion that also showcased an Apollo space capsule.

In Montreal that storied summer, Voice didn’t cause any stir. But then, Expo offered plenty of bright, bold objects to gape at, and, anyway, the fair was all about open-hearted optimism and looking at things anew. By 1990, though, when the National Gallery of Canada announced it had bought the painting the previous year—without saying so publicly at the time—the country was sliding into recession and the popular mood was markedly less groovy. Two decades later, the $1.8-million price might sound modest, but it seemed extravagant then. Public umbrage boiled over.

Yet most of those who were called upon to justify the purchase for weeks on end in the spring of ’90 seem to think back on the uproar fondly. After all, art has never since commanded such a prominent place in the national conversation. Diana Nemiroff, who was then the National Gallery’s contemporary art curator and is now director of Carleton University’s art gallery, laughs at her memory of dressing up as Voice to defend the painting on CBC Newsworld, which had been launched only the previous year, bringing to Canada the insatiable appetite for controversy that comes with 24-hour TV news. “I wore a blue blazer with a red T-shirt underneath,” Nemiroff says. “It took a while before someone noticed.”

The painting lent itself to such visual jokes. The inevitable T-shirts of fire worked equally well as mockery or homage. Editorial cartoonists had a (colour) field day. John Czupryniak, a grower of nursery flowers on the outskirts of Ottawa, painted a nearly full-sized copy on plywood in his greenhouse, but not as a protest. “I love it! I really do,” Czupryniak said recently when asked what he thinks of the original, sounding surprised still by his own reaction, which he can’t quite explain, after all this time.

Not everyone was so open to the painting’s allure. MPs debated the price and the piece on Parliament Hill. Conservative MP Felix Holtmann, chairman of the House communications and culture committee, neatly summed up the voices of ire when he remarked on talk radio, “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about 10 minutes would do the trick.” Those who lined up against him, on what they saw as the side of sophistication, never tired of mentioning that Holtmann, before entering politics, was a Manitoba pig farmer.

That bit of snickering aside, the Voice debate didn’t devolve into name-calling the way art scandals frequently do. Most play off religious sensitivities or sexual politics, often in more or less blatant bids by artists to stir up price-inflating publicity, and so can only lead to dead-end arguments. In fact, the connection between shocking and selling grew so numbingly businesslike in the ’80s and ’90s that it’s a central theme of Pop Life, a big show at London’s Tate Modern this winter that will be travelling, as it happens, to Ottawa’s National Gallery for a summer 2010 run. The show includes, for instance, American artist Jeff Koons’s sexually explicit images involving his wife, a former Italian porn star.

Even those who dismissed Newman’s stripes as meaningless couldn’t accuse him of that sort of crass provocation. Voice wasn’t about anything, after all, and since when does a publicity stunt take such simple form? The question wasn’t, “Is it offensive?” but “Is it art?” Shirley Thompson, who was the National Gallery’s director at the time, says that with no outrageous content to concentrate on, the clash over Voice kept circling back to how individuals responded to it. “You have to look at yourself,” says Thompson, who turns 80 next month and remains a presence in Ottawa art circles. “You have to look at your understanding of the metaphysical dimension of life.”

Talk like that drove debunkers of Voice bonkers in 1990. Newman wasn’t around to be dragged into the fray. He had died of a heart attack in 1970 at 65. He did live long enough, however, to make a personal connection to the city where his painting would, strangely enough, become iconic. Newman visited Ottawa in 1969 for the opening of the National Gallery’s retrospective on Dan Flavin, a kindred-spirit American minimalist who made art out of fluorescent light bulbs.

The boundary-pushing young curator behind the Flavin show was Hamilton, Ont., native Brydon Smith. He would rise to be the National Gallery’s chief curator, a major shaper of its 20th-century collection. It was Smith who, in 1987, visited Newman’s widow, Annalee, to begin negotiating first to borrow and then buy Voice. Actually, negotiate isn’t the right word. In an interview, Smith couldn’t repress a long chuckle when asked how they came to terms. “Annalee said to me, ‘You know about the market, you tell me what the value is,’ ” he recalled. “So I basically set the price.”

Bourgeois Bust: Jeff and Ilona, by Jeff Koons, 1991

Bourgeois Bust: Jeff and Ilona, by Jeff Koons, 1991

Retired for the most part now at 71, but still curating the occasional small show from his Ottawa home, Smith brushed off any further talk of money by saying he doesn’t keep up with art prices anymore. His reticence can’t be out of any misgivings over the deal he struck on behalf of the Canadian taxpayer. Prices for major American postwar abstract painters have soared. Consider that a small ink-on-paper work by Newman—in austere grey and black—sold for more than $5 million (U.S.) at auction in 2008.

If the fuss over the price seems quaint in hindsight, the deeper question—can three stripes, no matter how monumentally presented, be considered an important creation?—is not so easily dismissed. After a lifetime spent championing abstract art, and hunting down major examples of it for Canada’s national collection, Smith still considers the question respectfully. By way of an answer, he turns to explaining how he worked closely with architect Moshe Safdie on designing the interior spaces of the National Gallery’s new glass-and-granite building before it opened in 1988. A large, high room on the second level needed an assertive anchor. “It occurred to me,” Smith says, “that there was one work of art I knew that would fit and hold that space.”

He was right. Gallery C214 is 24 m long and nearly half that wide; its walls rise almost 12 m to where the ceiling begins sloping upward from either side toward a room-length skylight. The space brings to mind a church, and Voice flies solo at one end, soaring where stained glass might be. Arrayed around the room with plenty of space to breathe are a few choice American abstracts, some of Smith’s plum acquisitions, including a Jackson Pollock, a Mark Rothko, and one of Newman’s stark steel sculptures. For fans of modernism, it’s a wondrous assemblage.

For scoffers, it’s an equally grand place to fume, although perhaps not quite so inviting as a much smaller room just down the hall. There the gallery-goer finds a complete set of Marcel Duchamp’s so-called “readymades,” including the infamous bicycle wheel attached to a wooden stool. An ordinary store-bought snow shovel hangs framed by the room’s main entrance—much as Voice does so nearby—for dramatic effect.

A snow shovel is art? It’s enough to make Voice look like it belongs with the Group of Sevens. By the way, the gallery’s purchase of Duchamp’s readymades was negotiated 40 years ago this year by the young Brydon Smith.


Voice of Fire: Are we over this yet?

  1. This was probably the best 1.8 million ever spent on art in this country. And I say that as someone who still has trouble calling three lines art. I really can't tell you what other art is in any Canadian museums but I'd recognize this one in a heartbeat. Well, this and the meatdress.

    • From a strictly business investment viewpoint, the VoF has been unbeatable. (If only my retirement funds had done so well . . .)

      I haven't been to the NG for six years or so, but I thought the VoC was dwarfed in impact by the Pollock glass, sand & paint piece in the same room. I'm not a big AE fan to begin with, and while I don't have a problem with the National Gallery showcasing this type of work, the amount of gallery space & attention given to these works dwarfs that given to the Canadian works such as the G7, Les Automatistes, Emily Carr, the contemporary Inuit artists, etc, reflecting a curational philosophy that promoted the idea that Canadian ideas were limited to colonial offshoots of European & American ideas of the previous generation (eg, see Group of Seven. But that's a rant for another day.) It is supposed to be the NATIONAL Gallery of CANADA, after all, but I guess it's in the capital & we can't risk offending the delicate sensibilities of the embassy crowd.

    • I might agree with you if they had not hung it upside down, thereby making it difficult to interpret..

  2. Great piece.

    Gallery C214 is 24 m long and nearly half that wide; its walls rise almost 12 m to where the ceiling begins sloping upward from either side toward a room-length skylight. The space brings to mind a church, and Voice flies solo at one end, soaring where stained glass might be.

    A great space. The effect of which, for Voice of Fire, is significantly attenuated by the fact that the gallery has placed one of those stupid little "please don't walk straight into the painting" ropes in front of the thing (visible in the picture here)! As though anybody is going to try observing Voice of Fire from millimetres away! Please, National Gallery, consult your aesthetic sense and remove that ridiculous, ugly rope.

    • At first look at the photo here, I thought that was a horizontal metal bar that was part of the artwork; the shadow cast being part of the effect. It made my imagination work to find meaning. I became even more thoughtful when I had to look at just the painting.

      I like how the curator was looking even beyond the painting itself as the "art", but the space it was placed in. Depends on your perspective. Guess standing two feet from it would would make you think even differently.

      • That's a very post-modern approach. I'm not sure it's appropriate for a modernist Abstract Expressionist work. It's about the purity and strength of the idea. Surroundings are irrelevant. (And resistance is futile.) I believe you're simply supposed to bow down and worship it's Superiority; hence its placement in the most cathedral-esque room.

  3. I love Voice of Fire and visit it whenever I am in Ottawa.

  4. Whenever I hear some rube respond to a work of art (usually visual, but not always) with the dismissive retort (*I* could have done THAT), I always recall my grade 12 English professor's equally pithy response – "perhaps… but you didn't."

    • Hmm, so you're saying that doing something "first" is somehow relevant to whether that something should be considered art (even "great" art)? There must have been a first person to randomly spread vomit and/or menstrual blood on a canvas but I say that person wasn't an artist, just sick in the head… or possibly a really REALLY cynical self-promoter (along the lines of Newman), who knows.

      • Sometimes that just means you would have never thought of doing something like that. An artist’s idea is what makes something art, not the level of execution.

  5. Twenty years later, and the much bigger-budget Maman has elicited nothing but smiles.

    It's also a great landmark. "Yeah, just turn left at the giant metal spider."

    • The placing of the Maman was a clear misunderstanding or obviously confused decision of the curators of the NGA. This subject clearly belongs to the Canadian Museum of NATURE (At the corner of McLeod and Metcalfe, Ottawa, ON), therefore it should stand in front of it. It would look good and it would be at the appropriate location and connected to the subject of the Canadian Museum of NATURE.
      Just because a curator has the freedom to decide, it should not be illogical.

  6. Maman is fantastic, and I hate spiders, but it really does get people talking.

  7. Art-my foot. A waste of public funds at best. But then those so call art lovers are in reality just trying to justify their existance. No public funds should be spent on art or sports. They should be able to stand on their own 2 feet without tax dollars. If arts and sports can not exist without tax money then they are not a priority to the general public. This is one area of society that be governed by user pays.

    • art and sports are hardly on the same grounds of comparison. sure they have both mutated into another means of capitalism, but art has always existed in various human cultures, it is reflective of our existence on this earth that questions and poses questions, and quite frankly should be publically funded as it teaches humans much more about themselves than soccer ever could. sports for fun, and arts for fun can be done for free anyway. professional sports are just another sad example of our society’s poor taste. i’d rather watch paint dry than a boring baseball game any day.

  8. I'm generally against funding bureaucracy inspired culture at the best of times.

    But then those who think this is a good investment probably find my culture repugnant too. I just wish they'd pay for theirs like I pay for mine.

  9. Voice of Fire, what a joke, waste of money and insult to Canadians. Is it any wonder most Canadians could not care less about government funding for Arts and Culture. If anything, this so called painting serves still today as the justification and benchmark for most to point out that giving money to artists is an affront to the hard working taxpayers of Canada. Arts folk who want to be taken seriously and have their work appreciated should be speaking out against crap such as this instead of defending it, which serves only to dimish their public perception.

  10. Hahah. Most art is over-valued this one is nothing compared to the crap churned out by Damien Hirst that goes for millions.

    The only time I ever visted the National Gallery was with my younger brother, after we'd come off a bender in Montreal the night before and had to sleep in the cab of my Ford Ranger because we couldn't find a hotel room. Needless to say we likely weren't the most presentable pair. My brother is in the military and not at all artsy. His first reaction to the VoC was one of incredulity, something like "What the hell is that supposed to be?" When I told him how much they paid for it, it was all I could do to convince him from walking out.

    • Hey JimD.

      Have your brother take another look at it. I tried it with the picture above and it works here too. It does hurt your eyes somewhat, but you have to keep them open and keep staring at it. Eventually the red band repeats itself and creates a shadow on the blue bands. Then the red band starts to wiggle slowly like a burning flame. It's really cool in person with the real thing. I like the painting and I think Canadians in general, love or hate it, still like to talk about it.

  11. The root of the controversy is less the artistic merit of the piece than the source of the funds used to purchase it. The worth of art tends to be subjective. The use of public funds commits every taxpayer to the purchase, irrespective of their opinion. The same sort of argument could be made regarding public funding of sports. The sensible approach would be one of "put up or shut up": the government makes it easy for supporters of different types of public discourse to fund their activities, on the condition that the supporters provide the funds themselves.

  12. I totally agree with you guys. I'm a lover of art myself. And if that painting worth far more I wouldn't be amazed.

  13. This is a simple optical illusion, so what if it's gigantic? Does size somehow justify a price tag of $1.8 million? I don't think so. Any person with about a thousand dollars who knows how to use measuring tape and a straight-edge could do an EXACT copy of this piece within a day or two, which would have the EXACT same visual impact. Hence, the government essentially spent nearly two million dollars of taxpayer funds just on that hack Newman's name. What a waste.

  14. A cool $1.8 mill, just a TAD OUTRAGEOUS.
    Don't most intelligent Canadians think the same??

    I live in Thunder Bay Ontario.
    Our brand new state of the art hospital was finally finished except for that little bit of construction going on outside of the hospital.

    Well turns out that it was finished.
    It is a cool million dollar piece of art work.
    Art work my ass.

    It is ugly, depressing gray, & looms over the hospital.
    When I see it, almost makes me feel like it is going to abduct some one.
    Ya like U.F.O. stuff.
    When I inquired about THIS GREAT ART WORK,
    and what a waste of money it was.
    I was told that great art work is proven to make people heal & feel better.
    The only way to get the true appreciation of it was from a helicopter.
    That's right folks,
    rent a helicopter & see this amazing art.
    Not like the garbled, depressing metal from out side the hospital,
    but if you rent a helicoptor & fly over it.
    Well supposedly it is incredible & will speed up your healing time.
    Also keep your spirits feeling wonderful.
    OK lets see I can't afford to buy food once a month,
    {oh ya I'm one of those bums on disability, I am truly sorry for having a cyst on my brain & spine.}
    I guess it's going to have to be once every 2 months.
    Than maybe I can rent a helicoptor to see the beauty of this work of art.
    What B.S.
    What damn committee or board of directors for the hospita,
    or who ever the hell it would be,
    can gave any one a half descent reason why all that money was wasted on a massive piece of junk.

    When commities say we the people have a vote, as well as opinions.
    When are those meetings scheduled?
    I seem to keep missing them.

    Signed one very annouyed person,
    would of liked to have seen $1 million go to research that just might keep a few people alive some day.

    Dina McCabe
    Thunder Bay, Ontario

    • Boo! While I may agree with your opinions, your spelling and grammar is some of the worst I have come across (and I teach third grade!).

      Signed a more annoyed person.

      • BillRead, If you do actually teach third grade I would certainly not want you anywhere near my children. I would hope that they would be taught by someone with a little more maturity and consideration for other people. Why would you possibly feel the need to post the above comment ? The “Boo!” at the begining of your note sets the tone for the childish and rude comment that follows. If I had to choose between being a decent speller or being a decent human, I’d pick the latter.

  15. ki

  16. It would be ignorant to call this artwork a subtle “waste of public funds.” As you all make your claims and arguments conventional and cliche as only taking one of the ways of a two way intersection railroad track, use this perspective I am about to present, as a disclaimer. Put yourself in the point of view an artist. Not a politician, government official or in this case, head of parliament. As I have been taught, art is everything. It is not “simply” something that can be visually appealing, it can be horrifying and striking. Art can solely be a reaction. What I take from this piece and what Newman was trying to portray was not what the canvas was in the visual perspective; one red rectangle edged together by two blue panels, but what it is conceptually. Look at the controversy that it stirred up as a whole. That right there, that is the Art of it all. Art is to grab emotion from it’s audience. In this case, it was a genuine masterpiece because the people who raged over parliament spending 1.8 million dollars on it made it so Newman could implement those emotions within his audience. Sometimes, we have to look beyond the surface, we have to search for the reasoning behind the actions of the people who look at life outside the box. I read various information on this piece, not because I think it’s a tactical phenomena but because Newman knew how to play the game and work around the system. As many citizens question “why would anyone pay 1.8 million dollars for a painting of two primary colors? My three year-old can do this without a problem, hell I can even do this” I reply to them ” If you too could do this, what stopped you from doing so?”

    • Very well put. I’m not a fan of this piece, but I wouldn’t discard it as beign art either.

  17. Viewed “Van Gogh Up Close” which was fantastic.
    Other exhibits were extremely disappointing. Totally a waste of space and funds.

  18. An enormous piece of moose crap….

Sign in to comment.